You've just showed up in town, you're hungry, but you don't know where to eat. You can pull out the glossy dining guide at the hotel but come on, they pay for those endorsements. So you grab one of those big tourist books and dammit if they don't list every single darn restaurant in town! Your stomach is saying "let's go" and your will is weakening. You're just about ready to jump in the car and head to Chili's even McDonalds - DON'T DO IT!
Trust a local to show you the best places to eat in San Diego, from the tastiest fish tacos to the finest 5 star ocean view restaurants. This handy cheat sheet will send you to the best, but there are even more restaurant reviews in the Good Eats section!
San Diego has more taco shops than your town has Starbucks, from mom and pop home cooking to corporate chains. We love our taco shops and no visit to San Diego is complete without a stop at some of our favorites.
A good introduction to our taco shop obsession is El Indio Taco Shop, the guys who invented the rolled taco, aka the "taquito". Tender beef wrapped with a crunchy corn tortilla, topped with fresh guacamole and salsa, does it get any better?
Drive around a bit and you notice that there are tons of taco shops with "...berto" tacked on the end, from Alibertos to Hilbertos to Filibertos, and while they are all similar, the original and the best is Roberto's Taco Shop . Get the California Burrito, a giant flour tortilla filled with spicy grilled carne asada steak, guacamole and...french fries! A San Diego original recipe!
A Mexican wrestling theme sets the stage for some seriously delicious dining at Lucha Libre Gourmet Taco Shop, from their bacon wrapped hotdog (the Tijuana Dog) to their original creations like the Surfin' California Burrito with steak, shrimp, and avocado. Featured on the TV show Man V Food, this humble hole in the wall deserves a stop on your vacation.
QUICK BITES: Bull Taco is in the San Elijo Campgrounds in Cardiff and has ocean view dining to go with their gourmet street tacos. Juanita's in Leucadia has the best carnitas in town - don't let the bars on the windows scare you. Porkyland's original location under the Coronado Bridge is marginally scary, but the food is so good it's worth the risk just to bite into their tender fried pork. For diehards, La Posta de Acapulco is so dangerous at night that I can't recommend it, but during the day the scene is plenty safe and the food deliciously authentic.
Who Makes the Best Burger in San Diego?
The battle rages on as to who makes the best burger in town - Rocky's Crown Pub in Pacific Beach or Hodad's in Ocean Beach. Both are worthy contenders, but for vacationers I have to give the nod to Hodad's. The ocean air setting, the Jerry Garcia vibe with the chopped VW bus right in the middle of the restaurant, it's a pretty cool place. And families take note, Rocky's is 21 and over, no kids allowed.
Not anywhere near anything, Nessy's Burgers off highway 15 is the place to stop if you're heading up to the Temecula wineries or one of the North County Inland Indian Casinos. It's a truck stop sort of trailer sort of picnic table thing, certainly a strong contender for best burger you've ever eaten. A little more civilized is Burger Lounge, a newcomer that's been winning plenty of Best Burger in San Diego awards for their healthy offerings - don't worry, healthy meaning the best quality, sustainable ingredients, not health food tufu-ness.
Of course, In-N-Out Burger has to be on your list if you've never been. It's a Southern California tradition and the first drive thru restaurant. To ensure you have the best burger experience there, just repeat this order: "I'd like a Double Double, Animal Style, extra pickles, an order of fries for myself that will not share with my spouse, and a chocolate shake". Memorize that. Get that. It's good. Really, really good.
Got Kids? Don't worry, these places are perfect for family dining!
Family dining often means chain restaurant hell but that's not true when you're in San Diego. Filippi's Pizza Grotto is an old school Italian restaurant with prices that look like it's 1975 all over again. The pizza is gooey and cheesy, thick and delicious, with no gourmet ingredients anywhere near the kitchen. A pitcher of beer here costs less than a tiny glass of microbrew elsewhere.
Going a bit more upscale is Pizza Nova, the guys who first introduced San Diego to woodfired gourmet pizzas. With a location right on the marina near Shelter Island, the setting is good enough to please the wife (good idea) and the food will please both the kids and the repressed foodie in you.
Anthony's Fish Grotto is a family owned and family friendly seafood restaurant, featuring some of the best fried seafood anywhere and tons of non-fried options to keep the wife happy. Nice bay view, too.
Near Seaport Village and the USS Midway is The Fish Market. The location might make you think tourist trap but locals love it as much as tourists and a seat on the outside patio on a sunny day is pure heaven. Everything is fresh, these guys even own their own oyster farm to ensure you're getting the best.
There are also plenty of Mexican restaurants that are family friendly, from favorite Old Town Mexican Cafe (mmmm, get the carnitas) to Ortega's in Ocean Beach (tiny neighborhood eatery) to ocean view Las Olas with it's surfer dude vibe, to Ponce's (closer to town in the Kensington neighborhood) and Fidel's Little Mexico, a restaurant that originally catered to the Mexican farm workers. Just skip the corporate fakers like El Torito, Chevy's, On the Border, ughhh! You're in San Diego, get the real thing!
Good enough for locals!
For a real local experience look no further than Urban Solace, a cool eatery in a very non-touristy part of town serving up creative twists on your comfort food favorites like Duckaroni (mac n cheese with duck confit) or braised beef cheeks (like the best short ribs you've ever tasted). Casual setting, cement floors, PBR in a can, and food that looks like it came off the pages of a Bon Appetite magazine. Outstanding!
For a romantic Italian dinner under the stars under a giant fig tree, head to neighborhood eatery Piatti's in La Jolla. OK, it's a chain but it's such a good find and the setting so San Diego that locals have embraced it as their own.
Of course, locals love fish tacos and the best in town has to be at The Brigantine - available only in the bar. The Del Mar location is their best, afterwards head across the street to Dog Beach for a bit of fun. South Beach Bar and Grill is a surfer bar in Ocean Beach, nearly a dive (there's a bouncer at the door!), with awesome fish and seafood tacos as well. The Brig's fried tacos are better, but for grilled fish this is the place. And there's Rubio's, the fast food fish taco place that started the craze.
I'm on Vacation, Show me the Good Stuff!
Best Views: The Poseidon in Del Mar is literally right on the beach. Get a place on the patio for the best experience. Next door is Jakes Del Mar, the same guys who own many of the classic Hawaiian restaurants on the islands. No patio but a great beach setting.
For a crashing waves on the patio setting, head north to The Beach House. The food is good and the setting incredible. Sit downstairs and you could spit right on the sand (not recommended) or go upstairs to the casual patio for the full ocean view.
George's at the Cove's Ocean Terrace has captured the hearts of both tourists and locals alike with it's breathtaking view of La Jolla Cove combined with great food and cocktails. Lunch is moderate, dinner a bit pricier, but it's the essential San Diego dining experience. It's one of my favorites, read about my recent visit there.
Big Budget Dining: Best restaurant in town arguably is George's at the Cove's California Modern, a serious foodie experience with a seriously good view of La Jolla Cove below. Fresh cocktails made with the freshest ingredients to start, then inventive and creative food that's like nothing you have back home.
The Marine Room in La Jolla is right on the sand and so close to the waves that they splash on the windows at high tide. And yes, waves have broken the glass in the past during a storm! But don't worry, your dinner is likely to be dry and guaranteed delicious.
Closer to town is Mr. A's, a long time favorite for fancy and special occasion dining. Located near Balboa Park it offers incredible views of the park and the skyline and has planes flying by so close you can almost see the faces of the passengers. Wave to them!
More casual but equally delicious is Roy's of Hawaii with two enticing locations. The La Jolla location is inland and has no view but is a local favorite. It's noisy, it's lively, and it's consistently excellent. The new location is in the Marriott near Seaport Village and offers outdoor dining with a view of the marina.
For once in a lifetime dining, check out the La Valencia Sky Room at the top of the famous pink La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. With only 11 tables it's an elegant experience and the view is so incredible that it rivals the food.
The Gaslamp District is filled with great restaurants but a few stand out. Croce's is the standard, the one to beat with their take on upscaled American classics. For steaks you could go to the consistently excellent chain Fleming's Prime Steakhouse or go local at The Cowboy Star which is part high end restaurant, part butcher shop.
Now that I have your attention, on to the complete restaurant guide!
Still hungry for more restaurant info? Check out the full reviews and drool over the pictures of my dining adventures in the following bite sized sections. No Bad Meals, No Regrets, follow my guide and every meal will be your best ever! Let's start with San Diego's Ultimate dining.
COMING IN 2014: A new version of Local Wally's Guide to San Diego is on its way with more coupons, better discounts, updated reviews and the same great advice you can only get from a local. I'm also changing out the localwally.com url to SanDiegoTouristGuide.com soon but both will work.
Until then, it's not too early to start planning your trip to San Diego paradise. 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,