Every year local businesses wait in anticipation for the Wally Awards, featuring the best hotels, the best restaurants, the best things to do in San Diego. As the final hour of each year approaches, tweets start arriving announcing the winners of this coveted honor. Winners toast with champagne, losers go back to the drawing board with hopes of a win the following year.
Competition is tough and if you think one of your favorites was looked over, let me know and I'll make sure to check them out. Who knows, they might be the next big winner!
And now, the Best of San Diego Awards for 2013!
Restaurant Most Likely to Impress Thomas Keller
GEORGE'S AT THE COVE, CALIFORNIA MODERN: Usually ocean views and exceptional food are polar opposites, but in this case the view of La Jolla Cove nearly pales in comparison to the gourmet food coming from Chef Trey Forshee. Best in San Diego? Without a doubt.
Most Impressive Ocean View Dining (that locals like as much as tourists)
GEORGE'S AT THE COVE, OCEAN TERRACE: Every visitor must go to the al fresco Ocean Terrace at least once. Moderate prices, a lively setting, and full on ocean view make this an Essential San Diego Restaurant.
Best Beachfront Restaurant Patio Dining
POSEIDON ON THE BEACH, DEL MAR: The only thing separating the outdoor patio from the beach is a short cement wall. Great casual food, even better people watching as the girls in bikinis and guys with surfboards stroll by.
Best Non-touristy Restaurant to Send Your Hip Friends to
KENSINGTON GRILL: An unpretentious neighborhood eatery that feels both casual and hip at the same time. Who can argue with any restaurant that serves up a Hog Platter with everything from pork cheek hash to spicy pork rinds on it? Daily specials keep things interesting and affordable.
Best Restaurant to impress your Obnoxious Foodie Friends
CARNITAS SNACK SHACK: Not the place to impress your wife but certainly some of the most inventive and tasty food to be found in San Diego. Looking a bit like a recyled taco shop from the front, the rear patio is chic and modern and the pork-centric food delightful, my favorite being the pork sandwich made with pork loin schnitzel, pulled pork, bacon, pepperoncini pickle relish and topped with "shack aioli". Great fries and outrageous burgers for your non-porkified friends.
Best Burger Joint
HODAD'S: The burger wars continue with some strong contenders, including PB's cult favorite Rocky's Crown Pub (still the best bet for 21 and over bar vibe), Nessy's (the burger shack off Highway 15 near Fallbrook) and Burger Lounge, the hip joint that takes burgers to a near art form, but Hodad's wins again for their cool hippie surfer dude vibe and location a block from the beach. Besides, where else can you eat a burger in a VW Bus in the middle of a restaurant? Now with a second downtown San Diego location.
Best Local Brewery
THE LOST ABBEY: It seems almost unfair to pick just one brewery in San Diego and crown it the best, but The Lost Abbey in North San Diego has earned the title with their laid back near-industrial setting and terrific local beers. If you're new in town you might not know that San Diego has become the microbrewery mecca in the country. Home to big names like Stone Brewery and Karl Strauss, San Diego also has over 50 other breweries, some hidden away in industrial parks and oddball settings. Food trucks on weekends keep everyone happy and how cool is it that you can chat with the guy who made the beer? Want more info? Head over to DrinkUpSanDiego.com where you'll find every brewery in town.
ALFONSO'S LA JOLLA: I've been coming to Alfonso's since my college days for one thing only - their delicious carne asada tacos. Plump double wrapped tacos filled with tangy grilled steak and topped with fresh guacamole, I haven't found any better in San Diego. Excellent house margaritas that actually have a kick, you don't need to upgrade.
Best Mexican Restaurant (not in Old Town)
TONY'S JACAL: (Solana Beach) Take a trip up the coast to one of the coolest and most authentic Mexican restaurants in San Diego. Tony's Jacal has been open since 1946 and little has changed since the days when Hollywood's elite like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope would chow down here before the Del Mar races. Killer patio, great margaritas, this is old school Mexican.
RUNNER UP: PONCE'S MEXICAN RESTAURANT: (Kensington neighborhood): Neighborhood eatery in the Kensington area close to Mission Valley, the oddball decorations of old Mexican record albums and movie posters along with very strange oil paintings that look like they came out of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion are the setting for this un-touristy, unpretentious restaurant. Great Mexican food, more authentic than Old Town, try the Adobada (marinated pork with cilantro, avocado and pineapple salsa) for a treat you won't find in your standard tourist Mexican restaurant.
Best Authentic Taco Shop
LA POSTA DE ACAPULCO: (Hillcrest) I know, you were thinking I was going to declare Roberto's Taco Shop the winner and it's true, I do love Roberto's. But a real taco shop must have some sort of fear factor, a "is it safe to eat here" question that lingers in your mind before your first bite - then quickly forgotten as the flavors hit the buds. La Posta fits that bill, and ups the ante with actual muggings and fights in the neighborhood once the sun sets. Worth the risk? Yes indeed, for Mexican food this good.
Best Tourist Friendly Taco Shop
EL INDIO TACO SHOP: (Near Airport) A San Diego institution, El Indio makes the dubious claim that they invented the "taquito", aka rolled taco. I'm skeptical but there's no doubt that they make some of the best rolled tacos in San Diego, along with tamales served up "San Diego style" topped with chili beans and cheddar cheese. You line up to order and then grab a table, either inside the nice restaurant or my favorite, outside across the street in the middle of the intersection - yes, I mean it! Local Tip: Free parking just north or the restaurant.
Best Gourmet Taco Shop (with ocean view)
BULL TACO: It's location as the official concession stand in the San Elijo Campgrounds on the beach might suggest gringo bell, but these surfer dudes know what they're doing. Pork belly tacos, duck burritos, even a foie gras taco (if you dare). Ocean view worth a million bucks, yours free with purchase of a $1.75 taco. There's also a second location in Oceanside, but the original concession stand location is my favorite.
Best Modern Taco Shop (and photo opp)
LUCHA LIBRE: Down the street from popular El Indio Taco Shop is the quirky Lucha Libre and their gourmet tacos. Huge portions and crazy good, you have to try the Tijuana Hotdog, a bacon wrapped dog topped with onions, peppers, catsup, mustard and mayonnaise! TV travel show Man V Food was just here so the secret is out, this place rocks!
Best Taco Shop (that might scare you)
PORKYLAND, ORIGINAL BARIO LOGAN LOCATION: Boldly go where no tourists have gone before... where locals readily risk their lives just to get a carnitas taco. Vats of fat frying chunks of pork, a setting that's screams "lock the car doors!", and food to die for. Seriously delicious, and don't wimp out by going to their cleaned up and gringo-ized La Jolla location. It aint the same.
Best Taco Shop (that actually might be worth the drive)
LOS CHARROS: (Escondido) The wife will be telling you to turn around when you pull into the lot, but crack open the windows and take in the aroma of real Mexican food and she'll be thanking you later. Don't let the run down neighborhood and old Pizza Hut building scare you, the food is worth the effort and inside the restaurant it's clean and welcoming. Carne asada quesadilla is incredible, shrimp tacos fantastic, and a salsa bar with enough heat to blow your head off.
Best Fish Taco
THE BRIGANTINE: There's no debate, for the best fried fish taco you have to go to The Brigantine Del Mar and sit in the newly remodeled bar with the view of the racetrack and ocean, grab a Brigs Brew and take a bite into the biggest, freshest, crispiest fish taco in town. Sit outside on a sunny day and when the train rushes by and the salty beach air kicks in there simply isn't much better than this.
RUNNER-UP: SOUTH BEACH BAR AND GRILLE: A new remodel, an Ocean Beach location with bikini girls and six-pack surfer dudes, this place is so-San Diego that it deserves a visit just on those merits. Of course the fish tacos are the real star and South Beach wins the battle for best freshly grilled tacos, from mahi to wahoo to shark. Their fried tacos are nearly as good as the Brig and where else can you get a fried oyster taco?
RUBIOS: Though Ralph Rubio can take credit for "borrowing" the fish taco recipe from his days in Baja, their original fish taco doesn't win the crown. However, all of their fresh grilled and specialty tacos are insanely tasty, from the grilled mahi mahi topped with a habanero salsa to their legendary langostino tacos that actually taste like lobster. If you haven't been in a while or only get the usual, branch out in 2013 and try them again. I think you'll agree that Rubio's has stepped up and knocked it out of the park with their grilled tacos, nearly as good as South Beach Bar and Grill and much more convenient when you're hungry but don't want to compromise.
Best Seafood Restaurant For People with Good Manners (and a fat wallet)
TOP OF THE MARKET, THE FISH MARKET: Located upstairs from the usually packed casual Fish Market restaurant is its fancier cousin, the Top of the Market. Terrific bay views, incredibly fresh fish, these guys even own their own oyster farm so you know the quality is top notch.
Most Popular Seafood Restaurant for Tourists (a local's guilty pleasure)
ANTHONY'S FISH GROTTO: Famous for the fish and chips (and other fried delectable's), they also have great grilled and prepared options. Restaurant looks like a 70's flashback and the waitresses are even older, but that's all part of the charm of this local family eatery.
Best Place to Get Cheap Seafood (that actually comes from the ocean, not a freezer)
POINT LOMA SEAFOOD: El Pescador in La Jolla won last year, but I have to give it back to Pt. Loma Seafood, a super casual eatery with super fresh seafood. Picnic tables overlooking the water, a crab sandwich for less than ten bucks that's filled with crab, crab and more crab. I love both El Pescador and Pt. Loma but location and easier parking gives Pt. Loma the nod this year.
Best Pizza (tourist friendly)
FILIPPI'S PIZZA GROTTO: (Little Italy) Thin crust pizza is so last decade. With the recession in full force, when I go for pizza I want bulk! Lots of crust, lots of cheese, and lots of flavor. And when I'm short on cash but hungry as hell I go to Filippi's in Little Italy. The restaurant in the back of the Italian market is like an authentic Buca de Beppo with the red checked tablecloths and the chianti bottles hanging from the ceilings. Cheap pizzas and even cheaper pitchers of beer, there's no way you're leaving hungry. Leave your food snob Yelp friends to their puny gourmet pizzas and come here alone if you love old fashioned pizza.
Best Pizza (weird category)
BESTA WAN PIZZA: (Cardiff) Weird name goes with weird pizza. How weird? How about a pizza loaded with sausage and...sauerkraut? Say what? It's damn good, the crispy tang of the kraut melding with the salty sausage and boatload of cheese. Beach town setting, dogs on the patio, classic rock (what's what, Supertramp??) on the speakers, it's a true locals joint.
Best Pizza ("worth seeking out" category)
RED OVEN PIZZA: (Solana Beach) Red Oven Pizza isn't a restaurant but they do show up weekly at the Solana Beach Farmers Market every Sunday from noon until around 530 as well as around town at local microbreweries and other ad hoc locations - check their site for locations. A true handmade pizza "Napoletana" done up in a real wood oven, it's got a light and airy crust covered with fresh toppings, you have to taste it to believe it. Go to Solana Beach, walk the shops on Cedros, then head over to the Farmers Market for a great pizza.
EMERALD CHINESE SEAFOOD: (Convoy) There are three major dim sum restaurants in San Diego - Jasmine, China Max, and Emerald. All three are very good, nearly San Francisco quality, but Emerad takes the win in 2011 for their dim sum dumplings. The smell of propane from the little carts might be a bit off-putting to some, but the dumplings are worth it.
PHO CONVOY NOODLE HOUSE: (Convoy) Super clean and delicious, even newbie Vietnamese diners feel comfortable with the "order by numbers" menu. The pho soup is no compromise and the 7 course dinner where they put seven different samples on one plate is sure to satisfy those who can't make up their minds. Incredible smoothie drinks, including one made with the offensive durian fruit.
SUSHI OTA: Sure, Nobu is just fine.... if you have a hundred bucks you want to blow. Let's face it, just about anyone can do top notch sushi if price was no object. The trick is to find the sushi restaurant that delivers the goods without chocking you at the end when the bill comes. Sushi Ota has been a long time locals secret but it's time to get the word out Located in a strip mall, you might think there is no way this is going to be any good. But locals know that Sushi Ota delivers near Nobu quality at a neighborhood sushi house price. No glamor, no glitz, just darn good sushi.
Best French Fries
BELGIUM DELIGHTS: Mark your calendars - Sunday, Farmers Markets in both Leucadia and Hillcrest. Yes, I love Farmers Markets but I really love french fries and the best in town are found at the Belgium Delights booth. The kennebec potatoes fry up with a crispy exterior while remaining soft and fluffy inside. Get the aioli dipping sauce (warning: garlic breath for at least 24 hours after!) and make sure you get a large order because you will not want to share.
Best Oceanfront Resort I'd Stay At (if I won the lotto)
HOTEL DEL CORONADO: Timeless elegance, full ocean view, this historic hotel still has no rivals for a top notch resort located right on the beach.
RUNNER UP: LA JOLLA BEACH AND TENNIS CLUB: While the hotel isn't up to Hotel del Coronado standards, the beach setting with umbrellas and waiters bringing you cocktails on the sand can't be beat.
Best Oceanfront Hotel (that doesn't cost more than my mortgage)
TOWER 23: Hip and trendy, right on the beach, contemporary rooms and a very cool restaurant called JRDN.
RUNNER UP: PACIFIC TERRACE: A boutique hotel that sits on a bluff above the sandy beach, rooms with patios that look out over the ocean.
Best Cheap Oceanfront Hotel (dude, bring the cooler!)
DEL MAR MOTEL ON THE BEACH: That's right, a motel right on the beach. I mean it, this is a motel, but it's clean and tidy and the beach location is first class.
RUNNER UP: BEST WESTERN BLUE SEA LODGE: Nothing fancy but it gets the job done if you want a clean place to crash after a day at the beach. Nice pool and a popular beach right outside your door.
HUMPHREY'S HALF MOON INN: With its waterfalls and tiki torches, its lush tropical landscaping and sweeping views of the bay, it's easy to pretend you're on a Brady Bunch Goes to Hawaii vacation.
Best Tropical Resort (big budget)
PARADISE POINT RESORT: Get an upgraded and refurbished room overlooking the bay and man, this looks just like Hawaii!
Best Budget Hotel (that I would send my Mom to)
LA PENSIONE: A cheap hotel doesn't have to have a freeway view. Stay in Little Italy, a cool strip of authentic Italian restaurants and residents. Farmers Market right down the street every Saturday.
RUNNER UP: THE PEARL: So hip, so trendy, the Pearl is an old motel that they spruced up with furnishings that look like an Austin Powers movie, modern and retro at the same time. And who can argue with a place that shows movies at the pool at night?
Best Pool for Kids (that grownups will like, too)
HYATT MISSION BAY: Waterslides on one end will keep the kids happy, and the pool is large enough that you can sit on the far side with a cocktail and pretend those out of control kids don't belong to you.
Best Place to Book Your Hotel and Discount Tickets?
LOCAL WALLY: OK, you saw that one coming. But with my new Best Rate Guarantee you won't have to worry that you paid too much for your hotel room. Unlike other sites that just want your dough, I actually visited every hotel in San Diego and picked out the ones I would stay at. Hotels, Car rentals, discount attractions, Local Wally's got your back.
Best Place to Propose
LA JOLLA CHILDREN'S POOL SEAWALL: Make it memorable - take the stroll out to the end of the seawall as the sun goes down, the waves splashing on one side and the seals on the other, it's pretty darn romantic and a great photo op when she says "yes". If the wall is too busy (or the seals too noisy), walk south a bit and you'll most likely find a secluded alcove to pop the question at. Afterwards, celebrate with dinner at one of the nearby restaurants - George's at the Cove is my favorite.
Best Places to Watch a Sunset
CABRILLO MONUMENT: While any beach offers a free sunset show each night, the Cabrillo Monument area gives you plenty of viewing options depending on your mood. Stay on the top where the lighthouse is, or drive to the tide pools for a bit of surf and turf. From the tip of Point Loma you can view the ocean and the skyline, it's a spectacular view.
LA JOLLA SCRIPPS PARK: Parking is a chore but the grassy setting above the crashing waves makes for a perfect picnic spot for watching the sunset. No alcohol permitted, but no one is checking what's inside that Starbucks cup you're holding (wink wink).
SUNSET CLIFFS: South of Ocean Beach, a 69 acre park that lines the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Why is it called Sunset Cliffs? Figure it out!
SPRING 2013: Migrating whales, tacos filled with local lobster, sunny days and cheap hotel rooms, that's Spring in San Diego. If your days are filled with snow and ice then plan a quick trip to San Diego and get back in the sunshine. And it's not too early to start planning your Summer vacation.
Stick with me and you'll not only get real advice from a real local but find cheap hotel and discount tickets as well. Local Wally is the oldest local website on San Diego and the only one left still run by a local guy.
And if you like beer, check out my newest site DrinkUpSanDiego.com, the complete guide to San Diego's breweries.
See You Soon,