Restaurants in the San Diego area remain devoted to traditional California coastal cuisine. Even some of the high-end restaurants feature Baja tacos, and nearly all offer ahi tuna poke and variations on lobster. Here are five restaurants we recommend, from an impressive Michelin-starred hotel establishment to a veritable dive.
We didn’t book a room at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar, but we did find an evening to visit its celebrated Addison, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in the area. We’d heard positive things about the 249-room hotel, too, so before dinner, we stopped to explore the grounds and get a cocktail. The sprawling Mediterranean-style property sits on almost 400 acres of coastal canyonland 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The long, winding drive, bordered by tall, wind-swept eucalyptus trees and Tuscan-style gardens, sets the scene. Due to dining restrictions at the time, its 8,000-square-foot Aria Lawn, usually reserved for weddings, had been repurposed as the outdoor Fireside Lounge. The lush green was surrounded with private cabanas, and we had our choice of tables, which had fire pits at the center. On a pavilion at the far side of the lawn, a singer-songwriter played his guitar. We had time for only one drink, but the service was positively doting: Along with menus, staff brought us heavy blankets to stay warm and seemed genuinely disappointed we couldn’t stay longer.
From there, we drove to Addison, about half a mile away. Seated at a lovely corner table on the rooftop terrace, we were presented with a comprehensive 13-page wine list but initially couldn’t pass up the strawberry Negroni special. Prior to arrival, we’d ordered the five-course dinner rather than the 10-course, and by the end we were happy we had. The first presentation alone consisted of five plates: a pillow-shaped puff pastry with stinging nettle, topped with garden greens; iced Kumamoto oysters dressed with gooseberry and ponzu; a sashimi cube of in an escabeche marinade; crunchy squid ink “toast” with finger lime and salmon roe; and a mini-rosemary rösti with Iberian ham and sherry. And that was just the “prelude.” One- and two-bite dishes appeared and disappeared just as quickly. These ranged from Chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard) with sea scallops and caramelized cod, to a mid-dinner sourdough bread course, among others. Finally, it was time for the main event: barbecued squab served with a squab liver mousse. Alas, the rich mousse was, for me, a bridge too far, especially with five desserts on the horizon. Overall, our dinner was exceptional, and service was attentive and informative without any pretension whatsoever. Dinner only; closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations required.
5200 Grand Del Mar Way, San Diego. Tel. (858) 314-1900
On our last day in the San Diego area, we decided to have an impromptu lunch at The Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla. We stopped at the hotel for three reasons: to see how this member-favorite was faring, to take in the stunning Arts and Crafts architecture and décor and to get a map for our hike of the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve next door. The concierge, Denise, knew we weren’t guests but was kind enough to not only supply us with a map and water but also get us last-minute lunch reservations at the grill a couple hours later. After taking the hike she recommended, we returned for lunch and casually toured the lobby to appreciate its fine woodwork, Craftsman furnishings and enormous Greene and Greene-inspired light fixtures. It would have been easy to believe that the hotel was built 100 years before it actually was, in 2002. For lunch, we were seated on the outdoor patio overlooking the celebrated golf course (which hosted the U.S. Open in June). There, we enjoyed a simple but juicy “Drugstore Hamburger,” topped with mayonnaise and pickles, and a tender rotisserie chicken sandwich. As we crunched on addictive homemade potato chips, we soaked in the beautiful sunny Southern California day, watching golfers tee off and parasailors swing lazily from the sky in the distance. Reservations required.
The Grill at Torrey Pines
11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Tel. (858) 453-4420
Richard Blais’ signature restaurant is located in downtown San Diego and has reimagined its outdoor dining space to enable guests to dine under the stars — and the planes landing nearby. Unaccustomed to the noise of jet engines, it was obvious to all that we were out-of-towners who couldn’t concentrate on our server without looking skyward. Thankfully, our dinner was distractingly delicious. Using ingredients from local farmers and fishermen, chef Anthony Wells frequently changes the menu based on what’s fresh at the market. On the evening we dined, it included English pea hummus, made bright with pistachio, olive oil and green-garlic honey; a half-dozen oysters; and seafood corndogs, looking just as one would expect, except with a black squid-ink batter and a green zigzag squeeze of avocado tartar sauce standing in for the yellow mustard. The three shell-on spot prawns I ordered as an entrée were sliced in half and set atop rich chorizo risotto with Parmesan and blistered cherry tomatoes. Dinner only. Reservations required.
Juniper & Ivy
2228 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego. Tel. (619) 269-9036
Pacific Coast Grill is immensely popular, as evidenced by the ever-bustling valets, and for good reason: The two-story restaurant sits directly on the beach in Cardiff and has expansive views from inside and out. We got there after sunset, but the scenery from our terrace table was still a delight. The pounding waves were lit from above, making the white caps visible even after the sun had gone down. The menu leans toward seafood, presented in a range of styles: There is Mediterranean (seafood paella and pasta), Mexican (lobster tacos), Japanese (sushi and sashimi), Chinese (Kung Pao shrimp). And for meat lovers, there’s Hawaiian (baby back ribs) and standard American fare (cowboy steak and fries). We ordered a Botanist gin and soda and a rye Manhattan. Our food arrived almost too quickly. They hadn’t skimped on the seafood in the lobster-and-crab guacamole, and the fresh avocado, with jalapeños, red onions and cilantro, was just salty and spicy enough. The ahi poke “tower” was replete with Dungeness crab, avocado, spicy mayo and crispy wonton chips. The cool April evening seemed to call for soup, and I quite enjoyed the flavorful lobster-and-shrimp chowder with applewood-smoked bacon. Reservations recommended.
Pacific Coast Grill
2526 South Coast Highway 101, Cardiff. Tel. (760) 479-0721
The Wrench & Rodent is the type of place where the chefs are heavily tattooed and strive to make their dishes “epic.” If you can get past the name and the hole-in-the-wall environs, you’ll find incredibly fresh, creative food. At first, we were put off by the lack of anyone to greet us. We stood outside with two other couples simply waiting to be recognized, but once the hostess finally showed up, service improved and was friendly throughout our meal. While the eatery offers an incredibly affordable six- or nine-course omakase ($45 and $65, respectively), we opted for individual starters and entrées. The grilled cauliflower was dripping with delicious honey-serrano fish sauce, and “Wings of the Sea” were made to look like giant fried chicken wings but were actually hamachi (yellowtail) collar. My Del Mar No. 2, a shrimp tempura and imitation crab roll, was, at eight large pieces, quite filling. And my spouse’s Power Bowl was almost too big for its plate. On top of white rice, it was bursting with color from five types of sashimi, carrots, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries. Dinner only; closed Monday and Tuesday. Reservations recommended.
Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub
1815 South Coast Highway, Oceanside. Tel. (760) 271-0531