San Diego has always had the makings of a food mecca, but it’s only been in, say, the past decade that a majority of citizens have decided they don’t want to settle for an average meal just to get out of the house on a hot night.
You can thank the beer scene for that: Once people got picky about beer, they started getting particular about food as well.
This region’s sunny climate means year-round access to fresh, local ingredients. It also means a delightfully casual atmosphere in most restaurants. That’s what happens when you live in a city where dress flip-flops are a thing. These restaurants are places that epitomize the mood, the attitude, of this city. Oh, and they have great food.
7749 University Avenue, La Mesa
JK’s Greek Cafe
This hole-in-the-wall Greek dive has been around nearly 30 years and you’ve probably never heard of it. That’s your problem. I found out about it back in the 1980s from original San Diego Reader food critic Eleanor Widmer and have been a regular ever since. They make real gyros on a spit here — not the prefabricated kind served at lesser eateries — and some pieces are cooked to crispiness. You can get both kinds of “Greek” salad here: the Americanized kind with lettuce along with the olives, feta cheese, onions, and tomatoes; or the more authentic horiatiki, which omits the lettuce. I love soaking up the oil-and-vinegar dressing with pita bread while I have a glass of the very fruity Boutari wine.
2820 Historic Decatur Road, Liberty Station
Located in the newly opened Liberty Public Market, Mess Hall benefits from being in close proximity to some of the freshest meat and produce in the area. Even better: the chef lets those ingredients be the stars and doesn’t over-season. The ever-changing menu means it’s hard to recommend a particular dish, but the pizza pies are a good bet. The menu features suggested wine or beer pairings with each item and sells taster versions of the booze so you can do food pairings without getting too blotto. Great casual vibe, especially in the early evening.
3752 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest
Trust has a special place in my heart, as it’s where my wife and I go before our nights at the Old Globe Theatre, a short drive away. This is one place where small plates are the way to go. The menu changes seasonally, but I’m fond of the grilled octopus with pepperoni — it’s tender and spicy. The shrimp and andouille sausage has a nice bit of heat as well. I like to dip the grilled bread in the sauce. When I want a quick, filling meal, I get the fingerling potatoes served with a vinegar whipped cream — it really is wonderful — and the chicken liver toast. With a glass of red wine (and they have a nice wine list), I’m set for the play.
7200 Parkway Drive, La Mesa
My wife and I honeymooned in Italy 15 years ago. Cucina Basilico in La Mesa makes me feel like we made a return trip. All the pasta is made fresh daily and sometimes comes in unusual preparations, like gnocchi made with beets. The owners are happy to suggest the right sauce pairings for the pasta or you can choose your own. I’m especially fond of the arrabbiata sauce — a garlicky tomato sauce with hot peppers — and the bolognese is the most authentic I’ve had in San Diego. There is a great wine selection, and the tiramisu and panna cotta are both cheap enough that you’ll feel obligated to try both — as you should.
789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
Puesto at the Headquarters
Whenever visitors come to town, eventually we’re going to eat Mexican food. Old Town is fine if they are more into spectacle than food, but the ones who really love food get taken to Puesto at the Headquarters. I’ve had two of the best five tacos of my life here: The filet mignon and the lobster taco. The octopus taco ranks No. 7. I’m very fond of the cocktails here, especially the Puesto Perfect Margarita, which is a classic blend of tequila, agave, and lime, and La Verdad, which combines tequila with lemon and cactus.
1195 Island Avenue, East Village
(No longer in business.)
This is a splurge place that doesn’t feel like a splurge because the dining experience is so relaxed. Seasonal ingredients prepared with imagination and flair, and a staff that knows the menu and offers proper wine pairings with each item. I’m transported by the strawberry salad, which emphasizes yellow beets over the strawberries to good effect and doesn’t drown the lettuce in a sickly sweet dressing. The blackened tombo served with vegetables in a chorizo-tinged liquid is my go-to when it’s on the menu. Vegetarians have many options, but the ravioli with corn and squash in a brown butter sauce is a favorite of my wife’s.
1555 Camino del Mar, Del Mar
Pacifica Del Mar
Raw bars have become trendy in the past few years as people have gotten more comfortable with food prepared close to its original state, but Pacifica Del Mar has been doing it for years. This was the first place I had oysters on the half shell and it’s still my sentimental favorite. (Maybe it’s the cucumber mignonette.) I’m also fond of the poke. The bartenders have been here forever so they know how to make a martini or three. (I want extra blue cheese olives, please.)