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 won'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. Going to Legoland? Great food is nearby!
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.
Best Places to Eat in Del Mar
Del Mar, where the Surf meets the Turf as they say, is home to the Del Mar Horse Race Track, fantastic beaches, and loads of great restaurants. Home to the best fish tacos in all of San Diego at the Brigantine Bar.
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.
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.
Top notch ingredients
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 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.
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 and get $4 tacos on Tuesday and plenty of options under $20 at the bar. Validated parking in underground garage, a big plus in busy Del Mar.
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.
Tucked away is a great brewery
It’s a bit off the beaten path, tucked away near the Del Mar race track with a view of the wetlands but certainly work seeking out. Viewport Brewing not only offers exceptional beers but a menu that actually matches the passion of the beer. Of course there are wings and fries but also more adventurous, and successful, plates such as pork belly tacos or crispy Spanish octopus. Great views, great beer, great food.
Pro Tip: On weekends park for free a block away at the Public Works office when they are closed.
Solana Beach's Best Restaurants
A little beach town that’s a worthy stop, set your GPS for Cedros’ Design District, a street of eclectic shops in buildings made up of old Quonset huts. There’s a brewery, an urban winery, lots of eats, and the beach is right down the street.
Best Carne Asada Tacos?
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.
Next to the Belly Up Tavern
If you like live music then you need to check out the Belly Up Tavern, a local bar that attracts everyone from 80’s acts to Jimmy Buffet. And if you go then you must make reservations at Blue Note Cafe because those having dinner there get into the side door of the open seating venue. Even if you are not here for a show Blue Note has great food, a perfect lunch stop if you’re shopping on Cedros or a for a casual dinner. Excellent burgers and tacos and killer fried calamari, possibly the best 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!
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 straight from the beach. At lunch get a huge slice of pepperoni for cheap, best deal in town.
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.
Unexpected great seafood
Family run seafood restaurant in a strip mall setting, this might not get your attention at first. But the locals all know that this place only serves fresh seafood and packs a lot of value into each plate. Sure, it’s not fancy and yes, the nets on the wall seem a bit cheesy but who can argue with their outstanding fish and chips, mesquite char grilled fish or baja style fish tacos or burritos? Fresh fish, not frozen, for under $20 for dinner? Paella? Kid’s menu? You need more prompting?
Find the Best Good Eats in Cardiff
Cardiff is an authentic surfer town - check out the Cardiff Kook statue on Highway 101, a often mocked and often dressed up monument to the surf culture. Created by a non-local, his Peter Pan on a surfboard stance gets a lot of attention from locals and visitors alike.
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.
Not exactly a restaurant but come here on any weekend and you’ll most likely be treated to live music and can grab some ribs or Cardiff Crack fresh off the BBQ. What? Crack? Yes, Cardiff Seaside Market is famous for their addicting tri-tip affectionately nicknamed Cardiff Crack by the locals. And it is delicious, ultra tender and so full of flavor you might swear it’s been marinating in pure MSG. Inside deli has plenty of other options as well.
Right on the beach!
With a full on ocean view and wind surfers putting on a show, The Chart House checks all the boxes for classic ocean view dining. Steaks, grilled seafood, figure $40 a plate but you can get the full ocean vibe for a fraction of the cost if you come during happy hour where you can feast on fish tacos and discounted wine and cocktails from 3 to 6, Monday through Friday. Brunch menu as well and a much more affordable lunch menu.
Surfer beach vibe Mexican
Take one part surf shack, one part Baja Mexico, and you’ve got La Olas, a cool little Mexican restaurant right across the street from the beach. Great margaritas - I love that you can still get a solid margarita there for less than $10. The fare is standard San Diego - fish tacos, enchiladas, combo plates. It’s all more than decent, I’m there at least twice a month. Excellent lunch specials with combo plates at less than ten bucks. Fun vibe, good times!
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.
Some of the best donuts in the world!
It’s somehow become trendy to go after fancy donut shops. VG’s is not that. This is a local institution, the place to grab a few donuts and a fresh coffee and go watch the surf on a Sunday morning sort of place. The cinnamon crumb donut has to be the most tasty donut ever made. It sells out so if you see them make sure you snag a few. Don’t let the long lines in the morning keep you away. I’m not kidding, these are the best!
Best Restaurants in Encinitas
Encinitas is a bit of a throwback, an authentic Southern California beach town with woodies, a surf culture, a cool little downtown and a killer beach. And yes, plenty of great food options.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Funky Leucadia's Best Places to Eat
Leucadia is actually part of Encinitas at the north end but it’s got its own personality. Keep Leucadia Funky is the town slogan, a hippie sort of town that was founded by mystical people who would dance in the park - wait, they still do that!
San Diego’s Best Italian Restaurant
If you’ve been to Italy you know how elusive authentic Italian food is. But now you don’t need to get on a plane to experience truly authentic Italian food surrounded by actual Italians speaking, well, Italian! Incredible pizzas cooked in an actual wood fired oven, pastas that stick to the actual recipes, I eat here every week and never get tired of it. Long lines, come at lunch or early dinner.
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. Two locations now, this original and one in Cardiff.
Juanita’s isn’t fancy but there’s a reason why locals all gather here and that’s for their incredible carnitas tacos and giant burritos - filled with tasty tender pork. This is what San Diego Mexican food is all about! Picnic tables in front, giant squirt bottles of salsa, a bucket of free hot carrots to munch on while you wait. Great California Burritos as well - you do know that a Cali Burrito is, right? If not, get one!
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.
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.
Carlsbad's Best Places to Eat Near Legoland
If you’re visiting Legoland I suggest you lay off the corn dogs and save your appetite for some excellent food nearby. Sure, there are the typical chains like PF Changs and King’s Fish House but forget that, let’s hit up local joints where the locals dine.
Upscale Camping Inspired Menu
Inspired interior and a camping theme with create craft cocktails and upscale wood fired menu items. This is the restaurant that changed the Carlsbad food scene from average to exciting. Family friendly but also a great hipster spot for lunch and dinner. Unlike anything you’ve ever cooked camping!
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).
Credible and Incredible French Bistro
Some restaurants go for a French Bistro theme but few actually achieve it like Juene et Jolie where you will be transported into Paris. Small plate food is delicious and inventive but can be pricey so pick this one for a romantic dinner for two. Owned by the same folks as Campfire, top Carlsbad pick.
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, this is one of Carlsbad’s best restaurants.
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.
Come for the food, hangout all day
It’s a bar! It’s a restaurant! It’s a park! What is this?? Well, Park 101 is a big open space with beer, ice cream, BBQ, a to-go market, a place to hang out, bring the kids and dog, and it’s perfect for when you’re tired of Legos and just need to relax. Great views upstairs, 32 beers on tap, and yes, the food equals the experience.
Family friendly fish restaurant
It’s in a shopping mall, but don’t let that deter you. Pelly’s Fish Market is know locally for it’s ultra high quality seafood, all it if fresh - sushi grade ahi, anyone? Stop in for fresh char-grilled fish sandwiches, excellent fish and chips, or shrimp, lobster or fish tacos. Kid friendly, outdoor seating, and prices that won’t kill the vaca vibe.
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!
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.