Where to Eat and Drink in San Diego: The Ultimate Vacationer’s Guide

posted on Monday, August 19, 2019 at 2:29:04 PM

Friends Having Dinner at Restaurant

San Diego … it’s home to one million but hosts 35 million visitors each year. The near-perfect weather, beautiful beaches and bustling food scene are just a few of the reasons why so many people gravitate to sunny San Diego. If you’re one of the millions who’ve caught on to this top vacation destination, you have to immerse yourself in one of the city’s biggest offerings — the food and drinks! Locals boast about the hidden gems and celebrity chefs, and visitors brag about the innovative eats and scenic restaurant spaces.

We’re dishing up the best San Diego restaurants, wineries, breweries, cocktail bars and coffee shops so you, too, can navigate San Diego’s thriving food scene. Here are our must-eats and must-sips for a city overflowing with options.

Breakfast and Brunch

Morning Glory

Little Italy

$4 million went into making this all-day brunch concept anything but basic. Picture this: glamorous pink, copper and wooden interiors; a vending machine stocked with Moët & Chandon; luxe flamingo pink booths and bar seats; and a balcony setup just as stunning as its view of Little Italy. Here you can indulge in globally inspired and “wow”-worthy eats like fluffy Soufflé Pancakes, Khachapuri or the French Omelet. Morning Glory is every brunch-goer’s dream. Note: They don’t take reservations, so err on the safe side by showing up early.

Madison

University Heights

Its open-air aesthetics and outstanding menu variety make Madison ideal for brunch. Your server will likely recommend the Carnitas Stack or G.O.A.T. breakfast sandwich (with goat cheese, ham, habanero jam, eggs, swiss cheese and arugula). If you have a sweet tooth, order Waffle Churro Sticks for the table and savor every bite. And if you’re thirsty, Madison’s mixologists have mastered the art of the perfect breakfast drink. Mimosas are served by the glass or carafe, and favorite flavors include Black Magic with activated charcoal, Orange Pineapple Kale and Mango Mint. Cheers!

Fig Tree Café

Point Loma and Hillcrest

Fig Tree Café’s innovative morning menu includes Breakfast Sushi; mimosa flights with seasonal mix-ins; and the Tuscan “Bennie” with sundried tomatoes, spinach and basil. Staples like French toast and breakfast burritos are also up for grabs. If you can’t find something you love at this cute and cozy café, you’re not doing brunch right.

Great Maple

Hillcrest and La Jolla

This retro-chic restaurant puts a modern and delicious twist on diners. Fruity Pebbles Pancakes and the Fried Goat Cheese Squash Blossom are popular orders, but Great Maple’s most notorious dish is Maple Bacon Donuts. With a sweet cake-like consistency on the inside and the slightest crunch on the outside, they can, and will, make your mouth water. Reservations are recommended to dine and beat the line.

The Mission

East Village, North Park and Mission Beach

The Mission is a casual breakfast diner that draws a big crowd for breakfast and brunch. Much-loved plates include Mission Rosemary with local farm fresh eggs and sautéed tomato and Zen Breakfast with egg whites, brown rice, braised tofu and fresh veggies. Then there’s the gluten-free and Latino sections of the menu with Soy Chorizo and Eggs, Papas Loco and more. You can’t go wrong with any of the menu items, so let your taste buds be your guide. 

Lunch

Liberty Public Market

Point Loma

Deciding between Thai food and empanadas? You can have both at Liberty Public Market, which houses over 30 local vendors in a bustling indoor marketplace. Satisfy your appetite with New York-style pizza, artisan cannoli and arancini, tacos, lobster rolls, specialty bao buns and more. Make sure to take a lap around the premises first to get rid of any unwanted foodie FOMO.

Harumama

Little Italy

Head over to Harumama in Little Italy for Japanese cuisine with a charming twist. In addition to delicious ramen and noodle dishes, Harumama handmakes character buns like Nutella-Stuffed Haru Kitty and Totoro with ground BBQ beef, carrots and shiitake. We also recommend the flavorful Karaage Chicken Bao Bao and Fried Eggplant Bao Bao. These oh-so-cute buns and baos taste just as good as they look.

Carnitas’ Snack Shack

Embarcadero

At Carnitas’ Snack Shack, you can sink your teeth into a variety of items featuring cooked-to-perfection pork, like The Monster B.L.T. Sandwich, Carnitas Tacos and Pork Belly Sliders. It’s situated right on the sand on North Harbor Drive, so you can enjoy your lunch and panoramic beach views too. Bucket list item — checked.

George’s at the Cove Ocean Terrace

La Jolla

Come for the view, stay for the view. George’s is a destination for visitors and locals alike and boasts spectacular views of La Jolla Cove. George’s has three levels with three separate menus, but we strongly suggest eating at the rooftop terrace. It is, after all, one of OpenTable’s “Top 100 Best Al Fresco Dining Restaurants in America.” While enjoying the breeze or catching a sunset, savor fresh fish tacos, seasonal ceviche, vegetarian gnocchi and more. After your meal, stroll down to the cove for a close-up look at the sea lion and seal population on the cliffs. 

Pop Pie Co.

University Heights

This casual eatery offers sweet and savory pot pies, and they’ve nailed the recipe for a flawless pie crust. Flaky, buttery and savory yet ever-so-slightly sweet — it’s everything a pie crust should be. The staff favorite is Green Hog and Cheese, stuffed with spicy chile verde. They also bake more classic pies with chicken or steak, and they typically have at least one vegetarian option, like the Roasted Veggies and Yellow Curry pie.

Bonus: Tacos

If tacos are on your to-do list during your stay, you’re in luck — we could fill a catalogue with San Diego tacos. But we’ll simplify our list and share the essentials, most of which have multiple locations. Find made-to-order Tijuana-style tacos at The Taco Stand, where their carne asada, al pastor and spicy fish taco reign supreme. Or, choose from 14 authentic Mexican tacos at ¡Salud!, featuring seasoned meats and grilled veggies. Puesto lets you mix and match three tacos for your meal including their taco of the month; and at Lola 55, you’ll find a variation on the classics like Squash Blossom Relleno and Pork Belly Al Pastor.

Dinner

Juniper & Ivy

Little Italy

For some of the finest dining in America’s finest city, head to Juniper and Ivy in Little Italy. You’ll swoon over the romantic and woodsy décor. Chef Richard Blais, winner of Top Chef All-Stars, heads the kitchen and prepares a rotating, seasonal menu featuring local and fresh ingredients. The best way to traverse the chef-driven menu is ordering small plates for the table; try as many things here as you can! They’re innovative and beautifully presented. If you ask for it, the kitchen will prepare a gourmet version of In-N-Out’s Double-Double®. It’s not listed on the menu, so order this hush-hush item with confidence.

The Crack Shack

Little Italy

For something a bit more casual but just as delicious, behold — Richard Blais’ other project, The Crack Shack. No reservations are required at this fried-chicken-and-egg joint, where you walk up and order. The ambiance is low-key and relaxed, and amenities include outdoor seating, a bocce court, full bar and giant chicken sculpture. All food is naturally sourced, cooked with passion and seasoned with “crack spice,” the blend that makes the fare so incredibly scrumptious. As Blais says, “There’s no reason why a $12 chicken sandwich can’t be treated like a $90 roast chicken.” In that regard, definitely order the Firebird, and definitely order the Schmaltz Fries.

Kindred

South Park

Vegan dishes, framed photos of cats and heavy metal music coexist in this one-of-a-kind San Diego eatery. The décor is the perfect combination of edgy and off-the-wall and draws in a large dinner crowd. Begin your meal with Hearts of Palm, Kindred’s delicious take on a vegetable flatbread, then pick the Memphis BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich or Beer Batter Palm Tacos as your entrée. Kindred adds tons of flavors and creativity into their dishes — enough to easily satisfy every kind of eater.

Tom Ham’s Lighthouse

Harbor Island

Tom Ham’s Lighthouse has arguably the most stunning vantage point in all of Greater San Diego. Built on the edge of the Harbor Island Peninsula, and built to incorporate a functioning lighthouse, diners can gaze up and down the coast while enjoying fresh-caught seafood. Show up just before sundown to admire daytime coastal views, then witness the city aglow at night.  

Starlite

Mission Hills

Tucked away in Mission Hills is San Diego’s hidden gem, Starlite. Starlite offers intimate and dimly lit dining in an award-winning architectural space. Step inside the hexagonal entryway, and you’ll be drawn toward a twinkling stainless-steel chandelier draping above the bar. The main seating area provides each table with plenty of privacy. There’s also a rooftop deck if you prefer to dine al fresco under string lights. The menu strives for sustainably sourced, local and natural options. Start off with Marcona Almonds or Buffalo Fried Cauliflower, then feast on a Pan Roasted Jidori Chicken or Flat Iron Steak as your main course.

Bonus:

Herb & Wood

Little Italy

Herb & Wood is a one-stop-shop for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a game-changer on the San Diego food scene. From the food you eat to the intricate details of the space, celebrity chef Brian Malarkey and his culinary team have created a beautiful and memorable dining experience. The menu takes cues from California Coastal and Mediterranean cuisines and has earned several awards for the restaurant. The wood-fired pizzas are delightful, the salads are creative and the entrees are exquisite. Everything here is outstanding.

Dessert

Extraordinary Desserts

Hillcrest and Bankers Hill

One-part gourmet dessert shop and one-part gourmet restaurant make one excellent start-to-finish meal. You can stop by for artisanal petit hand pies, pastries, cakes, cupcakes, tarts, sorbets, candies and cobblers. Or, you can sit down and eat paninis, salads, spreads and cheeses. Make your decision a piece of cake by ordering more than one.  

Donut Bar

Downtown

Going to Donut Bar is more of a main event than an opening act. It’s the number-one donut shop according to USA Today, MSN, Thrillest.com and the hordes of locals that line up every Saturday and Sunday. Homer’s Donut, Oh My Birthday Cake Oreo™ and Chocolate Euphoria are a few of the oversized specialty pastries you’ll find. Pro tip: If you preorder online the night before, you can cut to the front of the line for pickup.

Ghirardelli

Gaslamp

Ghirardelli is a staple in the historic Gaslamp District, serving up all kinds of chocolatey desserts. From hot fudge sundaes and ice cream cones to cookies and shakes, they’ve created the formula for a thriving sweets shop. Go on, indulge a little.

Hammond’s Gourmet Ice Cream

North Park, Point Loma and Pacific Beach

Three words: ice cream flights! At Hammond’s you can order 32 flavors scooped into mini cones and served in true flight fashion. Still full from lunch? You can order flights of two, three, four, five and six. The Hawaiian-style ice cream is smooth and creamy, and flavors range from Mint Chocolate Chip and Birthday Cake to Mango Cream and Ube.

Uncle Biff’s Killer Cookies

Hillcrest

Locals tout Uncle Biff’s Killer Cookies as the best in San Diego. The award-winning California Killer Cookie® is the star of the show and baked with white and dark chocolate chunks, walnuts and pecans. There are 17 cookie flavors here but no hits-or-misses, so go big and go with your gut.

Coffee

Achilles Coffee Roasters

Cortez Hill

Achilles serves drip coffee as strong as their company name suggests. Go for the Gaslamp if you want something bold and creamy with a day’s worth of energy. Try the Mt. Soledad for something a bit lighter or one of their cold brew concoctions like Dealer’s Choice. This delicious drink combines natural vanilla syrup, cinnamon and cream. They also pour a variety of sweeter drinks like the Caramel Pecan Latte and White Mocha Latte.

Better Buzz Coffee

Multiple locations

Signature saying: “Life’s better buzzed.” Signature drink: Best Drink Ever®. Sign us up! Better Buzz Coffee’s laid-back roasting culture and unique drink variety has literally put them on the map. With primary roasting facilities in Vista, California, Better Buzz distributes organic specialty coffee all across San Diego. They craft the essentials like Americanos and cortados, and their lattes have interesting add-ins like lavender, mint, honey and matcha.

Bird Rock Coffee Roasters

Multiple locations

Bird Rock’s farm-to-cup mantra carries a lot of meaning. Their company collaborates directly with the farmers, pays higher wages for higher-quality coffee and buys product internationally. They rightfully hold the title of 2012’s Roaster of the Year by Roast Magazine. Stop by one of their many San Diego locations for a premium and well-sourced cup of Joe.

Daniel’s Coffee

Balboa Park

Daniel’s Coffee is nestled in the colorful Spanish Art Village in Balboa Park. It’s a scenic area to refuel and recharge in-between exploring Balboa’s hiking trails and museums. They make a mean cold brew and lavender latte, but this coffee cart can craft just about anything you request.

Refill

Hillcrest

Locals love Refill for its gourmet coffee, spacious indoor and outdoor seating and full café menu featuring crepes and avocado toasts. Cold brew is their specialty, and they offer a few different varieties you can sample at the counter. Stop by during the week and you’ll find it buzzing with students and remote workers. If you, too, fall in love with their brew, ask for a refill or take some in a growler to go.

Cocktails

The Nolen

Downtown

The Nolen is a modern rooftop bar with spectacular city views. Perched above a high-rise, this highly coveted location provides an up-close look into Downtown San Diego and Petco Park. Get extra cozy on comfortable couches or gather around the firepit and sip on an exquisite drink stirred with small-batch spirits. If you come hungry, The Nolen has menus for bites, brunch and sunset hour (4 p.m.–6 p.m.). And if you’re in town when the Padres play, you may be front and center for a fireworks show.

Polite Provisions

North Park

The staff at Polite Provisions takes pride in their homemade bitters, soda and syrups, and rightfully so. Their premier cocktails rotate with seasonal ingredients, but a few mainstays include the bourbon-based Kentucky Buck and Nutty Old Fashioned with macadamia nut. The space is reminiscent of an old-timey apothecary shop — with some major upgrades. It’s a true vision in the cocktail world.

False Idol

Little Italy

False Idol is a tiki oasis hidden behind a freezer door in Craft and Commerce. Not one inch of this space isn’t adorned with tiki décor. If you’re with a group, order the Alkala the Fierce. When it’s served — in a volcano-shaped bowl and set afire — the speakeasy dims its lights, pauses its music and booms thunder and lighting. Sip this one slowly — it packs a powerful tropical punch.

Raised by Wolves

La Jolla

Speaking of speakeasies, Raised by Wolves is located behind a rotating door in a lavish liquor store. When the hostess calls your party, she’ll seat you on a chair leaned up against a spinning wall that will transport you into an upscale Victorian-style lounge. If you’re not sure what to order from the extensive menu, the mixologist can craft a personalized drink to suit your style.

You & Yours Distilling Co.

East Village

You & Yours’ owners created a beautiful backdrop for their one-of-a-kind urban distillery. It’s designed like a stylish contemporary home that just happens to have a full bar setup. The bright and airy space complements the freshness of the cocktails — they use high-quality local ingredients and distill all spirits onsite. Sip a cocktail starring the juicy citrus-infused Sunday Gin or spicy martini-ready Winter Gin. This is the first female-owned distillery in San Diego, and it’s a huge attraction for gin and vodka enthusiasts alike.

Beer

Stone Brewing

Multiple Locations

Stone Brewing is the heart and soul of the San Diego beer community. They’ve gone from small microbrewery to U.S.-turned-global distributor. Take a trip to their headquarters in Escondido, visit one of their smaller yet more intimate tap houses or check out the Liberty Station restaurant that boasts a beautiful garden and patio area. Most beers wield bold, powerful hops, but Stone also pours a variety of sours, barrel-aged dark ales and seasonals. There’s definitely something special going on here if BeerAdvocate Magazine has named Stone the “All-Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth” … twice.

Coronado Brewing Company

Coronado Island, Imperial Beach and Mission Bay

Coronado Brewing emanates coastal vibes that you can see inside their flagship brewpub and on their beachy bottle designs. While this venture started in Coronado to pay homage to the co-owners’ hometown, nowadays you can spot their award-winning beers like the Islander IPA all over the U.S. If you choose to enjoy San Diego-style beers at their Coronado location, walk a few blocks to Bayview Park for a phenomenal view of Downtown San Diego.

Ballast Point

Little Italy and Miramar

When people think of the San Diego beer scene, they think of Ballast Point. With roots that dig as deep as 1996, they’ve had time to test and adjust their offerings. Their 300 quality checkpoints ensure each pour is perfection, whether you order a Sculpin IPA, Victory at Sea Porter, Longfin Lager or Sour Wench … notice a naming theme? Each sea-inspired bottle and location look like you’ve set sail to quench your thirst.

Modern Times

Point Loma and North Park

Locals hail to the hazy IPAs (Orderville is a must-sip) and experimental draughts at Modern Times. Check out their Point Loma location to choose from 32 taps and sit next to a mural made up of thousands of precisely placed Post-it Notes. Or stop by their North Park “Flavordome” to witness newspaper-clad walls, a ceiling where lamps hang upside-down and a bar standing on stacks of old VHS tapes.

Belching Beaver Brewery

North Park, Ocean Beach and Vista

Belching Beaver’s beers are crisp and flavorful. They pour seasonal releases, but the core four beers you’ll always find include Me So Honey Blonde, Here Comes Mango IPA, Hop Highway IPA and Peanut Butter Milk Stout, which is famous in the beer community. This best-selling beer is creamy and smooth with hints of coffee and dark chocolate. Order it root-beer-float style for the ultimate ode to your childhood.  

Wine

Carruth Cellars

Little Italy

Carruth Cellars is an urban winery, which means their grapes are transported from a rural vineyard, then stomped and fermented in-house. The result? Award-winning wines. And you can sip them outside under a gorgeous string-lit canopy and beside a luscious garden. Generous pours are offered, and cheeseboards are recommended to complement their expertly curated flights.

Gianni Buonomo Vintners

Ocean Beach

A toast to San Diego Magazine’s 2019 Best Winery winner! Another urban winery, Gianni Buonomo Vinters sources its grapes from the great states of Washington and California. Their grapes get ample sunlight and chilly nights, which generate a variety of balanced and gold-medal wines. Although situated in one of San Diego’s beachiest boroughs, step inside and you’ll feel like you’re in wine country.

The Rose

South Park

The Rose is an adorable wine bar and bottle shop with a great selection of bubbles, reds, whites, rosé and amber wines. As an added reason to love The Rose, they serve tasty salads and small bites like beef empanadas, charcuterie boards and a full menu for brunch. This is your go-to wine bar if you’re looking to impress a date, unwind or rosé all day.

Pali Wine Co.

Little Italy

At Pali Wine Co. you can sample five different wines in your $15 flight. We suggest their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, which have both won awards for Pali. Pinot is their specialty, and it shows; Pali has received major accolades from Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Pinot Report. Sit downstairs in their minimalist and modern main room, or head upstairs to their charming balcony that looks into Little Italy.

Rovino Rotisserie + Wine

Little Italy

Best Italian Restaurant in San Diego, Best Wine Bar, Best Wine List, Best Service … Rovino is an all-around winner in San Diego Magazine’s 2019 poll. They have an expansive menu of sophisticated whites and complex reds, and the knowledgeable staff can help select the best profiles for your palate. Whether you stop by for dinner, their $5 Aperitivo (happy hour) or a glass of wine, one thing’s for sure, you’ll feel like family at Rovino.

Ready to explore some of the best eats and drinks in San Diego? Step one is getting there, so book through Vacations by Marriott for amazing deals and packages on hotels, airfare and rental cars. Safe travels and bon appétit!

Return to Blog