Local’s Guide to San Diego
Here’s your to-do list for San Diego, whether you have just a day or a whole long weekend to play with
For decades, visitors came to San Diego for its always fair weather, sparkling beaches, and SeaWorld. If you wanted a cool West Coast city playground, though, you went to San Francisco or L.A. But that’s no longer the case. Both border town and edgy Pacific Rim city of the future, San Diego has an immigrant population infusing its neighborhoods with new flavors and attitudes. Will you find gorgeous beaches and surfer dudes? Of course. But they no longer define San Diego.
Holsem Coffee. This North Park spot is a nod to the sophisticated coffee parlors of London. Cofounder Salpi Sleiman, who led the mobile coffee-cart collective Roast Coach Coffee Bar, has developed seven roasts and 17 coffee mocktails. Blended with housemade nut milks, malts, fruit purées, and syrups, the libations range from banana bread cold brew to La Vie en Rose, a cappuccino infused with cardamom and rosewater, then garnished with rose petals. $; 2911 University Ave., San Diego; holsemcoffee.com.
A.R. Valentien. The wood-beamed dining room pays homage to Craftsman architects Henry and Charles Greene, with stained-glass lanterns and handcrafted wood-framed windows. We love how A.R. Valentien integrates indoors and outdoors: The terrace has a sweeping view of the famed Torrey Pines golf course out to the Pacific. Valentien was locavore before we had a word for it with such knockout dishes as duck breast and confit leg, and black trumpet mushroom–crusted sea bass. $$$$; 11480 North Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla; arvalentien.com.
Kettner Exchange. The menu spans American, Thai, and Italian flavors, including the spicy tofu coconut soup with shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, and fresh cilantro, and the not-to-be-missed zeppole dessert, a deep-fried, cream-filled Southern Italian delicacy. Food aside, the two-story Little Italy stunner includes a salvaged tree branch chandelier in the downstairs dining area, a lounge-like rooftop with private cabanas and a swinging daybed, and a well-heeled crowd to match. The result? A see-and-be-seen vibe with substance and serious culinary cred. $$; 2001 Kettner Blvd., San Diego; kettnerexchange.com.
Juniper & Ivy. Top Chef: All Stars winner Richard Blais has dubbed his rotating seasonal dishes “Left Coast” cuisine, a play on both the menu’s progressive experimentation and its Pacific Coast sourcing. His cleverest nod to California cuisine is unlisted, however: Be sure to ask your server about the secret, off-the-menu In-N-Haute Burger, made with a special blend of ground short rib, brisket, and chuck mixed with dry-aged beef fat and served with bread-and-butter pickles, mustard-grilled onions, and special sauce on a brioche bun—a tastier take on the fast-food classic. $$; 2228 Kettner Blvd., San Diego; juniperandivy.com.
Ironside Fish & Oyster. Executive chef Jason McLeod earned two Michelin stars at upscale Ria, in Chicago, but at Ironside, he’s aiming for approachable takes on seasonal seafood, from whole golden-spotted bass from Baja, cooked a la plancha, to scallop ceviche with fresh citrus, pickled tomatoes, avocados, and olives. The restaurant’s nautical decor includes a live lobster tank, a wall decked out with 3-D piranha heads, and copper and brass light fixtures. The best seat in the house is at the bakery bar—a 26-foot-long solid oak table where you can watch the pastry chefs make buttery brioche buns for lobster rolls and spelt loaves spiked with salty toasted seaweed. $$; 1654 India St., San Diego; ironsidefishandoyster.com.
Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens. Liberty Station’s relaxed, retro feel—80 acres of mostly 1920s buildings set amid broad lawns—lured Escondido craft-brewing pioneer Stone to choose it for its second location. There’s a brewery, a bocce ball court, a half-acre garden, and an outdoor theater. The restaurant’s menu concentrates on upscale brewery fare like a duck taco trio with Stone Levitation Ale barbecue sauce. As for the brews, check out the small-batch seasonal beers or the perennial favorite, hoppy Stone IPA, which helped put San Diego on the world’s beer map. $$$; 2816 Historic Decatur Rd., San Diego; stonelibertystation.com.
Monello. This casual restaurant from the folks next door at Bencotto is an homage to Italian street food. That means incredibly thin, light pizzas topped with fresh ingredients, a rich homemade spaghetti carbonara, and a delight called the drink of the people: housemade vermouth with 27 herbs and botanicals. Inspired by the city of Milan, the ambience is modern with a touch of medieval. If you go at Aperitivo Hour, your cocktail comes with free small bites like squid ink gnocchi, but the best time to drop in might be brunch, for the cornetti: Italian-style croissants stuffed with fillings such as not-too-sweet strawberry- and-prosecco jam, or chocolate or vanilla custard. $$; 750 W. Fir St., San Diego; lovemonello.com.
Tiger!Tiger! Hard to believe, but there are very few places in San Diego where you can enjoy craft beer outdoors, which is why Tiger!Tiger!’s beer garden is such a welcome addition to the neighborhood. In keeping with the rustic, industrial theme of the interior, virtually everything in the back patio area has been reused or recycled, from gates made of wooden pallets to picnic tables found on Craigslist. Soak in the scene, down a pint or two, and enjoy the elevated pub grub alfresco. $$; 3025 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego; tigertigertavern.com.
Polite Provisions. Pre-Prohibition cocktails with a West Coast twist, like the Misty Mountain Buck—rye, homemade ginger beer, fresh lime, pineapple, and bitters— are made to order, while others, like a Paloma with housemade grapefruit soda, are served on draft. The marble-topped bar is a throwback to the golden age of the drugstore, but the “chef’s table,” where guest bartenders from around the country host classes and tastings, is totally new wave. $$; 4696 30th St., San Diego; politeprovisions.com.