Ten ways to upgrade your food-fuelled stay in San Diego
We take you on a gourmet tour of San Diego, California’s southernmost city, from posh plates of pasta to utterly authentic tacos
1. Get breakfast dim sum at Morning Glory
You’ll know you’ve found of-the-moment breakfast joint Morning Glory long before you step into its wood-panelled, pink interior – the queue snakes down a staircase and right into Little Italy’s weekend food market. Revellers regularly wait three hours for a pillowy pile of soufflé pancakes here, snapping shots of its endlessly photogenic interior (there’s another long line for the ornate, glass-walled toilet) and sipping zesty pineapple juice while they queue.
There are a few tricks to getting the best-ever breakfast here (though it’s not possible to get a bad one). The only way to guarantee a table is to pre-order steak and eggs for a minimum of two and booked at least 48 hours in advance. And once you’re in the door, keep an eye out for the dainty dim sum trolley that tours the tables each service. There’s nothing like a mini corn dog to warm up your stomach while you wait for that steak. Oh, and there’s a Champagne vending machine en route to the beautifully decorated loos. Grab a mini bottle to keep you busy in the queue.
2. Drizzle mole sauce at Herb & Wood
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that San Diego is bursting at the seams with the most authentic Mexican cuisine you’ll find this side of the border. Forget Tex-Mex: this city runs on green tomatillo salsa, crunchy tuna tostadas and corn tortilla tacos. Herb & Wood, a modern-Mediterranean restaurant in downtown, might be uber-Instagrammable thanks to its lofty warehouse ceilings, polished concrete bar and jet-black unicorn statue at the door. But there’s substance behind its style, primarily in the thick mole made from a recipe created by the chef’s Mexican grandmother in Oaxaca, the birthplace of the savoury chocolate sauce. Order it smothered over beef cheek and savour generations of flavour in one mouthful.
3. Book into an after-hours supper club at a museum
If you like the sound of braised beef noodle soup, roasted shrimp gyoza or pan-seared scallops on puréed cauliflower, chances are you’ll already be sniffing out the Pan-Asian menu at ARTIFACT. This unexpectedly dexterous restaurant is attached to the folk-art Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego’s must-visit central oasis (which is even bigger than New York’s Central Park). But chef Jeff Armstrong really flexes his culinary muscles at his monthly supper clubs, which riff off a human culture chosen from the museum’s art. Recently, he cooked up a 5,000-year-old Babylonian beet stew recipe for an authentic Persian dinner. “It’s nice to look at the art here in the morning, and get the creative juices flowing,” says Armstrong.
4. Arrive at this Golden Hill restaurant in time for its sell-out dish
There’s a reason that eager diners start rocking up at Kingfisher as early as 5pm for dinner. They’re clamouring to get an order in for the sumptuously decorated, French-Vietnamese restaurant’s signature dish: smoked, dry-aged duck, cooked pink and slathered in XO sauce. It’s the restaurant’s most popular plate and has limited availability – so get there early and see what the fuss is about (over a lychee spritz aperitif).
5. Have a drink at Part Time Lover
Just showing up at this sultry, sexy speakeasy in North Park is a holiday upgrade. Part-record shop, part-gig venue, part-cocktail bar, it’s got everything a hipster worth their salt would expect. Happily, the drinks live up to the hype – we love their take on an Old Fashioned, with vanilla-infused Japanese whisky and barrel-aged maple – as does the rich, wood-panelled interior, low-lit by Art Deco-style lamps.
6. Explore every inch of ‘it’ restaurant Marisi
Sure, Marisi’s small(ish) plates of handmade pasta, stuffed courgette flowers and spongey focaccia are among the most deftly made in bougie oceanfront neighbourhood La Jolla. But posh pasta commands a premium in this part of town. Unless you’re in the mood to splurge, nab a stool at the bar and just soak in the gloriously photogenic surroundings over a delicately mixed Bellini. The rose-pink banquettes, patterned floor tiles and ochre, wood-panelled ceiling are just begging for a photoshoot.
7. Order extra thick-cut bacon with EVERYTHING at Breakfast Republic
We love the Liberty Market branch of this Southern Californian brekkie joint. Not only does it have a resident ghost (just ask the staff), but it’s ideally placed for a post-breakfast-burrito stroll around the food and clothes stalls next door. There’s just one thing we insist upon: no matter what you order (unless you don’t eat bacon), add a side of Jurassic Pork. Marinated in paprika and lashings of brown sugar, these thick-cut rashers are the best in the biz.
8. Get a hot dog with a side of cultural history in Barrio Logan
Spend a day in the neighbourhood of Barrio Logan and you won’t be surprised that Time Out named it one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods last year. Everywhere you look, there’s an alternative, independent shop: women-run Thirty Flirty sells feminist slogan T-shirts while, a couple of doors down, indie Latnx gift shop Simón Limón displays hand-sewn baby grows embroidered with Mexican flower patterns. Throw in a pint of IPA at the fuchsia-pink, women-owned Mujeres Brew House and a loaded hot dog at car-crazy Barrio Dogg, and you’ve got a perfect afternoon out.
Bear in mind that Time Out accolade has been a mixed blessing for this historically Chicano neighbourhood, populated by US citizens of Mexican and Indigenous American descent. Gentrification is the latest challenge faced by the community, building on a history of discrimination (the San Diego Freeway was built right through the area in 1969, displacing 15,000 Chicano residents and leaving the area with some of the worst air pollution in California). Don’t visit Barrio Logan without spending a couple of hours at the Chicano Park Museum, where you’ll learn Chicano history and see it movingly illustrated in the world’s largest open-air exhibition of murals.
9. Upgrade to cheese-topped guacamole at Puesto’s Taco Tuesdays
We can’t talk about San Diego food without mentioning baja tacos – and some the best fried-fish specimens are found at Puesto, next door to Marisi in La Jolla (how convenient). Go at 3pm on a Tuesday for happy hour drinks and $2.50 off tacos, which come in batches of three (the braised short-rib beef option is non-negotiable, FYI). But to properly upgrade your meal, get a sharer bowl of tortilla chips and ‘Puesto perfect’ guacamole, which comes generously sprinkled with big, salty chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Droolworthy.
10. Pop over to Mexico for the best oysters of your life
Look, we know this is an article about San Diego’s fabulous food offerings. But it would be remiss to not mention one of the coolest aspects of staying here: you can literally walk into a different country. Grab your passport and a 15-minute taxi from downtown to the border, then step into the sprawl of neighbouring Tijuana – which might be mere metres away but feels like a different world to the orderly, wide suburban streets of San Diego.
First stop: snacks at Tacos El Franc, which is the cult favourite for carne asada (marinated beef) tacos and Oaxacan cheese quesadillas. But to really taste the bounty of Baja California – the long strip of Atlantic coast that connects Mexico to southern Cali – you need to hop in a car and head south. Type Conchas de Piedra into the GPS and arrive at this family-run vineyard restaurant in time for a late lunch.
In rolling hills just a short drive from the huge port of Ensenada, this place specialises in the region’s freshest and highest-quality shellfish. It ticks all the seasonal, sustainable and local boxes – and the trays of oysters, garnished with purple flower petals, are a thing of beauty. In one mouthful you’ll taste the cold ocean, the minerality of the soil, the breeze perfumed by herbs. Go, and thank us later.
Where to stay:
Check into the Guild Hotel, a former YMCA building that’s been reborn as part of Marriott’s exclusive Tribute Portfolio group. It might be a historic structure but there’s nothing archaic about the interiors: huge power showers, Lab Series toiletries, blackout blinds and widescreen TVs ensure that your stay is as comfortable and modern as can be. Plus, the lively Gaslamp Quarter is on the doorstep, full of dive bars, cocktail lounges, comedy clubs and theatres. From £229 per night.
For more information on visiting San Diego go to sandiego.org