7 San Diego Dining Experiences You’ll Never Forget

Craig OuthierMay 1, 2023
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Wolfie’s Carousel Bar; Photo courtesy Wolfie’s
Wolfie’s Carousel Bar; Photo courtesy Wolfie’s

Craft beer isn’t the only thing they do well, as it turns out. 

Where summer travel is concerned, Phoenicians love San Diego above all other cities. We know this at PHOENIX because the Southern California beach city topped every readers’ poll we ever conducted when we asked the question – I’m paraphrasing here – “Where will you go this summer to GTF out of this heat?” 

Yes, San Diego’s eerily perfect weather is always a draw for us Greater Phoenicians. One would imagine its relatively close proximity to the Valley is also part of its local appeal – if Honolulu was 300 miles away, maybe that would be our favorite vacation city? – as well as its gangbusters craft beer scene. And who doesn’t enjoy a good romp at Legoland?

And the food? Well, that’s debatable – or at least it was for many years. The issue was never Baja-style fish tacos and first-rate greasy spoon Mexican fare; San Diego was always a goldmine for that stuff. It was more about perception. San Diego had culinary innovators, but they tended to toil in the shadows, out-hyped by their counterparts in Los Angeles and San Francisco. San Diego might have been a great food town, but people didn’t talk about it like it was a great food town. 

That’s changed over the past decade. Celebrity chefs like Brian Malarkey (Searsucker, Herringbone) and Richard Blais (Juniper & Ivy) are projecting San Diego’s culinary personality to the outside world, and – much like Phoenix – the city has started to develop contour as a dining destination, with both old classics and bold upstarts leading the charge

So, yes, after that roundabout justification: Food is one of the reasons we love San Diego. And here is an arsenal of unforgettable dining experiences to choose from on your next trip. 

Experience No. 1: A James Beard Crawl

Competing against Los Angeles and the Bay Area in the James Beard Foundation’s ultra-competitive California division, San Diego has managed to eke out a tidy list of recent Best Chef nominees in the organization’s annual awards program, often dubbed “the Oscars of dining.” Why not try three James Beard nominees in three nights? At Vietnamese fine dining gem Kingfisher (kingfishersd.com) near Balboa Park, 2023 semifinalist Jonathan Bautista drew raves for his dry-aged smoked duck and chanterelle-studded congee. (Note: Shortly before we went to publication, Bautista moved to The Fishery restaurant in Pacific Beach, but his menu remains at Kingfisher.) Follow it up with a visit to Juniper & Ivy (juniperandivy.com) in downtown’s Little Italy district, where 2022 semifinalist Anthony Wells bewitches diners with his halibut hand rolls and other modern American delights; and finish with a drive up the I-5 freeway to Market Del Mar (marketdelmar.com), where chef Carl Schroeder has amassed three James Beard nominations over the years on the strength of his forest mushroom ravioli and broccolini roast, crispy chicken schnitzel and seared local bluefin tuna. 

Experience No. 2: Michelin-Starred Majesty at Addison

California Cuisine heavyweight Addison at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar (addisondelmar.com) in Carmel Valley is not only San Diego’s lone Michelin-starred restaurant, it’s the only restaurant in all of Southern California to score a coveted and rare third star from the influential French dining guide. Revered for his chicken liver churro, caviar over koshihikari rice and other canny manipulations of Mexican, Asian and European styles, chef William Bradley offers a nine-course degustation Tuesday through Saturday evenings. 

Experience No. 3: The Mother of All Brunches at Provisional

We all have a brunch-lover or two in our lives. And for a person like that, I’m convinced there can be no greater act of human love than to treat them to the five-course brunch tasting menu at Provisional, the onsite brasserie at the Pendry San Diego (pendry.com/san-diego), a stylish and progressive high-rise hotel near the Gaslamp district. Because I’ve had it, and it’s ridiculous. (Make sure to get the optional wine pairing for enhanced ridiculousness.) Culled from the breakfast menu at the chef’s discretion, it might start with shakshuka, that soulful Maghrebi dish of poached eggs and tomatoes, here brightened with crisp nubs of asparagus and Italian sausage. The next course is cacio e pepe, soft scrambled eggs spooned atop toasted sourdough with unapologetic flurries of Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper. Paired with a crisp Pinot Grigio, it’s elemental and invigorating. Then comes a terrific crab cake Benedict in a tangy hollandaise – more tangy than usual and perfect with the crab, paired with a slightly buttery Sauvignon Blanc. And the whole gorgeously excessive experience might end with grilled ribeye in a stroganoff-like sauce with pesto aioli breakfast potatoes. And then you’re done. And the brunch-lover is you.

Brunch at Serea; Photo courtesy Serea
Brunch at Serea; Photo courtesy Serea
Experience No. 4: Have a Sea Change at Serea

Launched at the august Hotel del Coronado in 2019, Serea (sereasandiego.com) was conceived with but one humble ambition: to rewrite seafood history in San Diego. Staring down a platter of Blue Point, Kumamoto and big, briny Baja oysters on the restaurant’s boardwalk-like main patio, with a platoon of Mexican blue shrimp and two ample lobster tails hanging in reserve, I’m edging toward agreement. Named the top seafood restaurant in town by influential San Diego Magazine critic Troy Johnson in 2022, Serea – headed by chef Jojo Ruiz – creatively recites the strictures of audience-pleasing coastal dining with a pronounced Mediterranean accent, delivering fusion delights like smoked and seared tuna with Marcona almonds; red flame grapes and golden raisins in a white gazpacho; and roasted half-chicken over farro-like freekeh with exotic whispers of preserved lemon. Just as appetizing: the views of the ocean whence much of the menu came. Fitting to have the city’s best seafood restaurant in its best seaside hotel (see sidebar below).

Experience No. 5: San Diego’s Best New Restaurant

Speaking of dining critic Johnson… like our own critic, Nikki Buchanan, he anoints a Best New Restaurant of the Year as part of his annual dining coverage. In 2022, that restaurant was Matsu (eatatmatsu.com), a tasting-menu-driven fine dining restaurant in Oceanside from chef-owner William Eick. Each 10-course meal includes Japanese delicacies like poached cabbage in a vegetable dashi with caviar; and black cod with imo mochi curry; culminating in an A5 Wagyu filet seasoned with onion and horseradish. Most San Diegans haven’t even been there yet. You’ll be ahead of the culinary curve.

Cocktail at Wolfie’s Carousel Bar; Photo by Craig Outhier
Cocktail at Wolfie’s Carousel Bar; Photo by Craig Outhier
Experience No. 6: A Wild Ride at Wolfie’s Carousel Bar

Don’t worry: The 19th-century vintage carousel that gives this ridiculously disarming French restaurant its name rotates only a few times an hour. You won’t break an ankle or spill your Vieux Carré trying to board it, in other words. Originally built by German carousel master Charles “Wolfie” Looff, and repurposed by local designers Mauricio and Gillian Couturier, the rotating platform has traded in its white mares and black stallions for tufted pink-upholstery bar seating in Little Italy’s coolest and most joyful dining concept (wolfiescarousel.com). The restaurant’s florid molding and Louis XV-ish design flourishes are fascinating – as is the ticklish menu of French classics like coq au vin and French onion soup, so orthodox it’s almost exotic. Great for families, girlfriend groups, boyfriend groups, dour singles, overdressed couples, you name it – the place is pure universal charm, embodying the French spirit of venez comme vous êtes. Come as you are, kids.

the charcuterie at A.R. Valentien; Photo by Craig Outhier
the charcuterie at A.R. Valentien; Photo by Craig Outhier
Experience No. 7: The Timeless Magic of A.R. Valentien

Moving from a restaurant that feels borrowed from a Quentin Tarantino movie to one seemingly inspired by Merchant-Ivory, we find ourselves at A.R. Valentien. Embedded at The Lodge Torrey Pines (lodgetorreypines.com), a historical Craftsman hotel sequestered in the seaside enclave of La Jolla amid towering trees and lingering sheets of late morning fog, A.R. Valentien feels oddly and irresistibly removed from the San Diego hubbub. Lunching on the restaurant’s signature charcuterie plate trio (duck and pistachio terrine, potted short ribs and chicken liver pâté, served with an escabeche-like assortment of pickled vegetables and crispy toast), you’ll feel transported. The stately, library-like dining room, the hazy sunlight, the compact greenness of the grounds and old-school golf course – it’s like you’ve been whisked to St. Andrews or Edinburgh. Dinner is just as transportive, as feisty gusts of cold Pacific wind punch through the trees, and more complex dishes take over the menu: crispy skin sablefish with hen of the woods mushrooms and black garlic, and grilled Brandt Beef ribeye over a root vegetable boulangère, to name two. In a town of fish tacos, sometimes the white tablecloth is king.

Where to Stay: Shore House at the Del

Even after collecting a few culinary bucket-list experiences, the most memorable meal you have in San Diego might be the one you cook for yourself at this resort-within-a-resort at the Hotel Del Coronado (hoteldel.com, starting at $1,299/night). Unveiled last fall, Shore House collectively comprises 75 residential-style seaside spaces and bungalows, neatly packed around a show-stopping pool and outdoor lounge space. With up to three bedrooms each, the suites themselves are scandalously spacious, private and well-appointed, with kitchens that would put most single-family homes to shame. It’s like staying in a wealthy friend’s guesthouse at the beach – a friend that’s perfectly happy to leave you alone if you so desire. That being said, the lovely illusion of “home” settles over everything here, from the personalized chalkboard messages left by the housekeeping staff to the community buffet breakfasts in the Shore House’s study-like Bistro area. Like a summer camp for well-heeled families, there are activities galore, from chef’s table meals to to the Del’s nightly s’mores events on the beach, known as ROAST. There’s another culinary experience you won’t soon forget.

Photo courtesy Del Coronado
Photo courtesy Del Coronado