In a watershed year that’s easily presented the restaurant industry with its greatest challenges ever, the public stepped in when their beloved dining destinations needed them most. As restaurants adapted to meet guidelines and ensure safety for employees and patrons, diners masked up, took it to-go in record numbers, and ate al fresco in parking lots. For many establishments that were able to withstand all that the pandemic brought, the bond between a restaurant and its devoted patronage was a key component.
Touching all corners of San Diego, with names you know by heart as well as newcomers that are destined to join them in short order, the 2021 list of Best Restaurants celebrates the survivors, thrivers, and the brave debuts that shape San Diego’s culinary identity. For the full list for Best Restaurants 2021 Readers’ Choice, click here.
Best New: Ember & Rye
Richard Blais, chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, podcast host, television personality (he was the first winner of Top Chef: All-Stars and is a recurring judge), has a lot on his plate these days. Blais just opened Ember & Rye, an inventive steak and seafood restaurant which replaced Argyle at the Park Hyatt Aviara Golf Club, the final “course” in the resort’s $50 million renovation. Blais likes to say “It’s not your parents’ clubhouse” because the space is stylish and modern, and the menu, while elevating classic dishes, also has a bit of fun with food. In the lively bar just off the entrance, a leaderboard lists not top golfers but such bite-sized snacks as Hot Scotch Egg, Pork Belly Char Siu, Japanese Wagyu Pinchos, Lobster Knuckle Sandwich, and Caviar & Pancake. But not all the offerings are as high end. One of the early favorites is the dry-aged burger and killer triple cooked fries with kimchi ketchup. “We source the best ingredients, whether it’s a burger and fries or a tomahawk steak,” says Blais. “We’re going to give it all we’ve got.”
Most of the main courses are sizzled on the mesquite wood-fired outdoor grill overlooking the green on the 18th hole, including the massive 30-ounce beef ribeye dubbed “Thor’s Hammer Cut” (for obvious reasons) and the “Neptune’s Cut” swordfish. Blais, who named the restaurant after his daughters, Embry and Riley, did extensive R&D during the pandemic on his own backyard grill (a Big Green Egg), where he experimented with different cuts of meat and fish as well as techniques. Even some of the cocktails catch fire. The “Smoking Ember” is a concoction of roasted agave, mezcal, grapefruit, lemon, and lime encased in a citrus smoke bubble.
Ember & Rye is a far cry from the McDonald’s on Long Island where Blais got his first job. “I was a poissonnier chef at McDonald’s, which means ‘fish cooker’ in French,” he jokes. “It was a very prestigious position at a hamburger restaurant which only serves one seafood item.” In other words, he made fish sandwiches. On his first day on the job, Blais inadvertently served them “open-face” when he forgot the top of the buns. But he learned some important lessons about organization and procedures.
It was an inauspicious beginning for the chef, who later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and trained in such prestigious kitchens as The French Laundry, Daniel, Chez Panisse, and El Bulli. Recently, The French Laundry’s renowned chef Thomas Keller gave Blais a shoutout on Keller’s Instagram page when Ember & Rye opened. “It meant a lot to see that,” says Blais. “We are always standing on the shoulders of other chefs, whether it’s Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, or Wolfgang Puck.”
A native New Yorker, Blais opened a restaurant in Atlanta before heading to San Diego, where he launched Juniper & Ivy with owner Michael Rosen. He later partnered with Rosen and executive chef Jon Sloan on The Crack Shack, casual chicken-and-egg eateries with locations in Downtown San Diego, Encinitas, and Las Vegas, and more in the works (Blais is now involved as an investor). He and wife Jazmin, who has a background in restaurant management, own Trail Blais, a culinary consulting company that designs and operates restaurants and advises national brands on menus, employee training, and more. The author of two cookbooks, he just signed a deal for two more books, one of which he will co-author with his wife. The couple also teams up on a podcast called Starving for Attention and Richard is a solo judge on Food Court.
Most recently, he was a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef: Portland, which began airing in April. The show’s 18th season was shot in Oregon last fall over a two-month period, not only during the pandemic but while smoke from wildfires was sweeping the area. “It was amazing being able to do that. The whole season of Top Chef was like a challenge: filming during a global pandemic in a city that’s literally on fire,” he recalls. “It was also special to hang out with colleagues and friends in a bubble.” The cast and crew, all on lockdown, were tested every other day for COVID-19, he says, and no one tested positive.
What’s next for this energetic chef? “I want to just keep creating things, whether that’s restaurants, restaurant concepts, television shows, cookbooks,” he says. “I’m still very much in a ‘pinch me’ moment with my career, and just excited for every challenge. Can you do a restaurant on a golf course, on a boat with a goat? I’m up for every challenge that comes in front of us.”
When he’s not in the kitchen, Blais likes to run — he’s competed in six New York City Marathons over the years — and play golf. A self-described golf fanatic, he is known to hit a few balls on his breaks. And while golfing, he’s also foraging. After hitting a ball into thick greenery along the course, he discovered radish, fennel, brassica, nasturtium, and sorrel growing wild, especially along the 15th hole. “It was like slicing into a salad bowl,” he says with a chuckle. “I didn’t find my golf ball, but lots of things for the restaurant.” 760.603.6908, parkhyattaviara.com Andrea Naversen
Best Food & Beverage Partnership: Vaga at Alila Marea
While the new Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas is headline-making all on its own, special attention is being paid to the luxury property’s restaurant, Vaga, thanks to its executive chef, locally beloved San Diego-Tijuana native Claudette Zepeda, and her hand-chosen staff. The cocktail program is run by Alex Gregg, who is originally from Texas and used to teach classes and seminars to local bar staff.
“Vaga, for ‘vagabond,’ was a nickname my grandmother gave me as a child and was the inspiration for how I approached the menu at the restaurant,” says Zepeda. “As a traveler, I love exploring and meeting new people, and throughout my career have had the opportunity to cook all over the world,” she says. Her philosophy lives not just through the menu, but is carried by her staff, as well.
“For me, Claudette’s cuisine is the star of the show, and the beverage program is the supporting cast,” says Gregg, who says he designs Vaga’s cocktails with Zepeda’s vagabond ethos in mind, while also taking a technical approach to evaluate which drinks would pair best with certain dishes.
“Sometimes I design a drink inspired by a particular dish, like with the ‘Convoy,’ which was inspired by Claudette’s Brisket Bao Buns,” Gregg says. “When I tasted the dish, my mind went to Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa, where I’ve explored many different Asian cuisines and scarfed down countless bao buns. I started with a lighter style Japanese whisky and added Chinese five spice, lemongrass, and seltzer to create a unique take on the popular Japanese Highball,” he explains.
Gregg says that each drink on the menu has “at least one culinary tie-in,” like the harissa component in the “Ponto Punch,” which is made with pineapple rum, agua de jamaica, harissa, fresh citrus, and finished with a blackstrap rum float.
Gregg’s general inspiration for the cocktail program is the immediate surrounding environment, he says. “I seek to create a sense of terroir in our cocktails by tying them to this specific, very special place,” he says.
“For example, take the ‘Sea Bluffe,’ which is our take on the classic gin martini inspired by the ocean out front and the lagoon behind us. Using Hendrick’s Lunar Gin, we substitute the traditional dry vermouth with a bone-dry fino sherry that adds a touch of salinity and a ton of minerality,” Gregg explains. “Finally, when we stir the martini, we do so with a piece of nori [Japanese seaweed], which adds a subtle aroma evocative of the sea. The finished product is something classic and familiar, yet distinctly of this place.” 760.452.3484, vagarestaurant.com Jackie Bryant
Champion of Local Seafood: Tommy Gomes
Tommy Gomes hails from a long line of Portuguese tuna fishermen, the first of whom settled in San Diego in 1892. Known as “Tommy the Fishmonger,” he is an outspoken champion of local seafood, responsible fishing practices, and using every part of the fish.
After nearly three decades on the sea, Gomes retired from commercial fishing and joined Catalina Offshore Products as a fish cutter. Over the next 16 years, he evolved into the role of fishmonger, established the seafood supplier’s retail fish market, and founded Collaboration Kitchen, a nonprofit dinner series focused on seafood education. He also played a key role in a grant-funded initiative aimed at increasing the value of San Diego’s local fisheries. His pioneering approach to opah, specifically, helped grow consumer demand for several edible parts of the fish that historically were discarded.
After going solo in 2019, Gomes landed the title role on The Fishmonger, an eight-episode docuseries on the Outdoor Channel that provides a thought-provoking look into the challenges local fishermen face today. “In a nutshell, the American commercial fishermen are getting hammered with regulations and closures, while we still import seafood that is unreported catch,” says Gomes. The show connects the audience with the fishing community and encourages them to buy local.
Gomes is currently working to revive Collaboration Kitchen and open his own fish market and mini maritime museum. “It’s going to be an old school fish market, kind of like what they have in Europe,” he says. tommythefishmonger.com Mia Park
Produce Perfection: Tom Chino
Menus near and far proudly call out that their produce is sourced from Rancho Santa Fe’s Chino Farm, whose legacy dates back to the time after WWII when Junzo Chino and his wife, Hatsuyo Noda, purchased 56 acres of prime land in the San Dieguito River Valley. There they raised their nine children and established Chino Farm, which today is run by their son Tom Chino alongside his siblings Frank, Fred, and Kay. Revered for its sweet corn, strawberries, and tomatoes, the farm, with its corresponding Vegetable Shop that is open to the public, also grows hundreds of varieties of other vegetables and fruits each year.
Chef and restaurateur Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse was the first renowned chef to recognize and publicize the high quality of Chino Farm produce in the late 1970s, and others, including her friend Wolfgang Puck, quickly followed.
In addition to its contributions to the American culinary scene, Chino Farm has also retained its connection with Japan. The family has hosted more than 1,000 Japanese trainees who have come to work in the fields and greenhouses, and to study the Chinos’ ideas, techniques, and guiding principles, which include respect for tradition balanced with innovation, deep dedication to the land, and a passionate commitment to good food. 858.756.3184, chinofamilyfarm.com Mia Park
Artisanal Bakery Masters: Prager Brothers Artisan Breads
When we first met Clinton and Louie Prager, the brothers behind Prager Brothers Artisan Breads, in 2017, their then four-year-old Carlsbad bakery was already welcoming daily throngs of devoted customers in pursuit of the fresh, handcrafted breads the Pragers are known for. “It definitely came as a surprise at first, but now we continually feel so loved by all the customers that walk in — old and new,” says Clinton. “Many of them come in and say they heard of us by word of mouth through a family member, friend, or co-worker, which is always a huge compliment, knowing that our bread and pastries are a point of conversation! It really creates a sense of community around the bakery that we are very grateful for.” Those breads and pastries on offer daily can number more than 60 varieties, translating to thousands of items coming out of the bakery’s ovens.
Now, the original Carlsbad location isn’t the only Prager outpost available; two additional retail locations in Encinitas and in Hillcrest mean it’s that much easier to get your hands on these masterfully made goods, including their most popular sourdough as well as other varieties made from fresh, stone-milled flours. Though lines continue to grow in direct correlation to the bakery’s popularity, don’t despair. Clinton concedes that they regularly see a constant line on weekends, but he also reassures that their “counter service, grab-n-go systems help move the line quickly and get everyone all their yummy breads and pastries in good time.” pragerbrothers.com Deanna Murphy