Local Wally's Top San Diego Restaurants
Good Eats! The San Diego Dining Cheat Sheet
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 a tour book and dammit if they don't list every single restaurant in town. Yelp!? Half the reviews are written by drunk 20-somethings. Your will is weakening and McDonalds is starting to sound good. Don't do it!
Instead, 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. If you are looking for the very best things to eat in San Diego, the essential restaurants and the locals favorites that don't hit the radar, start here.
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Who Makes San Diego's BEST Fish Tacos?
Where to Find the Best Fish Tacos in San Diego
San Diego didn't invent the fish taco but we can thank Ralph Rubio for it, a local guy who discovered this tasty treat while surfing in San Felipe. He opened the first Rubios in Mission Bay in '83, back when the idea of crispy fried fish wrapped in a tortilla and topped with a white sauce and cabbage sounded terrible - until the first bite. Today the fish taco is everywhere but locals agree that you must be selective if you want a real San Diego fish taco.
THE BRIGANTINE BAR
For the classic fried fish taco head to The Brig and go straight to the bar. $4 gets you a plump, piping hot piece of cod that's so big you barely can wrap the tortilla around it. Avoid the grilled fish here and stick with the deep fryer - trust me. The fish is plump and the batter as crispy as a potato chip. Tuesday nights are taco nights with big discounts and equally big crowds. Various locations but the Del Mar location is tops and worth the drive. (Casual and inexpensive)
SOUTH BEACH BAR & GRILLE
For fresh grilled tacos you won't beat South Beach Bar and Grille in Ocean Beach. Their fish tacos are filled with fresh wahoo, mahi albacore, even shark or lobster, all around $4 to $5. It's a dive joint in a beachy sort of way, bouncer in front (just in case fish taco fans get out of hand), and ocean views. Many believe these are the best in town, but you be the judge. Classic fried also available, but not nearly as good as the Brigantine. (Casual and inexpensive)
I was skeptical at first as the PB Fish Shop (and second location in Encinitas - map) almost looked too healthy to be a good fish taco but the long lines out the door convinced me to give them a try and I'm glad I did. The menu changes depending on what fish was caught but when there's sea bass I'm all over it. You pick the fish, pick the seasonings, and pick the style and then wait while your stomach growls until a most delicious fish taco shows up. They sadly got rid of their most awesome fresh cut fries and replaced them with factory frozen fries and no mattr how much I bug them they resist going back. Get the onion rings instead. (Casual and inexpensive)
RUBIOS COASTAL GRILL
Of course I could not forget Rubio's, the Godfather of the Fish Taco. It was Ralph Rubio who while visiting Ensenada ate his first fish taco and from that came a vision of fish tacos everywhere. And while today everyone seems to have a fish taco on their menu it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of fish - in a taco - would elicit “ewwwwws” and “no way, dude”. Today they have branched out beyond their fried fish tacos and if truth be known (tell me now) their original Baja fried taco ain’t the best, but their other fresh fish options are quite good. You come to San Diego, you have to eat at Rubio’s at least once to taste the original deal. (Casual and inexpensive)
Various locations, my favorite is the original Mission Bay (map) location which still feels like a taco shop.
BLUE WATER SEAFOOD MARKET AND GRILL
Fresh fish is what Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill is all about. Located on India Street near another San Diego favorite, El Indio Mexican Restaurant, this tiny eatery garners a lot of praise from locals and visitors alike. You pick from their list of fresh fish, you tell them what sort of marinade or spices you want on it, and you say TACO. You can also say sandwich or plate or (gasp) salad, but say TACO because at roughly $5 per taco this is the deal. Lots of other seafood choices as well but this is the fish taco section and we’re talking about the Best Fish Tacos in San Diego so let’s stick to the topic. Trust me, this is a great fish taco if you want to actually taste how fresh the fish actually is. BTW, if you are in Carlsbad there’s a restaurant called Blue Water Grill which has nothing to do with this place and just goes to show that picking a unique name, you know, like Local Wally, is probably the way to go. (Casual and inexpensive to moderate)
OSCARS MEXICAN SEAFOOD
The original Oscars Mexican Seafood is the one I go to. It’s one step away from being a dive bar sort of restaurant in Mexico. It feels authentic, it’s funky, it’s slightly not as clean as you would like (which is bonus points when talking authentic Mexican taco shop), and the tacos are awesomely great. The basic fish taco is under $2.50 and for five bucks you can get smoked fish, shrimp and scallops - all in the same taco. That mash up is the bomb, I love it. Hot sauce in squirt bottles, marginal service, this is where you come after you are done with the beach and han-gry for local food. Forget the cleaned up spin off locations in Hillcrest, East Village (downtown) and the now closed Encinitas location if you care about an authentic ambiance to go with your local beer and fish tacos. (Casual and inexpensive)
I am proud of you if you seek out El Zarape. It’s everything a San Diego taco shop should be. It’s neighborhood focused, the service is can be uneven, it’s tiny with only a handful of tables, and it’s cheap. How cheap? How about $.99 fish taco cheap? The lobster tacos at $3.99 can be a bit chinzy so splurge on the burrito for $6.50 and die happy. This is the place to go if you are in the mid-city area east of Balboa Park and it’s not quite midnight and you really, really want tacos. Locals only sort of joint, you go there as a visitor and you are legit. (Casual and inexpensive)
TUNA DOCKSIDE MARKET
Tuna Dockside Market is a hidden gem - a pop up fish market on the pier between Seaport Village and the USS Midway, more or less, is a fishing pier where the local fishermen bring in their catch every Saturday morning from 8AM to 1PM. Everything here is fresh, there’s no fake prop fish or fresh frozen fish here. If you are on vacation it’s fun to see what the local waters have provided (and if you’re a local you would be wise to bring a cooler) and there’s always a stand there serving up ultra fresh fish tacos, typically two for $13. This is 100% local territory so it should be at the top of your list if you want to really experience San Diego like the locals do. (Casual and inexpensive for the quality you are getting)
What San Diego Restaurants Have BEST Ocean or Bay View?
San Diego's Best Ocean View Restaurants
San Diego has plenty of Ocean View dining options but you need to be careful or you might find yourself in a tourist trap where the view is the only good thing on the menu. Here are the best, from top notch dining to taco casual.
GEORGE'S AT THE COVE - OCEAN TERRACE
When people ask me for one restaurant to dine at I always recommend George's Ocean Terrace. Not to be confused with their much more expensive downstairs restaurant, the Ocean Terrace is a more casual eatery on the rooftop overlooking one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world. The food isn't the star here but comes close, simple and well executed. Tip: It can get really hot on the roof during summer so opt for a table in the shade and bring sunglasses. (Nicer casual and moderately priced)
THE MARINE ROOM
What's not to love about a restaurant that is so close to the ocean that the waves sometimes splash on the windows? Located in La Jolla, The Marine Room is the ultimate special occasion restaurant, meaning top notch food at top notch prices. Opened in 1941, The Marine Room has consistently been one of San Diego's favorite restaurants, pleasing locals, celebrities and visitors alike. It's expensive but the bar makes a great sunset stop for those on a tighter budget. Pay special attention when they do their High Tide dinners and brunches during the time of year when the waves knock the windows at full force. (Fancy and expensive)
POSEIDON DEL MAR
Literally right on the beach, the Poseidon Del Mar serves classic American standards with a ridiculously great view. How good is the view? Well, you step over the little cement wall on the patio and you are on the beach. I mean, literally on the beach so that view doesn’t get much better unless you grab a towel and sit in front of the wall. It's a great breakfast or lunch spot, casual enough for shorts and flip flops, with plenty of locals enjoying the scene. At night it gets a bit more romantic - plan to be here to watch the sunset and experience the simple joy of watching the sun sink into the ocean as you sip your glass of wine. Pure vacation bliss! (Nicer casual and moderately expensive)
DUKE’S LA JOLLA
Let me first say that I love Duke’s. And Jake’s. And Kimo’s. And Hula Grill. But while the food is actually quite good it’s still a bit of a chain restaurant in my book. But if you are on vacation and want a bit of that Hawaiian tropical vibe, if you really like the song Kokomo, is you have poke on the mind, and if you want a full on ocean view and don’t care that the restaurant looks a bit like they ran out of money when decorating and ran out to Ikea to finish it up, you can do do a lot worse on a warm summer night out on the patio with Hawaiian music drifting in the breeze. (Nicer casual and moderately expensive)
At first Bali Hai might seem a bit kitschy, a tiki bar theme with Hawaiian overtones near the airport in one of the most touristy areas of town, Shelter Island (which in case you have not caught on is not an actual island no matter but an actual peninsula). But the full on view of San Diego Bay from the bar and restaurant is stunningly perfect and the mai tai’s, oh damn those mai tai’s! These are the strongest mai tai’s known to man, said to be the “original” recipe before someone figured out that a drink made of 99% alcohol is much more expensive to make than a drink filled with tropical juices. Oh sure, it tastes like a mai tai but there’s a reason why they limit you to two… or is it three? It won’t matter because no one gets past two without falling flat on their fact and missing the gorgeous view. Often with live and legit Hawaiian music at Happy Hour, get a Mr. Bali Hai tiki mug for your next garage sale (but check out the incredible high prices they get on Ebay first). (Nicer casual and moderately expensive in the restaurant, inexpensive happy hour)
San Diego's Freshest Seafood Restaurants
San Diego's Best Seafood Restaurants
I don't care if you claim you don't like fish because you are not leaving the table until you take at least one bite of San Diego's freshest seafood. I mean it...1...2...3 OMG, I want more! From expensive to casual, raw to deep fried, San Diego's seafood scene is going to be hard to beat. We don't do frozen, we don't do fish sticks, in San Diego it's all about fresh.
THE FISH MARKET
Yes, it's a chain but the location on the San Diego Bay next to Seaport Village and next to the giant Midway Aircraft Carrier is so classic San Diego that even the locals go here. Fresh fresh fish simply prepared, stick with the basics and avoid the fried and you will be happy. Watch the sailboats and feel the cool breeze from the patio, one of the best spots to kick back with a seafood snack and a cocktail. (Casual and moderately expensive)
POINT LOMA SEAFOODS
Ultra casual and super popular with locals, Point Loma Seafoods is the type of place where you stand in line to order and then you'd better know what you want because there are a billion people behind you wishing you would hurry up so they can get their order in and start eating. The standouts here are the sandwiches and the crab sandwich doesn't get much simpler, or much better, basically crab on sourdough bread and oh so delicious. Dine on a picnic table or take it "to go" and walk 50 steps to the marina and you might have found your favorite seafood dining experience. (Casual and inexpensive for seafood)
IRONSIDE FISH AND OYSTERBAR
Located in Little Italy, Ironside Fish and Oysterbar doesn’t serve Italian food but rather some of San Diego’s best seafood. The entire front of the restaurant is open to the street and the seafood, from the oysters to the whole roasted fish, is fresh and delicious. It's also got a very cool vibe going on, young and trendy in a mid-century sort of way. Get the lobster roll! (Casual and moderately priced for seafood)
LIONFISH MODERN COASTAL CUISINE
This place is fancy, young, trendy with the plates nearly as beautiful as the people. Lionfish Modern Coastal Cuisine is located in the Gaslamp area inside an ultra cool upscale hotel. Lionfish does everything from sashimi to small plates to share to full on instagram worthy entrees. Awesome happy hour with dollar oysters and drink specials, but if you stay for dinner it’s best not to fight for the check if someone else wants to get it (“Sure fine, I’ll get next time!”). If you’re here for a convention and roaming downtown looking for really great seafood then this is it. (Dress nice, expensive)
I like fancy joints, sure, but seafood shouldn’t always have to be stupid expensive to be good. And don’t worry, Beerfish isn’t some frozen delight sort of place, the seafood here is legit and fresh and ultra tasty. Seating is casual, very casual. Order at the counter, grab a beer, find a picnic table seat on the patio, wait, drool, wait, then when that lobster roll shows up or those chowder fries topped with clam chowder and bacon, well this is living, baby. Local craft beer, Mexican corn with cheese smothered all around, kimchi side, this is eclectic for sure but all of it is tasty tasty tasty. (Casual and inexpensive for seafood)
This is the place that’s off the charts, not found in tour books, loved by locals. Mitch’s Seafood is a hole in the wall near the airport going towards Shelter Island serving seafood caught in the waters of San Diego. On a perfect day you’ll want to grab your food and go outside on the dock to get the full San Diego experience. They have everything from the best clam chowder to fish tacos made with whatever they caught that day to fried seafood baskets - and everything else you would expect other than frozen fish. (Casual and inexpensive for seafood)
Holy Guacamole! San Diego's Best Mexican Food
San Diego's Best "Authentic" Mexican Food
Forget those chain Mexican restaurants like El Torito, Chevy's, or (gasp) Taco Bell. San Diego has great Mexican food if you know where to look for it. And here's a tip - it's not always in Old town. I won't send you to a touristy spot unless the food is decent and if some of the places look sketchy then you're on the right track to finding awesomely bueno Mexican food, San Diego style!
Let's start with a San Diego favorite, Las Quatro Milpas. If mariachi bands and colorful umbrellas is what you are looking for you've come to the wrong place because this dive joint is all about the food. People line up early at this breakfast and lunch only restaurant. The menu looks confusing but is surprisingly simple - rice and beans (yes), fresh tortillas (yes), and your entree of either rolled tacos, regular tacos, tamales, or burritos (yes, yes, yes). It's a bit like Soup Nazi when you get to the front so be ready to order. A true "locals only" favorite, the sketchy neighborhood and rundown appearance might scare you at first but get in line and you'll be glad you did. (Casual, bring cash!)
A bit less intimidating is El Indio Taco Shop, a "stand in line and order" place that's been a San Diego institution since 1940. Every local remembers coming here with Mom and Dad as a kid and sitting on the "patio" that's oddly in the middle of an intersection. These guys invented the taquito, also known as the rolled taco, and their tamale topped with chili beans is classic Mex-Diego. Located near the airport, it's often the first stop locals make after coming home from a long trip. (Casual, inexpensive)
You'll find plenty of taco shops around San Diego but if you see a Roberto's then head inside and order a California Burrito, a giant burrito stuffed with carne asada (steak), guacamole, and french fries. It's essential San Diego dining and though it sounds weird it's amazingly tasty. Those looking for a few less calories should get the carne asada fries, basically the same thing without the fattening tortilla (yes, I am sort of joking). There are plenty of "....berto" knock offs like Alibertos, Hilibertos, Wallybertos (maybe), and while Roberto's is the best, the rest are nearly as good. (Casual, inexpensive)
Located up the hill from Old Town in the Kensington neighborhood is Ponce's, a fun local restaurant that serves up amazing Mexican food in a tongue-in-cheek setting with old record albums and creepy paintings decorating the walls. There's barely a tourist in site and the portions are so huge that you will need to be rolled back to your car. It's hard to believe that just a few minutes down the road are tourists lining up at tourist trap restaurants while you get to dine on epic Mexican with in-the-know locals. (Casual, moderate)
You might not want to drive to San Diego's North County just for Mexican food but maybe you should. Fidel's Little Mexico is in Solana Beach, just north of Del Mar, in a mainly Hispanic neighborhood. You have to love a restaurant that started in 1960 as a barber shop, using tacos as bait to get more customers. The restaurant expanded into more rooms and even hallways to ultimately encompass three levels and if you can get a table on the outside front patio you might never leave. Terrific margaritas and the chile relleno (a chili stuffed with cheese with a fluffy deep fried exterior) is possibly the best you will ever have. (Casual, moderate)
Don't shoot me! I know that Old Town Mexican Cafe is touristy, and I know there's a long wait but I'm a sucker for the fresh tortillas that they make in the front window and the tender chunks of pork carnitas. It's a tourist restaurant for sure but one that locals don't mind being seen at, unlike many of the pure gringo restaurants in Old Town. Upgrade that margarita (on the rocks, never frozen, with salt on the rim) and ask for their hotter salsa (it's blow your head off hot!) and look, here come the mariachi's! Seriously, get the carnitas and leave happy and full. (Casual, moderate)
Best NEW restaurants in San Diego Where Locals Eat
Get Away From the Tourists And Dine Local
Every tourist guide can tell you about that restaurant on the ocean or the one that everybody goes to. That's fine, but sometimes you want to get away from the tourists and dine with the locals. Expect farm to table, creative execution, and a food experience that should make your inner foodie happy.
Did I miss your favorite? Email me and I'll come by to check it out and maybe add it to the next update.
The fast food exterior in a not-so-glamorous section of town might scare you off if not for all the rave reviews from locals who patiently wait in line on the sidewalk to order before heading back to the modern dining area in the rear. Pork-centric and Farm-to-Table, Carnitas Snack Shack might not look like much but the food packs a wallop. Try the Triple Threat Pork Sandwich featuring a fried pork schnitzel topped with pulled pork and bacon, a delicious bite that hits on all cylinders. Local craft beer, great fries, and a favorite hangout for locals. Now with a second location in Del Mar.
Hey, isn't that the guy from Top Chef? That's right, Juniper + Ivy is owned by the winner of Bravo TV's Top Chef, none other than Richard Blais. If you've seen him on TV you know that Richard is the molecular gastronomical guy - you know, the guy who likes to deconstruct and transform ingredients into new forms. Just saying because if you see things like Corn Dog or Mac N Cheese on the menu you should know upfront that the food they bring out might not exactly match your experience from the past. Great bar, lively atmosphere, and can get expensive with the small plates though the off-menu burger and fries is reasonably priced. Modern, woodsy, industrial setting, one of San Diego's most popular eateries, often ranked as best restaurant in San Diego.
San Diego has never seen anything like this - a giant dining hall done up in a modern mid-century design where food is prepared at various "interactive" stations. Come in and browse the market, check out the food being prepared at each station, and join the fun at the lively bar and lounge area. No, this is not a buffet and no, this is not food court. Think of it as a New York transplant, a dining experience that's more than just eating. Sit at one of the culinary bars in front of the chefs for the best experience, or go with a table if you must.
A true neighborhood restaurant that's attracting quite a crowd for its upscale mash-up of California and French cuisine with a local organic and sustainable sensibility. With an elegantly rustic interior featuring exposed brick in a farmhouse setting, the Smoking Goat feels authentic and welcoming. One bite of the duck fat truffle fries and you know you've come to the right place. Elegant food in a relaxed setting at reasonable prices, the Smoking Goat in North Park is worth the short drive to taste for yourself what all the locals are raving about. It's my new favorite restaurant!
You're in San Diego where the sunshine is non-stop so what better place for dining than on a patio? That's the premise of The Patio, a duo of restaurants that let you soak in the sun while dining on fresh eclectic San Diego fare. Lots of natural wood and extra comfy chairs, there's even a 70's inspired plant wall that proves that time travel is real. Of course it's still all about the food and The Patio delivers whether on small plates to sample or big portions like the perfectly cooked rib eye steak. Breakfast, brunch, lunch, happy hour and dinner, The Patio in Pacific Beach and its second location in Mission Hills is the perfect laid back dining experience that embodies San Diego.
With a bit of attitude from the 'hood, Neighborhood tries to set the record straight for what a urban gastropub should be with local craft beers and inspired bar food that makes hipsters and foodies happy. Nothing too fancy here but the "no ketchup" policy tells you that they take their food as seriously as they do their beer list.