Local Wally's Top North County Restaurants
Best Eats in Del Mar, Encinitas, & Carlsbad
From Del Mar to Carlsbad you'll find scenic little beach towns with lots of personality. You'll also find plenty of great restaurants, from essential tourist stops to local's favorites that don't show up in many tour books. I'm talking about $4 tacos with ocean views, authentic Mexican food that you don't find in Old Town, insanely original pizza like one with sauerkraut on it, and plenty of locally brewed craft beer to wash it all down.
Of course, these beach towns are also tons of fun to visit so make sure you plan your day to walk around and see the sights. Great local beaches too and lots of local events like Farmers Markets and cruisin' car nights makes San Diego's North County a worthy destination into itself. Like craft beer? Make sure you visit my other site, Drink Up San Diego, to get the latest list of the dozens of great local breweries in the area.
Best Places to Eat in Del Mar
Upscale ocean view in Del Mar Plaza
Pacifica Del Mar has consistently gotten rave reviews as one of San Diego's best ocean view restaurants featuring steak, pastas and seafood. It's a bit fancier than most (white tablecloths, for example) and the perfect pick for a romantic evening. In the past Pacifica has gained a reputation for being a bit pricey, a special occasion place, but that's plain silly when you can come at Happy Hour for specials like the $9 Tuesday taco duo complete with a Corona or the inexpensive sunset dinner (you wanted to be here at sunset anyway!) that includes starter and entree for less than $25. Validated parking in underground garage, a big plus in busy Del Mar.
Top notch ingredients + passionate chef = Market
Google this place and you might wonder why a restaurant far away from the ocean in a less than sexy office building gets such rave reviews. That's because Market's chef is passionate about finding the freshest local ingredients and coming up with a new menu each day based on his finds and whims. This is the type of place where other chefs come to dine and continues to get reviews that start with "best meal I've had in 10 years". American food that surpasses expectations, it's hard to imagine anyone not loving every bite here. It's fancy, listen to your spouse who tells you to iron that shirt and change into slacks.
Ahhh, feels like Hawaii here
Jake's is smack in the middle of the vacation zone, an ocean view restaurant that's right on the sand with beach views that are only obstructed by bikini girls and surfer guys walking by. If Jake's feels like Hawaii that's because it's owned by the same folks who run Hula Grill and Duke's and just about every other popular Hawaiian restaurant. The food is much better quality than you might think - this is no tourist trap - and when they open the windows to the ocean breeze it just doesn't get much better. Save room for the Hula Pie, a giant slice of macadamia nut ice cream served mud pie style.
Ultimate beachside dining
I normally don't recommend restaurants based just on their location but that's the case with Poseidon On The Beach, a beachfront restaurant with a patio that is literally one step away from the sand. This is the ocean view restaurant you dreamed about and if the food quality is just "good enough" the view sends the experience over the top. I love coming here for lunch when I can turn off my foodie brain and just enjoy a good burger with a view. The food isn't the star but the location is one of the best making it ever popular with locals and tourists alike.
Go the the bar for Fish Tacos
I have a confession to make - I've never eaten in the restaurant at The Brigantine. But I am pretty much there every weekend at the bar for their classic, deep fried fish tacos, arguably the best in San Diego. Don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise, the Brig nails it with their oversized crispy fish on top of a bed of cabbage and, yes, cheese. Top it with some California hot sauce, squeeze that lime, it's the best $4 you ever spent. There are Brig's all around San Diego but the Del Mar location is the best with ocean views overlooking the racetrack. Their grilled fish tacos are just OK so stick with fried and die happy.
Solana Beach's Best Restaurants
Best Carne Asada Tacos in San Diego?
Don't be confused by the name - Alfonso's is in Solana Beach right on historic Highway 101. Ultra casual yet urban trendy, Alfonso's is a San Diego favorite since 1971 with one of the best (the best?) carne adada tacos in town - marinated steak topped with guacamole and seriously delicious salsa, no bottled factory made salsa here. Happy Hour on weekdays, music on weekends, whether you're a local or a visitor make sure you stop in for a taste of authentic Mexican food in a family friendly beachy environment.
Local brewery + pizza
Though there's another Pizza Port in Carlsbad, the original location in Solana Beach is the best. They brew their own beer here as well as make awesome pizzas, it's a popular spot for everyone from surfers to families and the outside strip of stools lining the sidewalk is dog and kid friendly. During dinner it's packed and noisy, perfect for your brat kids and so casual you can come here straight from the beach. At lunch $2.50 gets you a huge slice of pepperoni, best deal in town.
Best chile relleno anywhere
Fidel's started as a barber shop that served tacos as a way to get more customers. As the tacos got more popular than their haircuts the restaurant expanded into their house, creating a hodge podge of dining areas with tables tucked away here and there. The food remains the star, authentic and flavorful, and the setting on their courtyard patio will make you forget about Old Town forever. Fantastic chile relleno, excellent carnitas, and a solid house margarita that will knock you out!
Charming old school cantina
Hey look, it's Bing Crosby and Desi Arnez drinking in the bar! Wait, that was just a flashback to a time in the 40's and 50's when Tony's was the secret place for Hollywood stars to dine before heading off the the Del Mar racetrack. Tony's hasn't changed a bit since then, a charming restaurant that looks like you've crossed the border. Crazy tasty turkey tacos along with many dishes you'll never see in Old Town. Wonderful patio feels like you're eating in someone's backyard.
Find the Best Good Eats in Cardiff
$4 tacos with a million dollar view
Surfer buddies take an old concession stand in the San Elijo Campgrounds and turn it into a taco shop where diners sit at weather worn picnic tables that face the ocean. Is this fantastic or what?! Bull Taco has expanded to more traditional locations but I still love the original and declare it the best cheap eats ocean view dining in San Diego. It's a bit weird to go into the campgrounds to dine but those who venture in will not be disappointed.
Right on the beach!
High end yet casual, the Pacific Coast Grill sits right on the sand and serves up locally sourced ingredients on their mainly seafood menu. The two story restaurant offers ocean views from nearly every seat with the upstairs patio having the best views of the surfers and occasional dolphins. Creative food, fantastic view, sushi and tacos, steaks and seafood, everything is good and the view never disappoints.
The Besta pizza in San Diego?
Goofy name, endearing 60's motif, dogs on the patio, Led Zepplin on the speakers, and - what? Sauerkraut on the pizza? You must be at Besta Wan Pizza, as in this is the besta one, the besta pizza in San Diego and a great local hangout. Pizza is thick with cheese and the vibe is beachy San Diego. Great salads, lots of beer choices, kid & dog friendly, loud retro music, and the best pizza you've had in a long time.
Best Restaurants in Encinitas
Best Grilled Fish Tacos
The long lines out to the sidewalk should tell you how much locals love Encinitas Fish Shop, a ultra casual eatery that only serves fresh fish and lets you pick the way you want it seasoned and the style you want it served. I like their spicy seasonings cooked in lemon butter and wrapped in a tortilla, $5. Add to this great homemade french fries that rank as some of my favorites and a cold local draft beer and you have a winning meal. Great salads and ceviche as well as fried shrimp and fish and chips, it's worth the wait for San Diego's best grilled fish tacos.
Loud, lively, fun
I love the vibe at Union Kitchen and Tap, especially on a warm summer day when they open up the giant windows in the front that face the sidewalk and old Highway 101. Woodies, hot rods, and Harleys all cruise by and people watching both inside and out is unsurpassed. The main restaurant is the open seating bar, a popular spot around Happy Hour when excellent flatbreads with toppings like prosciutto and fried eggs are only $10. Lots of draft beers as well and if all of their food isn't as successful the ambiance more than makes up for it.
It's in a gas station - seriously!
You can find great food in the unlikeliest of places, like the Valero gas station that shares its space with El Pueblo Mexican Restaurant. At first you might think it's weird but the long lines of locals waiting for the $.99 fried fish tacos can't all be wrong. And while the fish tacos aren't as good as my favorites at The Brigantine they're very close and a quarter of the price. Other authentic Mexican food as well, don't think of this as a gas station with tacos but rather a taco shop where you can also get gas and a car wash. Take it to the beach!
Wine bar and bistro
Half wine store, half restaurant, The Third Corner caters to the wine crowd, the demographic that appreciates a good vintage as well as good food. Shop the store and if you find a bottle you like the corkage is only $5 and the wine is retail priced. Of course you don't have to know anything about wine to enjoy it and can get wines by the glass as well as beer and craft cocktails. Unpretentious food like an excellent burger, mussels with fries, pastas and seafood, all nicely prepared and reasonably priced. Sunday nights get a 3 course dinner for $25.
Urban Solace goes coastal
The sister restaurant to popular chef driven Urban Solace in Hillcrest, Solace is tucked away behind the Whole Foods. Their food philosophy is to create modern American standards using natural ingredients and avoiding the mass produced and artificially flavored junk that shows up even in the finest restaurants. The result is food that is never boring and always fresh, beautifully presented, it's comfort food for foodies. Sit upstairs in the Moonlight lounge for the ocean view in a rustic industrial setting, live music on the Sundays.
European bistro on 101
This cozy little restaurant has been bustling since it opened years ago, an authentic trattoria serving up classic Italian dishes in a casual bistro setting. Tables are tight and the atmosphere is lively as waiters stream out of the kitchen with aromatic plates of pasta, seafood and meats. Crispy calamari is the way to start but after that you're on your own as everything here is delicious, including the house salad dressing which is so popular you can buy a pint to go. Sit outside on the skinny patio and watch the scenery on old Highway 101.
Funky Leucadia's Best Places to Eat
Classy Italian Dining
With a wood burning pizza oven and live piano music most evenings, Vigilucci's is a classy place to enjoy classic Italian dishes. Extensive menu with house-made pastas and plenty of meat and seafood options, all authentic. Happy Hour (M-Th, 4-7) with $5 wine and beer as well as food you actually want at a price that looks like a happy misprint.
Sunday's Farmers Market
I've searched for the perfect french fry for years, only to find it right here at Leucadia's Farmers Market housed at an elementary school on Sundays, 10-2. It's worth the side trip to get these fries, kennebec potatoes double fried until crispy golden on the outside while fluffy smooth inside. Owner Serge quit his corporate job and went to Belgium to study how its done and returned with the winning recipe. Awesome waffles, too.
Hipster West Coast Seafood
It's easy to miss this hole in the wall eatery, a husband and wife project to bring sustainable and responsible seafood to North County. You order at the bar, find a place at a communal table or out back on the covered patio, and dine on fish tacos or poke bowls knowing it's top notch quality. Skip the fried here, go grilled to enjoy the fresh ingredients.
Delightfully tacky Mexican eatery
Up the street a bit is popular Casa de Bandini, a lovely setting with fountains and festivities and some of the worst Mexican food in San Diego. Those who love real Mexican food know to come to La Especial Norte, a place where the dining room is so colorful it hurts the eyes but with giant plates of food and cheap prices that keep the locals coming back. Lots of seafood options as well as combo plates.
Local wine and tapas
San Diego isn't famous for its wines but urban wineries like Soltera are changing that. With a beautiful rustic dining and bar area and giant windows that roll up to let in the ocean breeze, Soltera is the perfect spot for a lazy afternoon of sipping wine and snacking on tasty tapas such as seared octopus or artichoke flatbreads. Wonderful ambiance.
Danger Will Robinson!
Call me old fashioned but a real taco shop should have an element of danger to it, if not the neighborhood then at least the health rating. Juanita's Taco Shop certainly looks dangerous with bars on the windows and surfer decals plastered on the sign but know that this is the place to get carnitas. And while there have been some late night scuffles it's actually not that dangerous and well worth it for their epic burritos.
Carlsbad's Best Places to Eat
Fancy ocean view steakhouse
Yes, the same Vigilucci's that makes the great pasta and seafood is your pick then you can't do much better. Awesome prime steaks as well, this is a deluxe restaurant, fancy and expensive, but the food and location across the street from the Pacific can't be beat.
Before Legoland breakfast
You'll need your strength if you're spending the day at Legoland so stop in at Tip Top Meats, a butcher shop on one side and a restaurant on the other, and get the Big John Breakfast with all you can eat meat for a near Grand Slam price. Top quality, you can also get a steak and a beer at dinner for $12, a steal!
Casual ocean view seafood
It's not fancy, it's served on paper plates and seating on the patio is tight, but look, there's the ocean and wow, that fish taco is huge! Fried is best, whether it's the shrimp or the fish. Fresh fish and sunset times on the chalkboard in front and grassy area if kids are cranky (not yours).
After Legoland refreshment
While nowhere near as cool as their original Sorrento Valley location if you're going crazy after a day at Legoland AND JUST NEED A BEER GODDAMMIT then know you can get lots of beer here as well as more than decent food. Surprisingly inventive menu for a brewery and the beers are equally outstanding.
Sustainable foodie focused eatery
Sustainable seafood is a big deal, especially when you realize just how fast we're dipping our fish into wasabi soy sauce. Thankfully Land & Sea is focused on serving foodie worthy sustainable French-Cali- Japanese cuisine in a vintage restored historic building. Top notch!
Fun Mexican Ambiance
Norte used to be Fidels, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, but a divorce severed the two and though their menus look alike, Norte comes up slightly short. But in reality few restaurants match Fidels and Norte still does a great job preparing quality Mexican food in a fun and lively vacation perfect setting.