From Top Trends to Fresh Picks to Reigning Gems Worth Rediscovering, 944 Presents the 36 Best Excuses to Eat and Drink Your Way Through San Diego Right Now
Written by: Sarah Daoust | Photography by: Karen Morrison
Favorite Chef of the Year
Have you seen what Jared Van Camp can do with a hog? The executive chef of Quality Social has a way with pork, breaking down an entire hog every single month and utilizing just about every single scrap, which is especially interesting since Quality Social doesn’t have a freezer. The 31-year-old Chicago native has already earned street cred among his peers, having studied directly under Top Chef “Master,” Rick Tramonto, and winning accolades like “Best New Chef” in Chicago. We project even bigger things in Van Camp’s near future, so keep an eye on this one. But in the meantime, don’t miss his new “Morning After Brunch” on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. And a random fun fact: Van Camp owns an authentic Picasso and more than 5,000 vinyl records. Wild!
Worth a Sniff and Swirl
Small in space but big in both heart and wine knowledge, Voyou is a new wine bar hitting all the right notes at the corner of Fifth and Pennsylvania avenues in Hillcrest. The best bet for first-timers is to hit up Voyou’s happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., when appetizers and wines by the glass are just $5.
Most Impressive Menu Makeover
Chef Antonio Friscia has outdone himself this time, at last elevating Stingaree to a legit dining destination and leaving behind its unfair tag as a “nightclub that serves food.” The all-new menu focuses on sustainable, globally inspired dishes meant for sharing. The Crispy Skin Sonoma Duck Breast and Char Roasted Natural Strip Loin are standouts on the new tasting menu. The fact that diners can dance off those calories under the same roof is a mere added bonus.
North County Nugget for Brunch/Lunch
Tucked away on Cedros in Solana Beach, Lockwood Table Cafe is a casual spot with a simple menu, but what it lacks in variety, it makes up for in taste tenfold. Try the Baked Egg Souffle with turkey and Gruyere cheese for breakfast, then return for the Nardo sandwich with tomato, pesto, bacon and spinach on country French bread. Warning: The risk of a food coma is high at this little gem.
Newer Eats in Encinitas
Asian fusion in Encinitas? Yup. The cuisine at East Village Asian Diner is more “Asian comfort food” than authentic Asian cuisine, and reviews since it opened last spring have been mixed, but we’re definitely fans, especially when the service is on. Plus, the price is right, with most entrees ranging from $9 to $12. Our favorite happens to be the priciest: the Grilled Korean Short Ribs Hot Plate for $14 — worth the risk for first-time diners who dig ribs.
Favorite Makeover of the Year
On the heels of its facelift by Graham Downes last spring, Shelter Island institution Bali Hai has come into its own once again with new Executive Chef Chris Powell and his new Cal-Asian menu that fuses Pacific Rim and traditional Hawaiian cuisine. Powell takes fun spins on such classic dishes as the “Pho-duction” short rib dumplings, the “Loco Moco” sirloin steak and Wok Fried Half Asian Seabass. And we’ve recently witnessed firsthand that the Mai Tais here are particularly stiff. Well played, Bali Hai. Well played.
Potential with a View
The stunning bay view from atop the Porto Vista Hotel’s Glass Door has always been a slam dunk. But the cuisine? Arguably not so much. After a bit of recent chef shuffling, Brent Calley, former chef de cuisine at the Sé Hotel, has been appointed new executive chef. His new dinner menu has some serious potential, namely the Bacon Wrapped Lamb Loin with lentils, and the vegetarian cassolette.
Trend of the Moment: Child’s Play
Ahh, to be a kid again. Chef de Cuisine Ryan Grant and Pastry Chef Margaret Nolan at El Bizcocho recently led diners on a culinary walk down memory lane with a special tasting menu that resurrected classic childhood dishes with gourmet adult twists. On the “Kids Menu” were Grilled Cheese with tomato, Beef S’Mores, Spaghetti “O” and a fun take on the traditional Happy Meal. Feel free to play with the food; it’s actually encouraged here. And stay tuned for what whimsical concoctions the big kids in the kitchen dream up next.
Chef Marks the New “It” Spot
Don’t cry for Jason Maitland. Since his exit from Arterra last winter, the 30-year-old chef has been making big, new plans of his own, partnering with Jeff Hunter and Jerome Astolfi on Flavor Restaurant and Lounge opening in the old Epazote space in the Del Mar Plaza. Expect locally sourced, sustainable dishes such as the Chino Farms Vegetable Pot Pie and Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Gnuddi with truffle, black garlic and lemon oil; plus a separate lounge menu that includes items like the Boudin Fritters with ground pork and long grain rice. We smell a winner.
Out at the Ranch
Eric Bauer, who most recently did a short stint at Anthology, is now the executive chef at Rancho Valencia out in Rancho Santa Fe. The resort’s main dining post, The Restaurant at Rancho Valencia, is shifting its “Coastal Ranch” menu to embrace Bauer’s uncomplicated approach to cuisine that focuses on fresh, simple ingredients. Plans are also underway for a significant renovation of the restaurant space, including a brand-new bar area aimed at attracting a younger demo to this recently sold property, which now operates as an Auberge resort. Stay tuned for even bigger changes in the works ...
Favorite Family Story of the Year
Who doesn’t love a good family-run business success story? We sure do. The Gaglione brothers, Andy, Joe and Tony, just opened their third sandwich shop in San Diego. The new Gaglione Brothers Famous Steaks and Subs location in the Friars Village Shopping Center in Mission Valley is an ode to the authentic East Coast-style cheese steak. We’re hearing rumors of lines out the door for “The General” (named affectionately after the Gaglione brothers’ grandmother), made with thinly sliced, hot pastrami, melted Swiss cheese, homemade Russian dressing and coleslaw. Worry about the calories later.
Favorite Farm of the Moment
The buzz term “farm-to-table” is so hot right now that a drinking game should be made out of it! But of SoCal’s numerous local farms physically providing the farm portion to the restaurant table, Suzie’s Farm in South County is blowing up. It’s local, organic farming and CSA (community supported agriculture) at its best; Suzie’s fruits and veggies also comprise some of the freshest dishes on the menu at hotspots like Cucina Urbana.
New Reason to Go Fishing
Head to La Jolla for a new-again dining experience at Roppongi, which just landed new Executive Sushi Chef Warren Almeda, plus added new cocktails and an expanded sushi menu with new favorites. Sushi BLT Style, anyone? This bad boy is made with crab, bacon, avocado, arugula, tomato, tarragon aioli and seaweed salad. Or try the New Style Big Eye Tuna Sashimi with jalapeño, micro herbs and a soy wasabi vinaigrette.
Unexpected Sushi Den
A sushi hotspot in Rancho Bernardo? You better believe it. Sushi fans who live in the area will argue that Japanese restaurant Akai Hana is hands down the best sushi joint in all of San Diego County, while many who don’t live nearby will make the drive just to dine here. The Sweet and Spicy Crunchy Roll is a crowd favorite at this reigning RB gem.
Newer Charmer in Old Town
From its French press coffee, to homemade goodies ranging from potato chips to Blueberry Almond Pie to gnocchi to arguably the best eggs in Old Town, 25 Forty Bistro & Bakehouse transforms raw ingredients into simple, lovingly prepared dishes. It’s New York native and chef Mark Pelliccia’s first restaurant, and the cozy new eatery, with its cottage vibe and charming sunlit patio, has been an instant hit along Congress Street, between Harney and Twiggs. Sign up for cooking classes there this winter.
Mexican Fine Dining for $200, Alex
We were sad to see Tikul in La Jolla close its doors after the briefest of runs, but the trend of finer dining when it comes to Mexican cuisine is hotter than ever — from El Vitral to brand-new Maria Maria in Mission Valley to gastro-cantina El Take It Easy in North Park to Estrella’s on Kettner, opening soon in Little Italy. Our reigning pick of the moment: Barrio Star in Bankers Hill, where the vibe is “kitschy neighborhood chic” and the Brazilian Bowl and Chile Relleno are the stars of its mostly healthy Mexican soul food menu.
Dining Destination Worth Rediscovering
Two words: Patrick Ponsaty. Having earned 15 Michelin stars, the chef is newer in the kitchen at Mistral, the flagship fine dining restaurant at Loews Coronado Bay Resort that has redefined the whole farm-to-table trend with its own onsite garden. Ponsaty’s cooking is a fusion of Southern French and Northern Italian, maximizing seasonable veggies and fresh catches. And the romantic bay views looking back at the Coronado bridge and city skyline certainly don’t suck.
Thriving Neighborhood Hang
Bird Rock isn’t exactly a dining destination unless one lives in the area, and Beaumont’s isn’t by any means a new hotspot, but a recent visit proved this neighborhood eatery offers all kinds of reasons to pay another. The vibe ranges from super chill to loud and lively, depending on the time of day and who’s playing live music that night, and the new fall menu is laden with savory finds like slow-braised short ribs with sage orzo risotto and a killer New York strip steak with leek and Brie gratin potatoes. And the “Beaumont’s Burger” could give any other touted “best burger in San Diego” a run for its money.
Reigning Ocean Beach Addiction
It’s not new. It’s not fancy. It’s not at the top of the dining list in San Diego guide books. But the atmosphere is spunky, warm and super casual, the Reggae is blaring, the Pho is excellent and the price is right at OB Noodle House — a go-to spot for Ocean Beach locals, many of whom claim flat-out addiction. The Vietnamese-focused menu borders on Asian fusion, and dishes like the Rare Steak Pho are rich in flavor yet unfussy. A reigning favorite.
A League of Its Own
It’s been touted as the only true fine dining restaurant left in San Diego, and fans of Addison at The Grand Del Mar might just be right. Everything about the restaurant, from the service to Executive Chef William Bradley’s kitchen and cooking style to the award-winning wine collection headed by Jesse Rodriguez is, in a word, impeccable. No wonder it’s the only five-star, five-diamond restaurant in SoCal. A four-course dinner will set guests back $98 per person, but the constantly changing seasonal menu makes for a palate-delighting excuse to dress up a bit and splurge.
What a Crepe!
Move over, cupcakes; crepes are making a big push as the next sweet tooth satisfier. Paninis should probably move over as well, as savory crepes are coming after them. Picks of the moment include cute-as-a-button Cafe Madeleine in South Park, where locals are gobbling up the chicken crepe with sinful bechemel sauce, walnuts, pears, arugula and cheese.
Crepes are also all the rage in catering right now. California Crepes, located downtown in the Westfield Horton Plaza, specializes in catering and is known for both its sweet and savory concoctions, with ingredients ranging from dulce de leche to pesto sauce.
Favorite Lunch Spot in the Barrio
Located inside the architecturally raw space once occupied by the Guild, Blueprint Cafe is a fresh find for those in the mood for seasonal comfort food versus the usual Mexican outposts found in and near Barrio Logan. This gem promises and delivers organic ingredients from local vendors and “lunch with a smile.” Go for the Black Forest Ham Panini with artichoke, parmesan and mozzarella, or the half-pound steak burger.
Worthy “Battle of the Burgers” Contender
Much has been written, critiqued, blogged, Yelped, etc. about Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant, and the culinary powerhouse duo of Carl Schroeder and Terryl Gavre behind it, so we’ll keep this short and sweet: The BH Burger might just be the best burger in San Diego. Something about that brioche bun and aged white cheddar … holy crap.
Food Trend Alert: Gumbo To-Go!
OK, so it’s not a food truck per se, but The Gumbo Pot rolls like one, as a mobile food booth bouncing around the county and appearing at street fairs and farmers markets from Ocean Beach to Scripps Ranch. On its Creole/Cajun/soul food menu straight from the bayou? Well, gumbo, of course. And don’t miss the Jambalaya, red beans and rice, beignets and the Fried Shrimp Po’ Boy Sandwich. Follow charismatic owner Richard Taylor at twitter.com/gumbotime to see where his cult-followed booth, described by Taylor as “bayou roots making bowls and plates of deliciousness,” will set up shop next. Tell him 944 sent you.
Best New Pizza Find Uptown
Hillcrest eatery La Focaccia has been garnering rave reviews since it opened mid-July. Chef Alberto Morreale, formerly with the Osetra/Panevino/Greystone group, is the brainchild behind this new outpost for gourmet pizzas and organic salads. Good luck choosing one of its Sicilian-style, brick-oven-baked pies — ranging from the Porchetta made with boneless pork, steamed potato slices, mozzarella and thyme; to the Tonnata, with pomodoro sauce, tuna, kalamata olives, hard-boiled egg, red onion and mozzarella.
A little birdie tells us Mauricio Couturier, the design-savvy brain behind the curtain at El Camino, has been tapped to give Confidential a significant makeover. Expect renovated furnishings and decor, a new name, and an overhauled menu and vibe that promise to make this Gaslamp staple by same owners Merritte Powell and Darren Moore an all-new experience that still feels familiar.
Opening in the former Tikul space on Prospect Street in La Jolla is Aquamoree, a Southern tapas eatery by owner and chef Brandon Fortune. Stay tuned ...
In Hillcrest, Au Revoir Bistro, a promised collision of fashion, French cuisine and high design in the old La Vache space, is scheduled to open any day now; as is Little Italy’s latest Italian eatery, Osteria L’Angolino, opening on Grape and India.
Hennessey’s Tavern just opened its latest location in La Jolla on Herschel Avenue, serving up a mean Shepherd’s Pie and its famous Bloody Mary; while The Rose Wine Pub on 30th in South Park just opened — an historic building restored with reclaimed Redwood, and offering light bites, wine and craft beer, and even wine storage.
For a detailed directory of every business noted in this feature, go to 944.com/sandiegodining