Though burgeoning and, in many ways, cutting edge in its own right, San Diego is still in the early stages of its emergence as a culinary region of note. Each forward advance has been forged by a talented chef bringing something new to the scene. A noble collection of standouts has established a culinary identity for the neighborhoods in which they hang their toques, putting their communities on the culinary map. From longtime stalwarts who earned big-name status for themselves and their ’hoods years ago, to youngsters and against-the-grainers looking to replicate that feat in areas heretofore absent from local dining scene discussions, we celebrate chefs bringing flair and flavor to every corner of our county.
Even when chefs’ identities were, as they have historically been, largely unknown, local lovers of gourmet cuisine knew the name Bernard Guillas. The forever-young Frenchman’s penchant for globe-trotting and celebrating ingredients plucked from his worldly travels has consistently made for new and unique fare that knows no boundaries over his past 18 years spent at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club helming the venerable Marine Room. Throw in a similarly food- and travel-obsessed chef de cuisine, Ron Oliver, and the addition of gifted colleagues like Amy DiBiase at sister restaurant The Shores, and Guillas’ future seems as endless as the sun-kissed seascape abutting his dining room.
A few ticks north, The Lodge at Torrey Pines has been known as much for its fine farm-to-table fare as its craftsman architecture and reputation as a top-flight golfing destination thanks to Jeff Jackson. A devotee to the ways of Slow Food and Escoffier, he played a significant early role in rallying local chefs to work together to push the dining scene forward, and inspired a bevy of chefs under his tutelage who’ve gone on to shape eateries such as Tender Greens, The Fishery, and Ritual Tavern. Among Jackson for best hotel eatery is William Bradley. Addison, his majestic white linen enclave at The Grand Del Mar, is a destination for locals and tourists seeking the most refined dishes San Diego has to offer.
A duo who made early waves with coastal stand-alone spots is Carl Schroeder and Jeffrey Strauss. Schroeder is a James Beard nominee who is consistently named as one of, if not the best, chef in San Diego behind food celebrating farm-fresh edibles at Del Mar’s Market Restaurant + Bar (and its offshoot, Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant). Strauss has kept Solana Beach in the equation for the past 16 years via eclectic fare at his Del Mar track-adjacent Pamplemousse Grille.
Further inland there’s the metro sect, which is headed by Matt Gordon. Shortly after Urban Solace — his homey homage to all things warm, flavorful, and comforting — debuted on 30th Street, it became the poster child for the North Park restaurant landscape, which has gone on to become one of the most vibrant in the county. Around the same time Gordon hit the scene, so too did Olivier Bioteau in neighboring University Heights. The growth of that community has been slower, but Bioteau’s Farm House Cafe showed others that good food done well can draw diners from far and wide. It’s a theorem that’s been proven twice by Hanis Cavin, whose dishes at Kensington Cafe lured foodies to its namesake neighborhood just as his all-swine-all-the-time menu inspires porky pilgrimages to his new spot, Carintas’ Snack Shack. And far before it was a center of coolness, the East Village got a shot in the arm and an infusion of French, both classic and chic, courtesy of cuisine from Katie Grebow at Cafe Chloe, which continues to hold its own and come in a cut above the area’s rapidly growing list of eateries.
Taking It To The Next Level
Few chefs have left such an indelible mark on San Diego’s dining scene as Deborah Scott. She became well known long ago for gems like Kemo Sabe and Island Prime, but also brought culinary relevance to areas like Shelter Island, Oceanside, and Balboa Park with Cohn Restaurant Group outlets Island Prime, 333 Pacific, and The Prado. Now, she’s taking on another project — Escondido — with Vintana. Perched atop the Lexus Centre, it’s out-of-the-way yet heavily patronized and proof of the power of a chef and bill of fare that are of equally high quality.
Another chef and restaurateur bringing new life to less expected locales is Brian Malarkey. Sure, he started his rapidly expanding empire with eateries in the Gaslamp and Del Mar Highlands, but he followed those with a restaurant in La Mesa. As strange and daring as it seems, Gingham has been a success behind affordable, beefy fare from former Prepkitchen Del Mar chef Ryan Studebaker. Up north, Wade Hageman is building his own family of name-making restaurants, becoming Encinitas’ number one purveyor of simple food done well behind wood-fired pies at Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria and inventive versions of the trend du jour — gastropub comfort food — at his recently opened Craftsman New American Tavern.
Deservingly the biggest name in Baja’s culinary renaissance, the skill and heritage-driven pride of internationally acclaimed chef Javier Plascencia is on display at Bonita’s Romesco Baja-Med Bistro, where no passport is required to enjoy refined takes on dishes from a region quickly becoming the darling of epicures everywhere. Similar Mexican-tinged upscale fusion is on display in South Park courtesy of Alchemy executive chef Ricardo Heredia, whose farm-to-table takes on global street food are as good as any haute plate in the county. Common cuisine given new life by imagination and the local bounty is bringing diners and critical focus to version 2.0 of Jeff Rossman’s Terra in College East.
From small inner-city neighborhoods to getaway bergs on the county’s outskirts, industrious chefs are providing the impetus for San Diegans to venture to less-visited communities. The following are the gastronomes we’ve pegged as the best bets for establishing a top-rate dining reputation for their respective regions.
Marc Liautard, Rancho Bernardo
Before the arrival of The Barrel Room and Urge Gastropub (16765, 16761 Bernardo Center Drive), Rancho Bernardo had little to turn to other than the ever-changing El Bizcocho and Bernard’O’s for something above chains and strip mall storefronts. Locals are falling hard for the fine wine- and craft beer-centric restaurants Liautard commands, glomming on to current, affordable everyman food that’s there to stay.
Jeremy Manley, Julian Area
In the culinary world, the term wunderkind is typically reserved for youngsters in high profile communities. Of late, it’s being used to describe this culinary commando, who has been cooking since age ten, catering since 13, and operating a small but notable Wynola eatery for several years. Located a few miles from the core of Appleville USA, Jeremy’s On The Hill (4354 Highway 78) is winning over area denizens and vacationers with food going far beyond BBQ and pie a la mode.
George Morris, Bird Rock
Beaumont’s Eatery (5662 La Jolla Boulevard) has been popular among Bird Rockers for some time, but pesky roundabouts and a tucked away location have kept them a bit of a best-kept secret. An extensive trio of menus from this well-traveled CIA Hyde Park graduate draws influences from culinary cultures the world over, plus a completely revamped (and equally robust) cocktail list, make this comfy spot worth the trip.
Colin Murray, Mission Hills
For years, Murray toiled in sous chef obscurity behind big name execs like Victor Jimenez and Tyler Thrasher. When the latter exited stage right from rookie hotspot Brooklyn Girl (4033 Goldfinch Street) this summer, its bevy of regulars soon discovered who’d been running the show all along. Murray’s finally getting the foodie following he’s long deserved behind sound technique, solid seasoning, and whole animal cookery — and he’s just getting started.
Matt Richman, Pacific Beach
There’s more to PB than pint nights and taco Tuesdays. It’s a mantra that’s been chanted by many eateries touting themselves as a cut-above the community’s have-keg-will-party bar-and-resto scene to little avail. Richman is the newest, and perhaps the most qualified, to chant it. A San Diego native, he’s looking to bring cred to the coast via a menu of smart Mediterranean-influenced offerings at Table 926 (926 Turquoise St).
Jacob Rodriguez, Marina District
Having recently inherited the kitchen at The Lion’s Share (629 Kettner Boulevard), one of the hottest restaurants to hit San Diego in the past year (and maybe the best to ever hit this mostly-residential part of town), this veteran of Cafe Chloe and North Park’s El Take It Easy is putting his own spin on game-inspired upscale bar fare. The hunt is over for tasteful takes on bison, wild boar, rabbit, and previously hard-to-wrangle proteins.
Chad White, Golden Hill
Few San Diego chefs are deemed “too innovative,” but outside-the-box dishes built on wild sea fare such as swordfish bone marrow and sea urchin were too much for Point Lomans when he helmed Brian Malarkey’s Gabardine. White’s since found a friendly port at offbeat neighborhood foodie social hub Counterpoint (830 25th Street), where such inventiveness is embraced and White’s fandom is fast reaching a fever pitch. BRANDON HERNANDEZ
Photography by Vincent Knakal