Westgate Hotel, 1055 Second Avenue, Downtown San Diego
In the Westgate Hotel’s grand but less formal (and less expensive) new ground-floor dining room, replacing the stuffy Versailles Room, French chef Fabrice Hardel (top-ten chef and secret molecular gastronomy practitioner — in moderation) uses modern techniques (e.g., astonishing little cubes of soy “jello”) to create thrilling fresh dishes offering a pleasure value well beyond their price — especially with seafood that’s fresher and more exciting than at popular local fish houses. Great wine list with affordable choices, trustworthy sommelier. Upper-moderate to very expensive. — N.W.
Omni Hotel, 675 L Street, Downtown San Diego
This place is geared for businessmen and baseball bigwigs, but, surprisingly, its happy hour is definitely for the rest of us. Get a drink ($4–$7) and you qualify for a bunch of $2–$5 dishes that include steamed mussels, buffalo wings, potato skins, breaded zucchini, chicken satay, California roll, even a half-pound cheeseburger with French fries. All presented with the flatwear and napkins a $50 customer would expect. Happy hour: 3-7pm, and 9:30–11:30pm, daily. — E.B.
777 G Street, East Village
What ex-UCSD law student Arsalun Tafazoli loved most on his travels to Beijing, Tokyo, and Spain were the bars. So sociable. “I wanted to create a place like that here,” he says, “specializing in craft beers, but less fanatical, where you could also eat basic food like burgers, but made better.” The food’s not the cheapest, but it’s simple, filling, and eco-conscious. You can’t go wrong with the Neighborhood Burger (with caramelized onions and blue Gruyère) or steak tartare, chorizo corn dog, poached black mussels. Try any of the neighborhood beers, just don’t ask for Bud Light. — E.B.
901 E Street, East Village
A Chinese-American couple gives maybe the best value downtown at this tiny corner cafe. Locals on fixed incomes love it. All-day breakfasts, bargain burgers, and solid standard Chinese fare. Most expensive is the fried rice with chicken, pork, and shrimp. Cheapest (under $2) is the cheese or egg sandwich. Prices $2–$7, cash only. Kitty-corner to the main post office. — E.B.
Top Picks: Little Italy/Midtown/Old Town
2550 Fifth Avenue, 12th floor, Bankers Hill
San Diego’s iconic urban view restaurant offers panoramas all around, ranging from close-up views of planes descending for a landing at Lindbergh to the pastoral vistas of Balboa Park. For more panoramas or a postprandial smoke, a wraparound patio offers a few prized tables and a light menu. The interior is comfortable and quiet and the tables well spaced, so this is a favorite of patrons planning to propose marriage — or business deals. And cell phone use is frowned upon.
This doesn’t mean the atmosphere is stuffy. Forget about board shorts, but you can leave your suit or glitzy cocktail dress at home, unless you’re a proposer or proposee — casual elegance (i.e., nice clothes) is the official style. Of course, under veteran restaurateur Bertrand (Mille Fleurs) Hug, servers are trained to high standards — an easy but professional friendliness that makes you feel welcomed.
Alsatian chef Stéphane Voitzwinkler offers California-French flavors in a seasonally changing but mainly conservative, business-suited menu, currently including fricassee of chanterelles and morel mushrooms, grilled Brandt Beef USDA Prime rib-eye cap with sauce béarnaise, short ribs braised for 48 hours, and roast duckling with blood-orange sauce.
There’s plenty for vegetarians at relative bargain prices (e.g., a main course sampler plate of three dishes for $25). The huge wine list includes much from France — not all exorbitant first growths, although they’re there, too. Minimum ante is about $50 a bottle. BYOB is out of the question, with Hug’s arcane, snarky corkage pricing. And you pay plenty for the view: Dinner prices are among the highest in the area, with most entrées $30–$40 and not much mercy in the appetizers. If you mainly want to enjoy the sights, lunch prices are about half that, although choices are narrower and plainer. The happy-hour menu is atypically pub-grubby. The good news: free valet parking, whoop-di-doo, garage entrance around the corner. — Naomi Wise
2540 Congress Street, Old Town
Nobody expected that these guys would last. An East Village–type bistro in Old Town? For starters, it’s not on San Diego Avenue, or in the Plaza, but on less-traveled Congress Street. The house is old (1917), and everything around it has that Old Town atmosphere: pink walls, red tile, cactus, yellow stucco, old wagon wheels, purple bougainvillea drooping in the drowsy heat. 25Forty, on the other hand, is all black and white, with a glass barrier protecting gray marble tables, and glinty metal chairs with black woven plastic backs sitting on a big hillside terrace. It looks way upscale. But it turns out that Mark Pellicia, the chef-owner, wants this to be a true bistro, a “small and unpretentious restaurant.” And just look at the menu: breakfasts, all $7. Lunch salads or sandwiches, $8. Snacks, like pissaladière (I had to ask — it’s a kinda mini-pizza), all $3. Prices at night are pretty much the same, though entrées can be a bit higher. Pasta runs $13, meat dishes, $16. And, yes, after months of begging, they’ve finally got a wine and beer license.
Especially notable is the beautiful presentation. Like, for a $3 snack, you get solid knives and forks on a dramatic super-thick paper napkin. The $2 coffee comes in a French press, along with a tall ex-wine-bottle of chilled water. The food feels like California-Italy-Asia fusion. One of the breakfast dishes is fried rice with egg and soy sauce. The roasted-pork sandwich with homemade sauerkraut and Dijon mustard is delish and Deutsch, and the crêpes are oh-so-French. The basic crêpe has vanilla custard, brown sugar, and splashes of Grand Marnier. Simple, sexy.
Yes, there’ve been complaints about confused serving and some slip-ups during its early months, but this sure didn’t happen when I was there. Everyone seems genuinely happy to see you. Then you think: This can’t last. Prices are going to double, success is going to spoil them. But till then, 25Forty (it’s their street address) could be the best thing to happen to Old Town since Judge Roy Bean escaped from the Old Town jail and hightailed it to San Gabriel. Prices: $3–$16. Open daily except Tuesday. Evenings, Thursday–Saturday. Ed Bedford