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San Diego: A Top Culinary Destination

With a laid-back attitude that manages to be serious about great food without taking itself too seriously, San Diego is the ideal culinary destination. Boasting some of the country’s most sought-after produce, top chef talent and restaurateurs who embrace local culture over trends, the region offers a wealth of exciting culinary experiences.

From sampling heirloom produce at a farmer’s roadside stand, to attending one of the region’s major culinary events, to sipping a frosty pint of local craft beer, and dining at a star rated restaurant, the following are a few ways visitors can savor the bounty of San Diego.

THE STARS ALIGN FOR SAN DIEGO’S DINING

San Diego’s rising restaurant scene is reaching for the stars these days — and it has brought home a fistful of them. More specifically, Michelin stars, which are coveted honors bestowed ultra-selectively on top restaurants worldwide. San Diego previously had only one Michelin-star establishment — Addison at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar in Carmel Valley. Now it has four, with three new local honorees revealed in the late September unveiling of the 2021 Michelin guide. On top of that, Addison was bumped up from two stars to three in 2022, making it one of seven restaurants with three Michelin Stars in California.

  • Addison at Chef William Bradley’s epicurean juggernaut at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar has reached heights hardly dreamed of on the local culinary scene in 2022, with its promotion to three Michelin stars. The Michelin folks observed that “Chef Bradley’s new California gastronomy nine-course tasting menu evolves with the seasons and pairs it with an extensive wine list showcasing top California vintages and newly discovered selections from around the globe.”
  • Jeune et Jolie (French for “young and beautiful”) has made a big splash since its 2018 founding. Michelin credits owner John Resnick (who also opened the nearby Campfire) and Executive Chef Eric Bost for guiding what it calls an “appealing and well-orchestrated French restaurant oozing with style and elegance at every turn.”
  • The namesake chef behind this intimate Japanese restaurant in University Heights, Soichi Kadoya, actually has connections to a pair of newly starred restaurants, as you’ll read in a minute. Soichi is centered on a chef-driven experience characterized by the Japanese term omakase, which translates as “I leave it up to you.” Michelin says the sushi here “leans straightforward,” adding that it is “impressive and flaunts much skill.”
  • The Old Town restaurant where Chef Soichi Kadoya honed his skills before decamping to University Heights earns its own Michelin star under the guidance of chef/owner Takeaki Tadokoro and young chef Tatsuro Tsuchiya. Sushi Tadokoro “takes great pleasure in providing diners with a delightful dining experience,” Michelin’s inspectors said, adding: “Attention to detail is a hallmark, as sauces are homemade and the fish of the day rests within a wood box awaiting very special treatment.”
  • In its inaugural California guide, Michelin honored eight San Diego restaurants with its Bib Gourmand designation, accorded to restaurants that are more affordable but still offer exceptional dining. They were: Campfire, Cucina Urbana, Cucina Sorella, El Jardin, Juniper and Ivy, Kettner Exchange, Lola 55 and Solare. In 2021, five more have joined the party: Callie, Cesarina, Ciccia Osteria, Dija Mara and Morning Glory.

FARM FRESH FROM THE BEGINNING

Whether growing ingredients for haute cuisine or street food, San Diego's diverse landscape and mild temperatures make the county an ideal place for farming, providing chefs access to the freshest possible ingredients.  According to the San Diego County Farm Bureau, more than 6,000 farmers make agriculture a multi-billion dollar industry in San Diego County, and the region has more small family farms than any other county in the nation. Many of those growers have earned a reputation for quality, high-value specialty crops that are distributed throughout the country.

Visitors to San Diego can see some of these farms first-hand and purchase produce directly from the growers at the following roadside farm stands.

  • The produce grown at Chino Farms, in the exclusive enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, draws raves from chefs at California’s most celebrated restaurants.  Each morning dozens of chefs line up to purchase vegetables for their restaurants, and visitors can sample the wares at the Chino Farms Vegetable Shop. The Chino family’s harvest varies during the year and includes heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms, melons, radishes, Brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, peppers, herbs and strawberry figs. Call (858) 756-3184 for more information.
  • The family-owned Carlsbad Strawberry Company has been growing the gorgeous red fruit since 1948 in seaside Carlsbad.  Due to favorable weather conditions and careful stewardship, their strawberry harvest lasts from January through July. Visitors can purchase strawberries at the farm stand throughout the season and venture out in the field to pick the berries themselves beginning each April.  
  • California Certified Farmers Markets take place every day in San Diego, and the number of festive markets blossoms on weekends.  Located across the county, San Diego’s farmers markets offer fresh picked fruits, crisp heirloom vegetables, regional cheeses, locally baked breads and desserts and a unique window on life in this sun-kissed Southern California paradise. The following are examples of the region’s more popular farmers markets.
    • On Sunday mornings, an offbeat crowd of neighborhood musicians, artists and residents gather at the Hillcrest Farmers Market, where they enjoy fresh finds from around the county along with a unique collection of handcrafted art and housewares.
    • Visitors can spend Tuesday and Friday afternoons soaking up the small-town ambiance of the Coronado Farmers Market, located at the bay front Ferry Landing in picturesque Coronado, and enjoy breathtaking views of the downtown San Diego skyline and San Diego Bay.
    • On Wednesday afternoons, visitors step back into the 1960s at the Ocean Beach Farmers Market; in this eclectic beachfront setting, fresh produce mixes with a laid-back surfer vibe and dash of the bizarre—llama rides are optional.
    • On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Little Italy Mercato brings the streets of this colorful downtown neighborhood to life as farm fresh produce rubs elbows with prepared foods from some of the region’s best kitchens.

For a complete schedule of San Diego’s farmers markets and a regional harvest calendar, visit the San Diego Farm Bureau.

CLASSES, TASTINGS AND TOURS

  • Harvard Cookin’ Girl in La Jolla was created and designed by Bibi Kasrai to have the feel and look of “going to your best friend’s kitchen” to break bread. Visitors can choose to cook or bake whatever their heart desires in Bibi’s classes. Harvard Cookin’ Girl hosts events as small as a date night for two or corporate events up to 40 people.
  • Cucina Migrante is a farm to fork cooking experience in San Diego, taking inspiration from the wonders of Mediterranean food and world cultures to offer creative social adventures. Whether sitting around a beautiful dinner table or out on an exploration tour, they connect people – from California to Italy – with unforgettable experiences and each other. Cucina Migrante provides private chef services, creative culinary and social events, inspired by the Mediterranean diet, the healthiest in the world.

Many say that the best way to learn is by doing.  Whether visitors want to master the sauces of French cuisine, shadow a chef during a farmers market outing or go behind the scenes at an award-winning craft brewery, San Diego offers unique culinary classes and adventures.

  • The San Diego Wine and Culinary Center in downtown San Diego is the perfect destination for guests who are passionate about learning the ins and outs of fine food and wines. The Center offers guests in-kitchen entertainment and education; class subjects range from knife basics to the secrets of making the best lavender teas, to how to prepare classic French cuisine. Weekly events include happy hours with live jazz music and lessons on wine and cheese pairings. Also onsite are a relaxing wine bar and retail shop.
  • Brew Hop offers custom-designed private brewery tours of San Diego that allow guests to relax in luxury as they are chauffeured to their choice of award-winning local breweries.  The 5-hour “Beer Connoisseur” tour includes beer samples, behind-the-scenes tours of four breweries and a meal.  The 2.5-hour “Beer Tasters” tour stops at two or three breweries and includes beer samples and tours.

GREAT GASTRO-SHOPS

When visitors need the perfect bottle of wine, locally made charcuterie or specialty cheese to complete a picnic in Balboa Park or an elegant hotel snack, the following local gourmet shops can cater to their discerning palates.

  • Long before downtown San Diego became a destination for dining and nightlife, the Wine Bank in the historic Gaslamp Quarter began aggressively amassing one of the finest collections of wine and liquor in the world.  Now the building’s large antique bank vaults house rare vintages, cult and limited-edition wines. Visitors can meander through its labyrinth of rooms and endless stacks of wine, single malts, small batch bourbons, cognacs and practically every spirit available from aquavit to pisco.
  • An authentic five-ton stone oven imported from France browns the bread at Hillcrest’s Bread & Cie, where an open layout lets customers watch the busy bakers at work daily.  Guests can sample the daily selections—traditional country levain, French white batard, sourdough baguette and more—along with unusual bread choices like jalapeno and cheese, panella dell'uva (grape bread) and black olive right there in the bakery where seating and a small, well-executed menu are offered.  Bread & Cie’s breads also are served at many of the region’s finest restaurants and are available at most local farmers’ markets.
  • Named for a region in Venezuela where some of the most prized criollo cacao beans are grown, Chuao Chocolatier brings exquisite chocolate offerings to San Diegans with its retail location in Carlsbad. An engineer-turned-chocolate mastermind, Chef Michael Antinorsi experiments with exotic flavors in his handmade truffles, including bonbons which are spiced with chili pepper, California raisin and Napa Valley cabernet caramel or goat cheese, pear and crushed black pepper. 
  • Venissimo is a cheese lover’s dream.  The shop boasts approximately 120 world-champion cheeses at any given time and a knowledgeable staff who encourages visitors to try before purchasing.  Guests serious about fromage appreciate that Venissimo is a favorite off-duty destination for many of the region’s chefs.  The shop also frequently hosts cheese tastings and wine and beer pairing events at both its Mission Hills and Encinitas locations. 

SWEET TREATS

Vacations are a time to indulge, and San Diego visitors can find plenty of decadent diversions.  From indulgent desserts to creamy gelatos, following are a few San Diego sweet spots.

  • Extraordinary Desserts has been the region’s most beloved spot for decadent desserts for more than 20 years.  Chef/owner Karen Krasne trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and has become famous for towering flower- and fruit-topped confections that incorporate everything from rich chocolate ganache to passion fruit crème.  Two locations in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy and neighboring Banker’s Hill offer romantic settings for sharing an elegant tart, slice of sinful cake or indulgent pot de crème.
  • Located in downtown’s Little Italy, Pappalecco serves up a myriad of flavors of gelato, from classics like hazelnut and stracciatella to fresh tastes like banana and blueberry.  Visitors can feel instantly transported to Italy by pairing their gelato with a rich Italian espresso and watching from Pappalecco’s sidewalk tables as trendy locals drive by on Vespas.
  • Celebrated by the Travel Channel as one of the country’s best ice cream parlors, Mootime Creamery in Coronado offers home-made waffle cones and mix-in ice creams, yogurts and sorbets.  Ice cream flavors include everything from chocolate to chai tea and horchata, while mixers include fresh fruit, nuts and candies.  Located just steps from picturesque Coronado Beach, Mootime Creamery is a great place to grab a cone or cup of scrumptious ice cream on a sunny afternoon.
  • Run by a fourth generation dairy farmer, Mariposa Ice Cream in the Normal Heights neighborhood is beloved by locals for their friendly shop and homemade flavors. Decadent scoops include White Chocolate Raspberry Ripple, Maple Walnut and Mexican Chocolate, with seasonal offerings like eggnog in the winter and watermelon sorbet in the summer.
  • Inspired by the traditional frozen treats of Michoacan, the delicious offerings at Holy Paleta are unlike any other paleta. This unique dessert location in Little Italy offers handcrafted paletas made with all-natural, premium ingredients. The paletas are bursting with tasty toppings for a one of kind treat limited only by your imagination.

CULINARY EVENTS

Throughout the year, visitors to San Diego can sample the region’s bounty with special culinary events that range from festive harvest celebrations, to haute cuisine tastings, to week-long restaurant promotions.  The following is a short list of some of the region’s delicious culinary celebrations.

  • San Diego Restaurant Week takes place for a week in April.  During the event, participating restaurants offer diners an amazing deal — special three-course, prix fixe dinner menus for just $20, $30, $40, $50 or $60 per person (beverages, tax and gratuity not included) and special two-course, prix-fixe lunch menus for just $10, $15, $20 or $25 per person (beverages, tax and gratuity not included)at more than 180 participating restaurants. The six-day celebration provides food lovers the opportunity to experience everything from classic crowd-pleasers, to landmark restaurants, to the newest, hottest bastions of haute cuisine.
  • Since the early 1960s, the Fallbrook Avocado Festival has been the biggest event in this quiet little hamlet in San Diego’s North County.  The festival is even bigger these days, because San Diego County is the country’s largest producer of avocados.  Each spring, more than 70,000 avocado lovers converge to sample avocados, take in culinary demonstrations, check out tempting cooking contest entries, buy funky avocado-themed gifts and enjoy bands, live entertainment and friendly beer gardens. On April 24, 2022, the festival returns to showcase the immensely popular green fruit, which due to the region’s ideal climate, has become Fallbrook’s trademark agricultural product.
  • San Diego Beer Week returns each year in early November for a 10-day celebration of local craft beer and San Diego’s thriving brewing culture.  Festivities kick off with a Brewers Guild Festival and conclude with a Chef Celebration of San Diego Beer, a gourmet beer and food pairing event. Last year’s San Diego Beer Week boasted more than 300 events, ranging from beer dinners to meet and greats with beer from over 150 independent craft breweries.
  • From the luxurious restaurants in La Jolla to the rustic apple pie shops in Julian to the trendy hot spots of downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter, visitors can explore the culinary offerings of San Diego’s diverse neighborhoods at the more than three dozen “Taste of” events offered throughout the year. Highlights include the “Taste of Little Italy” in June, “Taste of Del Mar” in September and “Taste of Adams Avenue” in June and July.
  • Every September, the mountain town of Julian celebrates the grape harvest with an Old-World style Grape Stomp Festa. Held at the scenic Menghini Winery, the event includes two barrels for stomping (one for adults and one for children), live music, dancing, Bocci Ball competitions, wine tasting and a variety of food and crafts for sale.
  • Artisans and gourmets converge each April at the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla for Celebrate the Craft, a unique celebration of California’s agricultural abundance and tradition of culinary innovation.  The weekend celebration features the finest food artisans from across California’s broad culinary spectrum demonstrating, discussing and offering tastings of the vast array of premium food products available throughout the state. A portion of the proceeds are donated to Slow Food, an international educational organization dedicated to promoting ecologically sound food production.
  • Each November, wine and food enthusiasts gather at the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, Southern California’s largest wine and culinary festival.  Held at venues throughout downtown San Diego, the festival includes wine tasting seminars, cooking classes by award-winning chefs and cookbook authors and an elegant Reserve & New Release Tasting event.

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