Expert recommendations for the best places to eat in four price ranges: budget ($), moderate ($$), expensive ($$$), and luxury ($$$$)


Old Town Mexican Café
“What people expect in a Mexican restaurant: bustling, loud, but it’s not just enchilada plates.”—Robin Kleven Dishon, contributing restaurant critic, San Diego Magazine. Tortillas are patted out by hand in the front window against a backdrop of chickens spinning around a barbeque; margaritas are served neat, in a shaker for two. 2489 San Diego Avenue, Old Town; tel. +1 619 297 4330.

“Thai food that’s somewhat healthy and imaginatively prepared, and inexpensive.”—Maribeth Mellin, editor, Zagat San Diego. The setting is perfunctory, but the noodle dishes, curries, and salads have flair. Adjoining rotisserie shop under same owner sells mouth-watering Thai grilled chicken for carryout. 3737 India Street, Little Italy; tel. +1 619 574 7737.

South Beach Bar and Grill
“Best fish tacos in San Diego, but not a big tourist attraction”—Erin Chambers, San Diego editor, A predominantly seafood menu that offers great value and a lot of beach town character, with a bar facing the shore. 5059 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach; tel. +1 619 226 4577.


Café Chloe
“It’s in an up-and-coming part of San Diego, and I crave the macaroni gratin.”—Erin Chambers. Cozy bistro with a short but sweet menu of traditional French classics—steak frites with sherry butter, chicken and wild mushroom vol-au-vent—plus an inspired beer selection. 721 Ninth Avenue #1, downtown; tel. +1 619 232 3242.

Caffé Bella Italia
“The pasta with gorgonzola cheese and walnuts is awesome.”—David Nelson, restaurant critic, Westways. The unexciting location houses honest northern Italian cooking in a cheerful room served by an enthusiastic staff. Wood-fire pizzas, varied risotti, and traditional Milanese desserts are highlights. 1525 Garnet Avenue, Pacific Beach; tel. +1 858 273 1224.

The Cottage
“Mix and mingle with La Jolla’s beautiful set. Get a fish taco or Cobb salad and experience.”—Erin Chambers. This century-old bungalow wrapped by a picket fence holds a cherished institution for breakfast, lunch, and, in summer, light dinners. Lines on weekends but servers are adept at moving ’em through. 7702 Fay Avenue, La Jolla; tel. +1 858 454 8409.

Extraordinary Desserts
San Diego’s awe-inspiring dessert emporium, offering light meals of cheese plates, salads, panini, bruschetta, homemade granola, and premium teas at a dazzling Little Italy venue. But it’s the desserts—at both locations—that earn the name, with homemade tortes, tarts, cookies, and cobblers that send sweet-lovers to the moon. 1430 Union Street, Little Italy; tel. +1 619 294 7001. Also: 2929 Fifth Avenue, Balboa Park; tel. +1 619 294 2132.


El Agave Tequileria
“It’s a menu of lesser-seen regional cuisines that goes deeper into Mexico.”—Robin Kleven Dishon. Classy, authentic Mexican dining highlighting indigenous sauces like mole and pipián, and unusual ingredients like cactus and cuitlacoche. There’s a tequila list hundreds of bottles long, but don’t come for border-style burritos. 2304 San Diego Avenue, Old Town; tel. +1 619 220 0692.

George’s Ocean Terrace
“There isn’t a better view or outdoor dining experience, it’s quintessential San Diego.”—Maribeth Mellin. Casual rooftop bistro is a favorite for San Diegans showing the city off to friends. George’s California Modern restaurant downstairs (same chef) is the dressy interpretation, for those on expense accounts. 1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla; tel. +1 858 454 4244.

Indigo Grill
Inventive local star chef Deborah Scott offers a menu of “aboriginal” cuisine, encompassing the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Central America. Highlights include wild blueberry-lacquered rack of lamb; scallop and shrimp ceviche; and a dynamite grilled vegetable platter, all elaborately presented. 1536 India Street, Little Italy; tel. +1 619 234 6802.

The Prado
“Great happy hour, in the hub of one of San Diego’s major tourist attractions.”—Erin Chambers. Idyllic lunch break from Balboa Park museum touring or as a pre-theater supper, Prado serves American food with a dash of Latin accents that complement the park’s fanciful architecture. 1549 El Prado, Balboa Park; tel. +1 619 557 9441.

Red Pearl
“It’s hip, but comfortable for someone who’s not 25, and there’s killer edamame.”—Maribeth Mellin. Swank downtown scene for Pan-Asian food in a contemporary setting with a groove-loving sound system. Inventive roster of dim sum—traditional and remixed interpretations—salads, and hot pot. 440 J Street, downtown; tel. + 1 619 231 1100.


Bertrand at Mr. A’s
Against a plane’s-eye view of San Diego’s harbor and rapidly changing skyline, the modern American selections incorporate French and Mediterranean notions: rack of lamb, pan-seared king salmon, Kobe flat iron steak. Fine bar menu and distinctive wine list, in a setting that is elegant without being stuffy. 2550 Fifth Avenue, 12th floor, Hillcrest; tel. +1 619 239 1377.

California surf and turf with a sustainable-harvest bent, plus sushi, beautiful people, and a sunny panorama of ocean and boardwalk. Moderately priced breakfast and lunch are very popular on weekends, as is the evening bar scene. 723 Felspar Street, Pacific Beach; tel. +1 858 270 5736.

The Marine Room
“Chef Bernard is a genius. Get dressed up and make an entrance.”—Robin Kleven Dishon. An institution since 1941 serving imaginative French cuisine cheek-by-jowl with a one-of-a-kind oceanfront perch. When the tide is high waves splash the windows; sunsets can be equally memorable. 2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla; tel. 866 644 2351.

“The best braised beef short ribs ever.”—Debbie K. Hardin, author, Great Destinations: San Diego and Tijuana. Chef Jason Knibb, formerly of Sundance, prepares graceful California cuisine, with an emphasis on organic and regionally sourced produce and sous-vide preparations. 910 Prospect Street, La Jolla; tel. +1 858 964 5400.


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