Exploring San Diego for the first time over an extra-long summer weekend, I was excited to have one of my best friends, who now calls the city home, as my guide. Between requisite visits to the city’s iconic Balboa Park and beautiful beaches, we nurtured our mutual love of eating (and drinking) well by visiting some of his favorite spots — and experiencing a few new ones together. Here are 6 foodie-approved restaurant and bar picks sure to please any visitor as much as the omnipresent perfect sunny weather.
First up? Lunch at Green Acre, a farm-to-table spot by Brian Malarkey in Sorrento Valley. It’s impressive from the moment you pull up, and you'll even glimpse the kitchen’s organic garden from the parking lot. Reclaimed wood and greenery adds a rustic vibe to the expansive glass office space, and its large patio offers a stunning view of the valley. True, it could become an expensive, albeit healthy, lunch habit, but you're paying for quality ingredients and inventive combinations. The Peach Brick-Oven Pizza with burrata, arugula and prosciutto as well as the Chive Turkey with a crazy-good cranberry jam were favorites of ours and the cashier. Each entrée comes with the freshest side salad of champagne greens, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Sensing a theme here? Green Flash microbrewery is a favorite among the happy hour crowd, and for good reason. Tucked into a warehouse space in Mira Mesa, the tasting area overlooks the entire operation, with some 45,000 red-wine- and bourbon-aged barrels. We suggest starting with $1 tastings (the friendly staff will help you narrow down the hoppy options), and then enjoying your favorite $4 pint at a picnic table outside — Hop Head Red and Le Freak, a blend of its IPA and Belgian-style Trippel, are both popular. The beer garden is the perfect place for groups to relax, play with puppies (Green Flash is dog-friendly) and partake in eats from rotating food trucks, invited by the owners (as they do not have their own kitchen) to park on-site.
Because we are both fans of acclaimed chef Richard Blais, Juniper and Ivy was quite possibly our most anticipated meal of the weekend — and it didn’t disappoint. Championing “left coast cookery,” Blais opened Juniper and Ivy to much fanfare, and it has become a dining destination on the outskirts of Little Italy. Diners glimpse modern art and an open kitchen from well-appointed booths in the rustic-industrial space, which leads to a chic yet laid-back ambience typical of San Diego. If you happen upon the Baja Yellowtail tostada with shark sauce on the constantly changing menu, definitely order it to start. The other standout from our meal was Yodel — yes, the dessert that advanced Blais in Top Chef’s latest installment, Top Chef: Duels. It’s the only dish that’s remained on the menu since the restaurant’s opening, and the delicious devil’s cake, white chocolate, hazelnut brittle and hot chocolate bear the sort of creativity we’ve come to expect from the chef.
Once we finished dinner at Juniper and Ivy, we strolled a few short blocks to Ironside for an after-dinner drink at the industrial yet irreverent Ironside. Let’s just say the restrooms’ design surprises don’t end with the giant octopus hung above. Everything from the retro and nautical décor to some of the stylish servers’ tattoos appeals to a hipster-heavy crowd. While we imbibed only the expertly crafted cocktails, the fresh seafood menu and eye-catching design will definitely make it worth a return trip, if not just to saddle up next to the raw bar for $1 oysters at happy hour.
This airy, modern space in Hillcrest radiates good vibes in the morning. The blackboard outside begs to be doodled on, spicy bloodies beckon to the hungover brunch crowd, and its elevated breakfast fare is a hit with kids and adults alike. Because of the no-reservation policy, we suggest weathering the wait by checking out one of the many vintage and used-book stores nearby or posting up at the bar with a Mmm Mmm Mimosa. Warning: If you opt to mix and match the menu’s sweet and savory options, good luck finishing 2 plates of eggs, hash browns and a ginormous pancake (although it is doable, as demonstrated by our diminutive dining neighbors). Of all the ones to choose from, don’t pass up the pineapple upside-down pancakes drenched in cinnamon butter.
Sometimes you just want a place you can swing by on your way home from the beach that’s not In-N-Out Burger. I’m told that El Pescador, open since 1978, recently moved across the street to a bigger space in La Jolla; however, you wouldn’t know it, as the handful of tables nestled between the windows and seafood counter are packed. The impressive array of locally caught fish shines on the straightforward menu, often simply chargrilled and served with lemon butter or olive oil and garlic. After surveying the market display, we opted to add seared scallops to our order of grilled shrimp and fish tacos. Thank God we did, because the melt-in-your-mouth scallops were, simply put, the best I’ve ever had. One final thing worth noting: The hospitality offered up by the friendly staff far surpasses what’s expected when seated at a tall communal table. It’s obvious why, despite the holiday weekend, there were so many regulars greeted by name.