San Diego may be best known for tacos and beer, but it’s got culinary cred when it comes to upscale dining as well. From urban-cool New American to classic waterfront dining, San Diego’s best restaurants offer cosmopolitan flair without losing their laid-back San Diego charm.
The Best San Diego Restaurants
Here’s a guide to where to start your upscale dining adventures. These standout San Diego restaurants offer everything from reimagined Japanese to formal French, all inspired by the region’s local bounty.
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Herb & Wood
Herb & Wood, in Little Italy, is easily one of the best restaurants in San Diego. It occupies a loft-like space with bold art, plush blue booths, and a positive vibe. The farm-to-table fare here is New American with vegetarian options, and entrees are surprising in a good way—think pizza topped with bone marrow and escargot; braised beef belly with calypso beans; or oxtail gnocchi. With a hip crowd, on-it service, and craft cocktails (try the gin and lavender), dining here makes for an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
Juniper & Ivy
Juniper & Ivy, in Little Italy, is San Diego’s current “it” restaurant. The self-described “left coast cookery” presents an adventurous daily menu of creative small plates and signature cocktails. On any given day, chef Richard Blais might decide to whip up a mushroom-and-cheese madeleine with spiced date puree, or carne cruda asada with quail egg, or mushroom orecchiette. Dessert might be devil’s cake with hazelnut brittle and hot chocolate. Whatever you order, you can’t go wrong—reserve a counter seat to watch the cooks concoct these masterpieces, then sit back to enjoy professional service and on-trend decor, which includes bright-colored art and exposed wooden beams.
Born and Raised
Michelin-starred chef Jason McLeod’s Born and Raised, in Little Italy is a fine-dining steakhouse which opened to much fanfare in 2017. Service here is excellent, and decor is retro-elegant with a hipster edge—there’s rich woodwork throughout, brown leather, green marble, dim lighting, and unconventional art. The open-air second floor has two fireplaces and a bar lounge. The menu is thoroughly American—start with one of the imaginative appetizers. Entree options include steak done in every style imaginable—tartare, ribeye, New York, Tomahawk, Wagyu, even vegan, and a few are even prepared tableside. There’s a solid wine and spirits list, plus fancy desserts—try the chocolate verrine.
George’s California Modern
In La Jolla, George’s at the Cove is a standard among San Diego restaurants. Occupying its lower level is George’s California Modern and its helpful staff. Fantastic for special occasions, this is ocean-view dining at its finest, with a spotlight on creative coastal cuisine. The dining room is contemporary with comfortable purple banquettes, and the food comes out beautifully; plating is an art form here. Start with fish tacos or a kale-maitake mushroom lasagna, then move on to Baja striped bass, smoked Jidori chicken, or a roasted Niman Ranch pork loin. Finish things off with the fluffy, fancy strawberry cream dessert. Or just trust celebrated chef Trey Foshee for a four-course tasting menu with wine pairings.
The Marine Room
Since 1941, La Jolla’s aptly named Marine Room has been delighting San Diego diners with its fancy food and unbeatable view—during high tide, waves splash the windows, and during sunset, the ambiance is beyond fabulous. It’s a classic special occasion place with elegant decor, old-fashioned service, and an extensive wine list. Chef Bernard Guillas’ large menu features dishes made from seasonal local ingredients; specialties include sesame-coated ahi, pistachio fennel pollen spiced swordfish, Amarone braised lamb osso buco, and tangerine ginger-lacquered organic tofu.
Addison at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar impresses first with its elegant European chateau-style decor, next with its highly attentive service, and finally with Relais & Châteaux grand chef William Bradley’s French resort-style cuisine made from local ingredients. His innovative tasting menus make for a decadent experience and change often, but could feature Kumamoto oysters, mussels a la nage, mascarpone agnolotti, coddled farm egg, or coffee-roasted canard; dessert might be a lavender panna cotta with rhubarb. Addison’s wine cellar is truly impressive, guaranteeing spot-on pairings.
At the Lodge at Torrey Pines, clifftop A.R. Valentien is old-world refined in a rustic, quiet dining room with attentive service and a lovely view over the Torrey Pines golf course. Chef Jeff Jackson creates his fine-dining dishes with locally sourced ingredients—his menu of California specialties includes appetizers like scallop mousse and fresh fettuccine, while the tasting menu might include creamy Jerusalem artichoke soup, a grilled Wagyu steak, and pistachio and rosewater cake. Brunch and lunch are just as lovely—sit on the outside deck to enjoy the warm La Jolla breeze.
Cowboy Star Restaurant and Butcher Shop
Many San Diego restaurants purport to serve great steak—Cowboy Star, in the East Village near the Gaslamp Quarter, truly does. This dining room manages to be simultaneously rustic and elegant—wood, leather, and bricks feature heavily, though banquettes are cushy, tablecloths are white, and the food really is the star. Sit at the chef’s counter for fun banter with the cooking crew and a front-row view into the sleek exhibition kitchen. Besides the variety of steaks, there are wonderful side dishes, great cocktails, and a long list of fine wines.
Lionfish is a bustling seafood house with a fun ambiance and a great happy hour. Decor melds contemporary comfort with rustic woodwork, and there’s seating upstairs, downstairs, and outside. It’s in the boutique Pendry hotel, embodying urban chic near the Gaslamp Quarter. Start with one of the many surf-and-turf appetizers, then continue onto the spicy octopus, duck confit, cider-braised mussels, or the maple-sriracha pork belly BLT—they’re all brought out by wonderfully attentive servers. Chef Jose “JoJo” Ruiz’s take on coastal cuisine is creative and modern.
Cloak & Petal
Cloak & Petal is one of the most gorgeous San Diego restaurants, with some of the city’s sexiest food. On Little Italy’s popular India Street, cherry blossoms preside over C&P’s well-stocked bar. In the dramatic dining room, it’s all about hip decor and fancy Japanese cuisine, much of it in the form of shareable small plates that come beautifully composed. Try the spicy tuna baguette, salmon tostada, yuzu kosho Jidori wings, A5 Wagyu ribeye, glazed duck breast, and the excellent toro sashimi. Cocktails are Japanese too, from the martini-like Nick and Nori to the Japanah, made with sansho peppers, spice-infused gin, violets, and more.
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—Original reporting by Avital Andrews. Follow her on Twitter @avitalb.
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