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The 18 best restaurants in San Diego

The best restaurants in San Diego combine cuisines in dishes like carnitas bao buns and spicy tuna tacos

By Garrick Ramirez

While beach towns are often regarded more for their surf, sun and coastal things to do than savvy dining, San Diego proves to be the exception. From stylish dining rooms to hip beachside eats, the best restaurants in San Diego are exploding with creativity and bonafide kitchen chops. If a signature cuisine exists, it’s the happy amalgamation of the city’s cultural influences in dishes like carnitas bao buns, spicy tuna tacos and quail fried rice. Plus, its renowned craft breweries are complemented by a flourishing craft cocktail scene (worth exploring if you're looking for fun nightlife in San Diego), and a gloriously sunny climate means dining al fresco or in chic, open-air interiors. So if you’re headed to San Diego, make sure to bring your beach towel and your appetite.

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Best restaurants in San Diego

Photograph: Arlene Ibarra, Courtesy Kindred

1. Kindred

What is it: All hail seitan at this singular cocktail bar with exceptional vegan dishes, Victorian elegance and ravishingly sinister heavy metal flourishes.

Why go: Mixing equal parts heaven and hell—pink toile wallpaper, devilish wolf sculpture—Kindred serves divine vegan dishes such as char-grilled seitan skewers and battered hearts of palm tacos alongside exquisite cocktails blackened with activated charcoal and served on pentagram coasters. A trip to the bathroom yields a virtual art gallery of malevolent dudes and their cats.

Juniper & Ivy
Photograph: Courtesy Juniper & Ivy

2. Juniper & Ivy

What is it: This lively upscale restaurant is the centerpiece of San Diego’s food and drink-obsessed Little Italy.

Why go: The airy dining room here continues to be packed out by locals, thanks to chef Anthony Wells' continually shifting, inventive menu. We're talking delicious small plates and culinary-inspired cocktails. Recent standouts include a spicy tuna hand roll wrapped in shiso, carne cruda asada—a clever Mexican take on steak tartare—and the One in a Melon cocktail with mezcal, watermelon, lime and housemade Tajin.  

Herb & Wood
Photograph: Courtesy Herb & Wood

3. Herb & Wood

What is it: Spirited, eye-candy space bustles with cocktails and bold, wood-fired dishes.

Why go: A former rubber band factory, this cavernous space bounced back as a striking open-air dining room with vaulted ceiling, flickering gas lamps and enough potted plants to fill a greenhouse. Seasonal dishes are informed by wood-fired oven such as clams with rich adobo sauce and gnocchi with oxtail, roasted garlic and Parm. During the day, hit the casual adjacent cafe Herb & Eatery for grab-and-go bites.

Provisional Kitchen
Photograph: Courtesy Pendry Hotel

4. Provisional Kitchen

What is it: Classy bistro serving modern American cuisine.

Why go: Situated within The Pendry hotel, this bright and airy restaurant combines big, bold decor with big, bold dishes. Pick up a thin-crust wood-fired pizza like the Italians make 'em, or stop by on Sunday for tableside cacio e pepe and a cannoli flight. 

Photograph: Haley Hill, Courtest Trust

5. Trust

What is it: A stylishly casual restaurant that has a loyal following given its beautifully plated, rustic dishes.

Why go: The fragrant wood stacked in front of the open kitchen is the first hint of the meal to come. Chef-owner Brad Wise melds a farm-to-table ethos with wood-fired hearth for deeply flavorful dishes such as smoky cauliflower, lamb meatballs and braised oxtail raviolini. Grab a pre-dinner drink at a sister whiskey-forward cocktail bar, Hundred Proof, a few blocks up the street.

Ironside Fish & Oyster
Photograph: Flickr/T.Tseng

6. Ironside Fish & Oyster

What is it: Hip seafood house buzzes with blingy, Vegas-worthy interiors and expert cocktails.

Why go: Boisterous Little Italy spot might not be the seafood restaurant your grandparents had in mind—shellfish platters range from Big, Bigger to Holy Shit—but groups of stylish youngins keep things humming with Mai Tais and plates of local uni, grilled octopus and buttery lobster rolls. Swing by the marquee bulb-lined bar during the weekday happy hour for $1 oysters and $7 paloma cocktails.


7. Charles + Dinorah

What is it: Mid-century mod fave features poolside dining and movie nights.

Why go: Set within the bamboo-shrouded poolside courtyard of the retro-mod Pearl Hotel, this effortlessly cool restaurant has atmosphere for days. Sip bright cocktails and share platters of oysters, chorizo pasta and must-order kushiyaki skewers. On summer Wednesday evenings, the restaurant throws “dive-in movie” parties with classic flicks such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off screened above the pool.

BAE at Crack Shack
Photograph: Courtesy Crack Shack

8. Crack Shack

What is it: This stylized outdoor coop slings fried chicken and good times.

Why go: The adorable setting features picnic tables and red farm chairs set under strung Edison bulbs, a lively al fresco bar and kitchen housed in a modern barn structure. Yet, there’s some serious brawn behind all the playfulness. Owned by chef Blais of Juniper & Ivy next door, the Crack Shack serves guests fried Jidori chicken—tucked into sandwiches or splayed on paper-lined metal trays—along with sides such as a mango-and-papaya Border Slaw, and house condiments including Sriracha Thousand Island and kimchi BBQ sauce.

Breakfast Republic
Photograph: Courtesy Breakfast Republic

9. Breakfast Republic

What is it: This cheery Ocean Beach spot perks up mornings with friendly service and killer breakfast grub.

Why go: The inclusive menu has something for everyone, from the healthy to the hungover. A full bar sends out bacon Bloody Marys and draft kombuchas, while kitchen serves breakfast hot dogs and vibrant veggie bowls. The dessert-for-breakfast crowd can indulge in banana split French toast, churro pancakes and the Mr. Presley—French toast with peanut butter, bananas foster and bacon. You’ll find locations throughout town, but the Ocean Beach locale—with kitchen housed in a vintage Airstream—is a fave.

10. Salud

What is it: A taqueria in historic Barrio Logan that offers so much more than the humble taco.

Why go: You can get homemade tortillas morning till night at this flagship Salud. Look out for their daily specials too, because you can save loads. During happy hour you can get free chips (Mon-Fri, 2-5pm), on Tuesdays you can get three tacos for $6, while at the weekend you can bag the Taco Shop Burger with fries for $11.

JRDN Restaurant
Photograph: Courtesy JRDN Restaurant

11. JRDN Restaurant

What is it: Sleek hotel restaurant overlooking Pacific Beach that's a go-to spot for sushi and weekend brunch.

Why go: Set within the sleek Tower 23 boutique hotel, the recently refreshed dining room features cool grey, concrete interiors and enviable beachfront patio alongside the bustling Pacific Beach boardwalk. Weekend brunch hosts a lively scene, while a new raw and sushi bar lures daytime and evening diners with fusion rolls such as the Surf + Turf with wagyu beef carpaccio, spicy scallop, yuzo-miso and a sesame-kale crumble.

12. Searsucker

What is it: The average gaslamp restaurant has nothing on Searsucker, where dramatic interiors, New American fare and a flirty bar scene are all on offer.

Why go: An airy dining room with tufted leather banquettes and massive pendants sets the stage for proper sit-down dinners of tomahawk ribeyes and whole grilled branzino. A spirited after-work and weekend crowd clusters around plush couches in the expansive lounge for cocktails and noshable bites including duck fat fries and Philly meatballs.


13. The Lion’s Share

What is it: Wes Anderson would feel at home inside this clubby, atmospheric cocktail bar with fanciful taxidermy and oil paintings of animals.

Why go: Dimly-lit den attracts a cocktail crowd with serious talent behind the bar, but a menu that showcases exotic meats—ergo, the wild animal decor—more than measures up. Highlights include quail-topped deviled eggs, antelope sliders with smoked gouda and braised rabbit hand pies with duck fat crusts.

Carnitas’ Snack Shack
Photograph: Flickr/Kirk K

14. Carnitas’ Snack Shack

What is it: Not simply a bar and restaurant, but a great hang-out with a big backyard.

Why go: Three very convincing reasons: chunky pork sandwiches, craft beer and tacos. Grab your choice snacks from the shack window, or pull up a chair inside the laidback venue.


15. Tiger! Tiger!

What is it: Modern North Park beer hall is the perfect intro to San Diego’s thriving craft beer scene.

Why go: While many places feature umpteen beers on tap, Tiger! Tiger! flexes serious beer geekery with a stainless steel draft system that’s cleaned every keg change. Thankfully, they’re not pretentious in attitude or on the menu. Crowd-pleasing dishes such as homemade sausages and house-ground burgers are exactly what you want with your tulip-shaped glass of a creamy, hazy IPA.

Tacos Libertad
Photograph: Madeline Barr, Courtesy Tacos Libertad

16. Tacos Libertad

What is it: Delicious tacos for a worthy cause. What’s not to love?

Why go: The nation's first non-profit taco joint donates 100% of their profits to local charities. Libertad takes liberty with range of ingredients—pork belly, tempura avocado, octopus—that are char-grilled over embers and stuffed into homemade tortillas. Push through the stainless steel freezer door and discover a hidden cocktail lounge decked with chandeliers and olive trees.


17. Kettner Exchange

What is it: This is a sceney Little Italy restaurant that draws a fashionable young crowd with daybeds, cocktails and shareable plates.

Why go: The handsome bi-level space features a ground floor dining room and an upstairs lounge linked by a towering indoor tree, but the best seats in the house are the semi-private cabanas on the rooftop terrace. Wherever you settle into, you’ll find an upbeat crowd mingling over tables strewn with roasted cauliflower, kale salads and duck meatballs.

Photograph: Flickr/Mity

18. Hodad’s

What is it: This funky Ocean Beach burger joint is a San Diego institution and a welcome throwback to vintage SoCal beach towns.

Why go: Named after what surfers used to call landlubbing poseurs, this neighborhood beach shack on Ocean Beach’s main drag is plastered in surf stickers and weathered license plates. The cheap, sloppy, delicious burgers—served from a sidewalk window or at tables dotted with hot sauce and ketchup bottles—have made it a mainstay since 1969.

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Want a taste of the late-night scene?

False Idol
Photograph: Courtesy False Idol

Complete guide to nightlife in San Diego

Things to do

If you'd rather sip a craft beer or share a flaming cocktail bowl than dance until 4am, you'll love the laidback nightlife in San Diego. The craft beer mecca of California seemingly sports one brewery for every hundred residents, and its flourishing cocktail scene has hipsters sipping labored concoctions on rootops, in arcades and even in donut shops. Plus, the city’s tropical environs have inspired a reinvigorated tiki scene that’s lured the world’s largest gathering of Mai Tai worshippers, Tiki Oasis. After catching the sunset, stroll San Diego’s varied neighborhoods, and you’ll discover the laid-back beach town keeps humming long after the surfboards have been stowed and the kids have gone to bed.  RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in San Diego


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