Time was I would eat out plumb near every night, always chasing the hottest trends. Thousands of meals later, my perspective has shifted, and I now prefer to patronize a few, favored spots when I want a nice night out with friends or loved ones. These locations, although few in number, offer everything I need for special occasions. They run the gamut from the best of the best to new favorites to reliable standards that have never let me down over many years and many dinners. Of course, I’ll share the one spot I can always end any given night in style. I can spend a lot, or not so much at all, but I know where I go for my nice night out.
1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla
A handful of restaurants credibly stake a claim to be San Diego’s best. Some achieve splendor through science, fashion, and televised fame. Others pay indulgent homage to French tradition and properly reflect the ludicrous wealth of their clientele. Still others follow faithfully in Thomas Keller’s footsteps. The other players do their respective bits to marvelous effect, but I still believe TBL3 is the best meal in San Diego, and I will stake it against any other tasting menu in the county. While other local fine dining experiences do a better job of temporarily transplanting you to NY or Paris, the kitchen crew at George’s put together a meal that feels like it belongs in San Diego; and I burst with hometown pride at every visit.
1030 Torrey Pines Road #G, La Jolla
I’ve taken a shine to Himitsu of late because the sushi there, while not overly traditional, walks the fine line between the indulgent upscale dining of certain local luminaries who require no introduction, and casual bliss. Perhaps most importantly, I think Himitsu understands the vital importance of presenting nigirizushi as a kind of simple, edible artwork. Too often, sushi joints overegg the proverbial custard in a desperate attempt to meet the shifting expectations of a customer base motivated more by Instagram likes than taste. Himitsu resists that urge to its credit.
3298 Greyling Drive, Serra Mesa
Kokoro is better than you think. It is unassuming, and unapologetically Japanese in its own, quiet way. I cannot stress enough how disappointed you will be if you go there expecting to be dazzled and seduced by artful preparations of expensive ingredients, or how pleasantly surprised you will be if you go there expecting to contemplate the subtler side of Japanese cooking. The chef/owner has what I like to think of as “The Touch,” my private term for what ever it is that separates talent from skill in sushi. By some indescribable means, the sushi at Kokoro is somehow more... correct than (most of) the competition’s. If you know, you know. If not, well, maybe try Sushi Deli 3.
3175 India Street, Mission Hills
Maybe I hold a soft spot for Starlite because, deep in the foggy past of 2011, my wife and I shared the first of many dinner dates together there. Since then, we have eaten our way to Tel Aviv and back, but Starlite remains the most beautiful restaurant I have ever laid eyes upon; and not merely on account of the company. Many spaces have tried to duplicate its modernist charm, yet Starlite endures unequaled, casting a Norman Mailer-sized shadow over every Mid-century Modern wannabe from here to Palm Springs. It is neither extravagant nor spectacular, but the decor at Starlite straps you into the seat of a Delorean, sends plutonium to the flux capacitor, and sends you on an 88 MPH trip to some other when. I am a pretty jaded dude, but I still smile every time I walk through that hexagon. I can think of no finer surrounding for a late-night burger and a glass of rosé.
3753 India Street, Mission Hills
The single best dessert in all San Diego is the pumpkin gelato at Gelato Vero (when they have it). In a world where “pumpkin spice” is synonymous with all things wretched and commercial, Gelato Vero’s pumpkin ice cream tastes of autumn gloaming and the killing frost that withers the pumpkin leaves and reveals the deep orange promise of cool nights and Indian Summers. It tastes like night driving with the windows down and the heater blasting. It is perfection. Any other time, the single best dessert in all of San Diego is a simple pistachio affogato, particularly when Gelato Vero is the second stop of the night, after a fine dinner elsewhere, when date night needs prolonging but anything fancier would seem profane.