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San Diego’s Best Restaurants 2023: Editors’ Picks

Our editors at Ranch & Coast share their curated selections for where to dine in the city and beyond

Image Credits Cookie Guru: Courtesy of Cookie Guru, All other photography by Vincent Knakal

As Southern California’s first Michelin three-star restaurant, Addison has earned deserved distinction as the pinnacle of the region’s unique gastronomy. Chef William Bradley’s attention to every minute detail of his nine-course tasting menu is as much a refined culinary exploration as it is fine art. Creations like his Spring Asparagus, Pistachios, Caviar, Stinging Nettles pictured here and Kanpachi Sashimi, Preserved Pears, Pichuberry-Ponzu on our cover are the embodiment of the phrase “a visual feast” for their exceptional beauty. 

Like art, what we love about food is immensely individual and irrefutably personal. Which leads to this: Can the word “best” really be objective? According to our editors, what captures hearts and satisfies stomachs is far more than simply a matter of taste. 

Tried and True Favorites

Deanna Murphy, Managing Editor

My husband and I are neither adventurous eaters nor food snobs. Whether we’re having a casual night out or celebrating a big milestone, we look for places that we’ve found consistently deliver fabulous food with excellent service in a great setting. This can also make us pretty predictable, not just with where we go but often down to what we order, but we always leave happy. And really, shouldn’t that always be the goal?

Buona Forchetta first stole my heart when I learned of Matteo, the Buona Forchetta family of restaurants’ South Park establishment that donates 100 percent of its profits to child- and family-focused local charities. Then, Buona Forchetta’s delicious pizzas became a highlight when pandemic lockdowns turned take-out into a true act of grace. Now, date night is almost always assumed to be there, where an attentive waitstaff always gives us proficient service without hovering, the beer and wine list never disappoints, and the cioppino is always top-notch to the very last spoonful.

Few things are as wholly satisfying as sitting on The Pony Room’s patio, sipping a craft cocktail and sharing small plates as the sunset glows orange behind the trees at the AAA Five Diamond, Forbes Five-Star Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa. Here’s a place where the tacos, in my opinion, are a clear winner, but the menu covers a lot of ground from land to sea, so there’s something for everyone. The casual-chic atmosphere makes it as perfect for date night as a ladies’ night out or a birthday dinner, and it’s just as beautiful for an alfresco lunch. 

The Pony Room
The Pony Room

There are more perks to living where we live than we probably have ink for, but I believe a notable one is the abundance and variety of fresh foods available, and no small part of that is, naturally, seafood. The first time I set foot in Fish 101’s Leucadia location, all it took was one look at the giant board listing the day’s catch for me to get why people line up out the door and down the sidewalk at this casual neighborhood spot. Just one plate of fish tacos or fish n’ chips and I guarantee you will feel like you’ve joined a club of really smart people who know exactly where to go for the freshest, most delicious fish. Note: Yes, it is worth the line.

Downtown is awash with excellent dining options in any number of culinary categories, but Herb & Wood feels like the establishment, even after just seven years. Yes, it has the celebrity chef/restaurateur element in Brian Malarkey, but it’s not fame alone that keeps people coming back. Visually stunning interiors, a menu that delicately toes the line between creative and classic, and a healthy dose of hipster cool have rightly earned Herb & Wood its prime place in the hearts of many seeking a true dining experience, not just dinner out.

A Taste of Italy in La Jolla Shores

Elizabeth Hansen, Travel Editor

Avenida de la Playa is only a few blocks long, but it’s the heart of a tight-knit beachfront community that lies between the village of La Jolla and UC San Diego. It’s easy to find kayak rentals and beach gear along this thoroughfare, but I find myself returning time and again due to a love of the beach and the pursuit of good food — especially Italian food. 

Piatti opened in 1987 and almost immediately won over local diners with their pasta, which is made fresh daily, and pizza from their stone-hearth oven. Some folks like to dine inside where they can watch the process in the open kitchen, but the leafy patio is also very popular. I’m a big fan of the ravioli filled with spinach, basil, and ricotta and served with a lemon cream sauce, but I have friends who wait all year for the butternut squash ravioli that is only offered seasonally. Recently, San Diego’s Spaces as Places program closed part of Avenida de La Playa and provided more outdoor seating for Piatti and other nearby restaurants. Without traffic, this long block has become the heart of the neighborhood, where kids roller blade and neighbors stop to talk. Piatti was the first Italian, but not the last.

Avenida de la Playa
Avenida de la Playa

In 1999, Barbara Beltaire opened Barbarella on the other side of Avenida de la Playa. The host’s free spirit was soon made apparent when she installed large, colorful balloon decorations from her roof to celebrate holidays. While Piatti describes its vibe as “casual elegant,” Barbarella has always been “fun.” In 2018, Beltaire sold the eatery to artist Jean Hamerslag and her family, but most things remain unchanged. The seasonal decorations are still there, but tamer, and fettuccine Bolognese and Margherita pizza are two of the most popular menu items. The mosaic tile around the pizza oven is the work of artist Niki de Saint Phalle, a friend of Beltaire.

If authentic ambience is what matters, head to the third Italian restaurant to take a place on Avenida de la Playa. Osteria Romantica was opened by Fabio Speziali and Antonio Mastellone in 2004, and Speziali, who grew up in the Lake Como region of Northern Italy, likes to personally welcome guests. My grandparents immigrated from Italy, so I’m accustomed to meals accompanied by Pavarotti and animated conversation, but the patio provides a quieter option for those who want it. The menu offers tradition Italian dishes, which are served in generous portions. The lasagna is my favorite.

Special Occasion Dining

Andrea Naversen, Editor-at-Large

To me, special occasion or “fine dining” isn’t about pristine white tablecloths, white-gloved servers, and maître d’s in starched white shirts. This isn’t Downton Abbey, after all. Fine dining, to me, is about wonderful food — all kinds of food — ambience, and attentive rather than solicitous service. Not the “I’m Steven and I’ll be your server tonight,” but something more personal and genuine, welcoming rather than stiff or stuffy. Real. During the pandemic, my husband, extended family, and friends appreciated picnics on the beach, alfresco lunches, and casual dinners. But now I’m eager to get out and sample all that San Diego has offer on the culinary scene. 

Tops on my list for special occasions is Addison, not only the sole Michelin three-star in Southern California, but one of just six in California and only 14 in the United States. Dining here, with picturesque views of the surrounding hillsides at the ultra-luxe Fairmont Grand Del Mar, is a vacation in itself.

Over the decades, I have had many lovely lunches and dinners at Rancho Santa Fe’s Mille Fleurs, where longtime owner Bertrand Hug and his lovely wife, Denise, are local royalty. The food and service are first rate. On weekend nights, Randy Beecher is still tickling the ivories in the piano lounge as locals and visitors alike sing along. The Ranch’s own “piano man” just marked 30 years at Mille Fleurs.

Mille Fleurs
Mille Fleurs

I love Vaga at Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas because of its coastal setting, striking dining room, friendly but professional service, and especially, delicious, inventive cuisine. My husband and I attended the unveiling of Vaga’s seasonal menu in March which focused on the element of fire. Think: roasted, toasted, and smoke-infused. Curated by Chef Claudette Zepeda, Chef Ananda Bareno, and their talented team, the five-course dinner began with a smoky specialty cocktail and ended with a decadent dessert that included toasting marshmallows right at our table. I can’t wait to taste what Chef Zepeda and team do next! (Click here for details about Vaga’s earth-inspired menu in June.)

I’m also a huge fan of Valle, a relative newcomer on the culinary scene, located in the Mission Pacific Hotel in Oceanside. Recognized in the Michelin Guide, Valle is led by Executive Chef Roberto Alcocer, who hails from Mexico’s famed Valle de Guadalupe wine region where he owns the acclaimed Malva Cocina de Roberto Alcocer. Valle features a fresh, seasonal prix-fixe four-course dinner and an eight-course tasting menu paired with the Valle’s best wines. I especially enjoy the “Chef’s Table,” a more intimate experience with Chef Alcocer and staff offered on Friday and Saturday evenings. This chef also has a giving heart, having launched “12 Chefs Before Christmas,” inviting guest chefs to prepare six-course dinners over two nights to benefit the Autism Society of San Diego and an orphanage in Valle de Guadalupe.

Encinitas Mainstays

Bob Stefanko, Publisher

Living within walking distance to Moonlight Beach and Swami’s has its perks, but it’s the walk two blocks east to Coast Highway 101 that excites this food enthusiast. Having been in the neighborhood for more than a decade, I’ve watched the exciting ways that dining in downtown Encinitas has evolved. Today, it’s hands-down the best it’s ever been.

A personal favorite even since before it was just paces from my front door is Encinitas Café, which has been serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a homey diner setting for decades. The food is consistent and my buddy and Ranch & Coast contributing editor Bill Abrams and I routinely meet there for breakfast. We go as much for the meal as for the company of the friendly and loyal staff.

The most exciting addition to the scene as of late for me is GP Diner, which took over the prime spot on the corner of E Street and 101 where Angelo’s was previously. Helmed by the team behind Buona Forchetta, the west side serves up delicious diner classics (toasts, benedicts, omelettes, you name it) expertly executed by Chef Hanis Cavin, while the east side offers Roman-style pizza, puffy baked goods, gelato, and other enticing grab-and-go options.

GP Diner
GP Diner

Also newer to the neighborhood is Temaki, Chef JoJo Ruiz’s SoCal-inspired sushi bar. In a vibrant environment, hand rolls, sashimi, and cut rolls including the playfully named Super Ninja Bunny are plated, complemented by a well-curated sake list. A perfect fit in eco-conscious Encinitas, Ruiz was named a James Beard Smart Catch Leader for his efforts to maintain healthy, sustainable seafood sources.

Brew-centric Culinary Standouts

Brandon Hernández, Food & Beverage Editor

When I’m not evaluating the finer points of restaurants for Ranch & Coast’s monthly dining reviews, I tap into taprooms as an expert on the local brewing industry via my outlet, San Diego Beer News. These kitchen-enhanced brewery venues get my vote, where food, service, and ambience rank every bit as high as ales and lagers. 

In 2020, a veteran Pizza Port brewer teamed with beer buds to open Craft Coast Beer & Tacos in Oceanside, the county’s first-ever brewpub celebrating San Diego’s standout suds and Mexican food. It’s been a hit since day one behind a menu of tacos and mulitas (cheese-encrusted fold-over quesadillas) stuffed with succulent slow-cooked birria and al pastor, and nachos piled high with carne asada and all the fixings. Those decadent delights are best washed down with an ever-changing variety of highly hopped IPAs, plus award-winning north-of-the-border takes on clara and negra Mexican-style lagers.

When the minds behind Whisknladle Hospitality got into the brewing game in 2019 with Sorrento Mesa’s Gravity Heights, they lured AleSmith Brewing’s OG brewmaster out of retirement to craft food-friendly American, English, and German ales and lagers that would pair with a menu of elevated pub-grub faves. Kung pao wings, meatballs with burrata, and furikake-topped snow crab fries give way to wood-fired flatbreads (including an agave-based take on hot-honey pies) and burgers, like the “Demi More,” which is dressed with roasted garlic cream and a beefy demi-glace-based steak sauce.

Unexpected treasures await at Abnormal Beer Co., The Cork & Craft’s inauspicious Rancho Bernardo business park façade. Not only has the eatery been putting out chef-driven, technically precise dishes based around the seasons’ bounty for nearly a decade, it also houses an on-site brewery producing all manner of beer, from traditional (blonde, IPA) to out-there (pie-inspired sours and stouts). Cut the richness of a curry brown butter accompanying a Scottish salmon entrée with the bitterness of the house pale ale, or pair a coffee-infused mocha stout with slow-braised short rib in a peanut-butter mole.

Abnormal Beer Co.
Abnormal Beer Co.

Earlier this year, North Park Beer Company, one of San Diego’s most award-winning breweries, ventured outside its namesake community, installing its first-ever satellite location at the base of the Secoya by the Park building in Bankers Hill. A few months in, the new spot’s earning as much praise for its rotation of ales and lagers as an assortment of epic smash burgers and Kennebec fries slathered with rich beer cheese fondue made with NPBC’s world-class Hop-Fu! IPA. Fans are also high on a weekend brunch pairing beer-brined chicken “tendies” with Belgian waffles and gravy-smothered biscuits.

Community Champions

Mia Park, Editor-in-Chief

It’s certainly no secret that I love putting on a festive party for a great cause, and it’s also no secret that it takes the collaborative efforts of so many — including cherished culinary partners — to make an event shine. So, while some might say we eat with our eyes, I say eat from the heart and support those who give back to organizations making a difference for others in San Diego.

Those who participated in our recent Pickleball with a Purpose event to benefit GenerateHope likely went home with a gorgeous tasty treat from Cookie Guru, a San Diego-based bespoke sugar cookie company specializing in logo cookies and custom creations to match any type of event or celebration. Up next, Cookie Guru and sister company The Lunch Guru will also provide branded cookies and charcuterie boards for VIP ticket holders at the Switchfoot Bro-Am Benefit Party on June 17.

Cookie Guru
Cookie Guru

Dining at Dolce in Rancho Santa Fe is always a treat (the salmon is always perfect and the booths ever-inviting), but away from the restaurant, the team routinely steps up and supports charitable events with on-site tasting activations. On June 10, Dolce will be among more than a dozen restaurants serving signatures dishes to benefit Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Spring Fling Gala.

Spring Fling will also feature the culinary creations of Beeside Balcony, another charitably-minded restaurant who joined Ranch & Coast at Pickleball with a Purpose. With locations in Del Mar and La Jolla, menu highlights include the popular Bee’s Board, loaded with artisan salami, hummus, caramelized shallots, olives, homegrown honey, and other delectable bites. What’s more, ten percent of profits from every Bee’s Board that was sold during the entire month of May will support San Diego foster youth through local nonprofit Promises2Kids’ Foodies 4 Foster Kids campaign.


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