People keep lists of all sorts of things as they go through the world: wines, songs, birds, lovers, perceived sights. The art of food lists has deep roots, including great-grandma’s hallowed rolodex of recipes. The Michelin Guide started as a list designed to market their tires (“great restaurants you can try while driving the road on our rubber”). There is a list kept in Hebrew traveler culture called simply “The Book,” as legendary as it is elusive.
For nearly two decades, I’ve kept two lists that I update every week, almost every day. The first contains thousands of incredible phrases from writers—which I transcribe in the hopes that the glory of those great sentences will osmose into my own writing. And for my 16 years of covering San Diego’s food and drink culture, I’ve kept a list of my favorite dishes, drinks, and restaurants in the city.
Running eyeball math, I’ve had the dumb luck of eating at least 1,664 restaurants and bars. (While I’ve averaged around two spots a week for that span, my personal record is 20 in a single week for special issues.) Seeing as I often order between four and six dishes each time to kick the tires on a large chunk of the menu, that’s anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 plates.
I’ve eaten my way through entire food and drink cultural movements, trends, fads, booms, backslides, and fixations (I prefer the current birria movement to the foam movement, which was not kind—it made your mouth feel like one of those sudsy rave parties). When I started writing about San Diego’s food scene in 2007, there was more dream than gleam. Farm-to-table was a “new” idea for most places (that is, an old idea, reborn, after decades of subpar, shipped-in produce), and places like the mighty A.R. Valentien and Mister A’s were the only ones who knew prodigious farmer Tom Chino by name. Food trucks were unsexy, functional calorie dispensers at work sites. William Bradley had just opened Addison. Seemed the only fish sauce in restaurants was Worcestershire.
In the hills to our north and east, some of the greatest soil and microclimates on earth grow some of the best food. In the ocean at our edge, a rare bounty. That famous dirt and water are arguably the top recruiting agents we have for chefs. (Being neighbors with Mexico also helps.) “When I was working at Boulud, I’d get the best produce, and all the boxes said ‘San Diego’ on the side,” chef Travis Swikard of Callie told me of why, after years as Daniel Boulud’s right-hand man, he decided to come back home.
It was the food and drink culture that inspired the city to name Convoy an official Pan-Asian Cultural District. For multiple generations of new Americans who started with a dream and a shingle in this neighborhood and kept at it until it became something special, getting street signs on the freeway directing drivers to what you’ve built is big. Huge.
This year, Addison received three Michelin stars, the result of a long, obsessive march to a rarefied perch.
Also this year, chef Brad Wise opened a steakhouse in Solana Beach and the line formed at about 3 p.m. somewhere in La Jolla. Now he’s opening them along the West Coast, taking San Diego on the road. The Fishery ascended in Pacific Beach under new ownership. Davin and Jessica Waite, two forces for good, are revolutionizing Oceanside as the de facto for regenerative food practices in the county.
San Diego’s food and drink culture will never be perfect, but its accolades now outweigh its wanting.
This Best Restaurants issue is our annual tribute to the people who make that culture hum. A friendly competition, where our readers—who eat and drink with zeal—name their favorites. And I also put out my list of the places that really blew me away in 2023. This is the list I send to friends when they ask, “Coming to your city, where should I eat?”
Note: Transparency here. I’ve compiled this list as SDM’s food editor for 14 years. What’s changed is that my wife and I now own the media company. It’s a valid concern that someone with a financial interest in SDM may be motivated to select its advertisers as winners. All I can say is: I didn’t and I won’t. I’ve spent a good portion of my life building trust in the food and drink world, and to sell that trust for parts would be a pretty terrible, short-sighted decision. Our hope is that our partners support us because they believe in the validity and honesty of what we do. Thanks for your faith in us.