Dear Treasured Colleagues coming to San Diego!
Welcome soon to the NAR 2009 convention in San Diego (our first ever!) and my fine city. I am a pretty decent cook but it didn't start out that way. I started out in San Diego as a restaurant goer who was constantly eating out, and became fairly proficient at demanding great food at a great price. As my cooking skills developed, blase restaurant food became even more unacceptable (if it ever was).
Earlier this week on Twitter, someone posted the local five Realtor boards' restaurant recommendations in San Diego. SDAR, PSAR, East County, North County and Coronado were all contributors, but I felt the restaurants were straight out of the magazine you'll find in your hotel rooms when you check in. They were embarrassing.
Your everyday "big name" type of corporate recommendation is unacceptable to me. I am beholden to no one, have lived her 28 years, have a wild independent streak and know what's good.
I will recommend my top 17 restaurants. There is no reason to push it to 20! The first ten will be for those staying downtown who are walking or may want to cab it (#9 and #10). We are NOT a cab city though for long distances. We have weak public transportation. The reason our freeways look like they do is because that's the best way to get around ~ by car. The remaining seven choices will require a car.
These aren't reviews because they're already super excellent. In no particular order, except for #1:
#1. Cafe Chloe
Corner of 9th & G, downtown San Diego
As a long time 9th & G goer (we don't have time for that long story! But it involves Java Coffeehouse, art galleries and a bookstore long since closed); I am always curious as to what goes in ANY of the four corners at 9th & G and if the business can last. This location was an old photo processing business (back in the 1990s) and then was a flower store for a minute. The owners took a small, awkward space and turned it into San Diego's perfect bistro. You can easily eat alone at the bar and not feel like a freak. There are tables throughout. I believe it will be too cold to eat outside in November, so skip that. It's not the cheapest place in town but also not the most expensive. Atmosphere matches the A+ quality food. Ask about the bistro frisee salad with brioche croutons if it's not on the menu. Wine by the glass is a great way to try a couple unique choices. I won't tell you what to order or what's the most popular. Enjoy figuring it out yourself. My favorite restaurant in San Diego since they opened. That's saying a lot. It's a very cozy place that is positively my #1 choice for you if you're staying downtown.
#2. Cafe 222
222 Island, corner of Island and 2nd, downtown San Diego
Some would say I recommend this restaurant because I have known owner Terryl a long time and also know her architect Perry Jacobs. Or that Terryl's story is interesting to me and that she's a free spirit entrepreneur like me. But I recommend it for the food. And of course Perry's architectural genius work from back in the mid-1990s day! (The tea cup with spoon chandeliers are all Terryl's design though, and for sale now.) This cafe has delivered year in and year out. It's open for breakfast and lunch. If there's a wait, then wait. Food is consistently fresh, fragrant, relatively cheap and the service is pleasant if not occasionally chaotic. Eaters at Cafe 222 want to eat now, so they contribute to any chaotic feeling (mostly weekends). Waffles are great. I am not an outside eater, so wait for an inside table. Please don't go over there with a mob of 16 hungry Realtors because it's not that big. Great coffee!
#3. Red Pearl Kitchen
440 J Street, near the corner of 4th & J, downtown San Diego
This modern day Asian/Chinese dark jewel is a consistent favorite, mostly for cocktails (fancy is their specialty, all delicious, but regular drink orders welcomed), plus snacks at the bar. But we probably go for a full dinner about half the time in the dining room. We have never been disappointed by the quality of food, and we all know that cooking of this variety can often be too salty or gloppy or MSG'd. Not at Red Pearl. The bar is a lovely find. The Bruce Lee movies running on a loop with no sound are acceptable kitsch. But there is clearly no kitsch in the food, spirit, design or choice. I love this place and go here more and more. There is a private dining room in the back. We even ate one of our anniversary dinners there and that says a lot.
#4. Valentine's Mexican Food
844 Market, downtown San Diego (note, they've moved next door to the long time corner location)
Wow, I have eaten probably 200 meals here. NEVER a bad one. The quality is superb, the prices are cheap and it's really convenient. If you want to have a quiet dinner in your room with your TV, but beyond room service, by all means call Valentine's, place an order for 5 rolled tacos and guacamole, walk over, pick it up, take it back and enjoy! There is no alcohol served here. It's OK to eat inside during the day! I wouldn't sit in here at night since it's not the right atmosphere for me. Daytime for lunch or a late lunch? Heck yes. It's a family owned longtime legend type of place.
#5. Basic Urban Kitchen + Bar
40 10th Avenue, corner of 10th & J Street, downtown San Diego
Come on! What are we talking about here? Great dining and this is it. If you want to hang out with locals at a very hip, very affordable place that will blow your mind design-wise (and we're all property freaks, let's admit it), then get here on Day #1. Basic Kitchen (as it's called) has the best pizza in San Diego. Hands down. End of discussion. I am sorry to let down Fillippi's in Pacific Beach and my boys at Bronx Pizza in Hillcrest. But this is beyond excellent. Thin, large pizzas, great toppings. It's not Shakey's, so expect a crowd that slants toward hip/modern, but if you're not that kind of person, please ignore them and elbow your way to the bar for a drink first any way. You CAN wear tennies here! Ignore the stilleto girls. Basic serves the full pizza menu in the bar, but I prefer the restaurant for eating. My husband and I (when we don't bring dinner from home) eat here before Padres games. At night there can be a "rope line" of desperates trying to get in to the bar. So go a bit early and just enjoy the whole large space. God bless Basic! It's a real local winner. I hear the beers are great. I stick to red wine and it is fantastic by the glass. I love this place. (Insider's tip: there will be goons standing watch at the door. Just walk by them. They are only there for effect, I think, and I guess they check IDs as the night gets later.)
#6. Cafe Sevilla
555 Fourth Avenue, Gaslamp area, downtown San Diego
Tapas bars/restaurants have come and gone in San Diego since the 1980s, but this one is an original and a survivor. For good reason. The food is really excellent and if you need reading glasses, please bring them! It's very, very dark inside and it's hard to read the menu. You've been warned. It used to be, for me, a club where I would go to with my friends. We'd dance downstairs in the cellar and I would only occasionally eat upstairs. Those were very fun nights! Fast forward X-number of years and I eat here versus dance here. A pitcher of Sangria will make you giddy and cause you to instantly fall in love with San Diego. What I appreciate about Cafe Sevilla is that they took a chance in 1987 on "The Gaslamp," which back then sucked, was ugly, unsafe and weird. XXX theatres hadn't been run out of town and these owners took a chance that still pays off. I would almost call this a "special occasion" restaurant because it's a bit pricey. It's not TGIFridays! But you made it to San Diego so consider at least a happy hour here. Same food, same deliciousness as sitting down to a full meal. Which you'll probably want to do.
#7. Bondi (Australian beer and food)
333 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp area, downtown San Diego
Let me begin by confessing to a beet salad addiction. I always order it in any city if it's on the menu. If it's cold, warm, roasted, baked, frilly or rugged, I order it. And in my life I have eaten a lot of beet salads. None is better than that served at Bondi. I travel a lot and get to a lot of cities and countries. Winner! Bondi! This place is a few years old and I love the decor, the vast enormous ceilings and that you can hear yourself converse over dinner. The food is inventive, fresh, bright and beautiful. A great place that I even recommend to my snooty out-of-town friends ~ who love it of course. Happy Hour is fun.
#8. Dublin Square Irish Pub
554 Fourth Avenue, Gaslamp area, downtown San Diego
This was an accidental find. I have been to Ireland and love it, but am not a Guinness fan because I don't drink beer. But my husband and I needed a change of pace from our normal Fred's downtown (on Fifth Avenue, not on my list though), so we wandered in. Now mind you, San Diego has several nice Irish bars downtown that we simply don't go to because they're always so busy. 'Too crowded to get in and get a table' is not interesting to me. We found this place easy to get in on a weeknight, like 6:30 PM-ish. We hadn't been there before, so wandered around and ended up seeing it was sort of a "food bar" place where you can order anything on the menu at the bar or at the surrounding tables. We tucked into a quiet wonderful table against the wall. The food is very good, cheap and fun. It's a casual, highly authentic place that you can walk to from any hotel downtown. The later you go, the harder it will be to sit down and get off your barking dogs. It's not like "Temple Bar" in Dublin kind of crazy, but all our Irish bars get a little wild as the night wears on. Very generous portions. I have a new love affair with this place and we go often.
#9. San Filippo's
3515 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103 (sort of between Banker's Hill and Hillcrest, on Fifth)
You've now been introduced to the most brilliant, old school family Italian restaurant a few miles north of the Gaslamp. You're welcome. You cannot go wrong here! A reasonable cab ride from downtown if you don't have a car; I could eat here everyday. And another excellent pizza, too. Different from Basic: and yet simply delicious. I would almost call this cheap food compared to some of the tourist traps downtown. My husband and I love to eat here in the winter, during a rainstorm. It is so damn cozy and normal that you almost feel like you're in a cafe in Rome. Red sauce, white sauce, wadda you want? It's here. The pasta, bread, salad and casseroles are simply to die for. An insider's place for 33 years that I guarantee is not in any tourist book. Salut! The place is not huge huge, but a group of four or five will work in back. Groups of two or three will work in the front room. Free metered parking after 6 PM (for now) if you have a car.
1417 University Avenue (just east of Richmond & Univ intersection), Hillcrest. San Diego, CA 92103
Hillcrest is a community north of downtown but part of the Fifth Avenue corridor. There are many good restaurants in this area and in this neighborhood for that matter. You can try Ichiban for cheap and wonderful Japanese food a few doors down, for one example out of about 20. But the place making MY list, Bite, is a dream. I discovered this through my soccer mom best friend who doesn't go out to eat a lot. But she heard about it from a neighbor and so on. They serve happy hour priced drinks, if you are there at happy hour, AT YOUR DINNER TABLE. Who in America does that? Bite is not hung up on happy hour means slinking to the bar only. I guess it's because they don't have a typical bar per se. They have these sort of dreamy, floaty bar cushions and tables and it all sort of flows into the dining room any way. So order your glass of Champagne or Champagne cocktail fof $4.50 at your table. The food is abso-friggin-lutely fantastic. The service is crisp, precise and your proficient servers are all men in red T-shirts. They're so professional, so right on the money. Every time I go there, I think 8 guys have served me. They sort of share tables in a non-pushy way. I cannot tell you how much I love this place. It can be fun, romantic, private, business-y, or hip. They always roll out some secret chef nosh on a plate to whet your appetite, free of charge, as you peruse the menu. Damn, if that little move doesn't always gets me to order more than I should. When a restaurant shows a generosity of spirit like Bite, I always come back. Their website rocks. You've been bitten, and you've been warned. Go there, Realtors! I would probably make a reservation, since it means you get seated and to your eating immediately. Or as close as we can get.
Now you need your car:
#11 Fidel's Little Mexico
749 Genevieve Street
Solana Beach, CA 92075 (north county, coastal, west of I-5)
How do I say this delicately? In a county of three million folks and about that many Mexican restaurants, this is the best damn Mexican restaurant in the county, but more importantly, they serve the best house margaritas in San Diego County. Period. There are a couple close seconds (Hernandez's Hideway, Las Olas; my house), but NONE is better than Fidel's. If someone wants to experience San Diego like I experience it, and where I go to spend my commission dollars, get in your rental car and head here. It's about 20 minutes north of downtown, and a smidge north of Del Mar. Use a map since it's in a tucked away area of Solana Beach called Eden Gardens, which is all lovely, authentic Mexican establishments. If I had to pick a last meal, it would be the chicken with rice soup (the large, not small) and a house margarita or two at Fidel's. The bar upstairs is vintage classic and never used to serve the full menu but NOW they do. You locals, remember this. 'You can order the full menu upstairs. Not advertised as such, you have to ask. And the small, rambling, wildly connected many downstairs dining rooms still serve the food of your momma's kitchen, if your momma's a Mexican old school cook. I found this place with my family when we moved to Cardiff by the Sea from Minneapolis in 1981. We've been going there for 28 years now and I have a million Mother's Day memories from here. And every other kind of memory. Kerry and I love it THIS MUCH. Go right now. Tony's Jacal next door rocks too, but Fidel's takes the blue ribbon for me.
#12. Las Olas
2655 South Coast Highway (across from the ocean)
Cardiff, CA 92007
Well kids, I remember when this was a glorified taco shack in 1981 when I moved to Cardiff. It was no big thing but it was quintessential Southern California at the same time and I took it for granted. If I am going to gush like I do about Fidel's, then I have to also include Las Olas in my gushing or Jay will get mad at me. This restaurant has grown from its taco shack days but still feels tres folksy, and has a very friendly feeling.
GQ Magazine deemed it one of the 25 most sexy places on earth. Which is pretty cool, since I go there with Kerry most Sunday afternoons in the winter (less crowds) and we couldn't agree more. The food is delicious, the margaritas are great but ask for a tall, which is an off-menu kind of thing, and you'll thank me. Ah heck, we go here in summer too because staring at the ocean...it's a gift you shouldn't take for granted and I no longer do.
My only beef with Las Olas is their parking change-up in 2009. The parking used to be free here, but the restaurant leases the lot separately. And the owners of the parking lot are jerks who quadrupled the rent or whatever, leaving Las Olas no choice but to start charging $3.00 per car. Kerry and I park on the ocean and walk across the street. We protest thier paid parking and would rather tip Jay $3.00 more. We do not and will not pay to park here. So the parking situation over there can die an immediate death as far as I am concerned, but you Realtors, pay your $3.00 and forget it. For me, I love the taco salad here. And the bowl of queso. And the fish tacos. Ole! TIP: If it's not too late at night, end your meal with a donut at VG Donuts, 106 Aberdeen Drive in Cardiff. Head north on Highway 101 out of the Los Olas overpriced parking lot, then turn right on Chesterfield, left at San Elijo Avenue, and then a right into the Cardiff small shopping center. (Almost right away after getting on San Elijo.) The best donuts on earth, I promise you. Only open until about 9 PM. http://www.vgbakery.com.
#13. Point Loma Seafoods
2805 Emerson Street
San Diego, CA 92106 (Point Loma)
I have to start with a warning that this local treasure is only open until 6:30 PM. It has high-top chair seating inside and is mostly known for its outside tables. Judge the weather accordingly if you head over here. Everyone comes to town and wants fresh fish. Why pay $50 for piece of halibut at Blue Point Coastal in the Gaslamp when you can get the real deal here? It's not that far from downtown and is truly deeeelicious. Everything is mouth wateringly superb at unbelievably low prices, but I always stick with the sandwiches or fish and chips. This is another local gem landmark that will not show up in any hotel nightstand directory of "where to eat" because they do very well, thank you, without buying those ads. Eat up! It's sort of a fish counter store type of place, no alcohol served, but if you want the best fish in town without going broke, here it is. If you want fancy where you can wear your broaches and high heels, this is not it.
2182 Avenida de la Playa
La Jolla, CA 92037 - in the La Jolla Shores area of La Jolla, NOT the village. You cannot walk here from the village.
There could be a list of just La Jolla restaurants from me and I have tried them all, but for you, my Realtor friends who want to trust me, you have to go to Piatti. May I speak frankly? Skip George's at the Cove. It will be on all your "must do" La Jolla lists. I have eaten there a hundred times in the 25+ years it's been there, but I find it too pretentious after the newest remodel and I am super bored with their overpriced menu. (Eating upstairs in the bar is the best way to go.) I want to feel like family after spending money at a place for that long, and I don't at George's. Sorry, George!
But I do feel at home at Piatti's. It's definitely another insider's place, Italian style but more than that, located "around the bend" from the Village. Hey, if you have to eat in the Village by the way, eat at Alfonso's across from George's. And tell Alfonso that Kim said Hi! But I have given you enough Mexican food recommendations, so Alfonso's is the best in La Jolla bar none, but let's get back to Piatti's. It's sort of a San Diego/Tuscan kind of place: white walls, patio, open dining room. It took the place of a predecessor restaurant like none other on earth, Gustaf Anders, now long since departed, RIP. Piatti's has a similar "cozy" feel as Gustaf did, but it's brighter and totally different. Again, there is a friendly bar here if you want to eat that way, but I do recommend a regular table with reservations. It's not stuffy, but you can get carried away price-wise if you do appetizers and big time entrees. For me, I like salad and one of their stunning pasta dishes. Too many memories here. I love this place x 10! Families welcome, again, all insiders who love good food and a terrific atmosphere that is just the right size.
1106 First Street
Coronado, CA 92118
It's fun to take the bridge to Coronado! Or take the ferry if you're on foot, but it takes a long time and that trip is cold. There are many great dining spots in Coronado no matter how you get there. But most are over priced. I discovered Tartine by accident when I had a condo conversion building listed for sale in Coronado and was over the bridge day and night for about a year. This was my favorite place to stop after a long day of open houses or a quick showing. Those units are sold out but my love for Tartine isn't over. It's a small cafe without a lot of decoration or fluffy fanfare. The design touches they do have are sweet and the great magazine library to peruse while eating is a wonderful touch. They serve a dinner menu but to me it's more of a late lunch place. Tartine excels at bistro fare without gouging you. Quiche, complex sandwiches and salads and divine desserts will give you a taste of "off the beaten path" Coronado. This isn't an Orange Avenue tourist type of place. It's not particularly easy to find. Which is good. The menu keeps evolving and getting more complex. Wine is well chosen. Enjoy Coronado!
2310 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92104 (heart of South Park, which is northeast of downtown)
I am a big South Park fan. This quaint, eclectic neighborhood is sort of my ground zero for selling real estate. I work a lot here and also in neighboring North Park, which itself has had a wonderful crop of new restaurants pop up lately. But in the last two years, one of my favorite "new" restaurants in San Diego is Vagabond. The interior is magnificent. You can eat here alone, with a small group, or reserve for a larger party. The bar isn't cheesy and blends in very nicely with the restaurant itself. The food is a combination of world travels from the owners, and they tend to hit the big cities in their choice of food: Rome, Madagascar, Beijing, Paris, Barcelona, Athens. It's a mad mixture with a decent enough American twist to everything. Sometimes the service wants to be more five-star than they need to be (smile once in a while!), but don't let that detract you from enjoying a full bar, a magnificent location and a find where you can enjoy a big meal with bold flavors. For me, I really love all their soups. It feels like a velvet, candles, belly dancer kind of place.
Around the corner from Vagabond is another new raging favorite of mine, El Camino. http://www.elcaminosd.com This is like Mexico City eating, with choices you'll recognize but with a flavor twist on each. They have some of the best free chips and unique cheese and salsa (for free) at the bar. Make sure you ask the lady serving you, if you sit at the bar that is, for the jicama. She will reach in the fridge and give you some cold jicama sticks that are for the asking only. For me, I stick to the basics here: quesadillas, side of black beans, maybe a Caesar salad. And of course the sangria. Great service! Fun.
If you're inclined to spend hours in this tiny part of San Diego, venture down the street from Vagabond, and super close to El Camino, and get yourself over to Whistle Stop Bar to do some people watching. It's a San Diego icon: http://www.whistlestopbar.com.
#17. Old Trieste
2335 Morena Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92110
(619) 276-1841 Closed Sunday and Monday
I am going to guess that 98% of San Diegans have not eaten here. But it happens to be one of the best, classiest restaurants in San Diego. Old Trieste is a very special place, reserved for making memories. It's a high class restaurant that belongs in New York City. Very luxurious and yet somehow old world Italian, the menu is upscale and the prices, while less than NYC of course, are more in line with Mille Fleur in Rancho Santa Fe. Mille Fleur happens to be one of my ALL time favorites. But I am not sending you out to Rancho Santa Fe. It's too far, my doves!
So while no second fiddle, I am sending you to Old Trieste instead. You could propose to your girlfriend here, but she will remember the meal as much as the ring.
They do a lime cream sauce on occasion, typically for the fish of the day or some assorted entree, that is to die for. It's a perfumey, rich sauce and, if they don't have it, don't worry. Order anything you like and prepare to weep. Dress code enforced. Don't show up looking like you've been at SeaWorld all day. Shower, shave, put on the good clothes and have a blast.
I have more gossip, like which member of Iron Butterfly used to wait tables here in the 1990s, and so forth. He was brilliant at it, by the way. But I won't tell stories out of school.
# # #
You will notice that I did not send you to Old Town. My interpretation of dining in Old Town is that it's a bit like Disneyland: a novelty to visit but not a place to eat. And I didn't send you to Pacific Beach, Del Mar or really anywhere beachy. I sent you where I eat and where I am very comfortable spending my hard earned dollars. If you have a question about a restaurant not on my list, call me at (858) 452-2599 for a true assessment, or text me at (619) 261-1909 or Twitter me @greenboxhomes.
Thanks and see you in San Diego soon!