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Behind the Best Restaurants List

Ten facts about how it's made and why San Diego has arrived

By Troy Johnson

Behind the Best Restaurants List

Behind the Best Restaurants List

Our annual “Best Restaurants” issue has hit the streets of San Diego with a thud. It’s a monster. It is one of our most popular issues. You people like food, and I respect that about you. This issue is our recollection of the best places we’ve eaten over the last year. Our restaurant bible. A step-by-step guide to mouth rapture. A lot of talented people—San Diego Magazine’s editors, art directors, writers, photographers, videographers—put a lot of their creativity, care and extramarital time into creating it.

People often ask me how I come up with the “Critic’s Picks.” Well, here’s a little bit of the behind the scenes on that, plus a few facts about why San Diego’s food scene is phenomenal right now.

FACT: Most Americans eat out about 4.8 times a week. I eat at between 5-12 a week. I am the human lipid. I don’t complain about my job. Although taking notes is difficult. I’m forced to pretend that I’m texting while my dinner companion sits there ignored. I’m quite certain diners have seen me dine with my wife and said, “What a tool.” To make my list in this issue, I went through every one of those notes and meals and compiled my dream list. It’s my answer to the email or text from friends who ask, “Where should I eat?” I hope it helps.

FACT: The average meal in a chain restaurant has 1,128 calories. I’m no mathematician, but I’m fairly certain that plus X is why Americans lead the world in sweatpants. And that’s why it’s so much more important to find good local restaurants you love—ones that don’t just toss the butter in the deep fryer—and patronize the hell out of them. Good chefs do not cook to kill. Those chefs are in this issue.

FACT: I have a two-bite rule. I take two bites of every dish, sometimes three maximum. That’s it. Otherwise I would be so big that I’d block the sun and my loved ones would not get adequate sunlight that they need to grow. Friends who dine with me often think I’m crazy. They have a 12 bite rule. And indigestion.

FACT: If god was a hipster, he’d set up his farm in San Diego. Actually, has anyone seen god and Tom Chino in the same place at the same time? Point is, San Diego has the best fruits, veggies and seafood of almost anywhere in the world. San Diego County has more small farms per capita than any other county in the US. Granted, some of those are decorative flower farms. But, still. Strawberries are in season NINE months out of the year in San Diego. A fun thing to do is tell that to a New Yorker because sometimes it’s fun to watch a New Yorker cry. San Diego is like the all you can eat Vegas buffet of the world’s best raw ingredients.

FACT: Portland is rainy and cold and it sucks and its beards per capita are far, far out of control. Actually, Portland is amazing and I can’t grow a single chest hair let alone a beard so maybe I’m just bitter. But I’ve been lucky enough to eat my way through Portland, San Francisco, L.A., New York, Chicago, Austin and most of the major American cities. And I will tell you that San Diego is not some backwater red-headed stepchild of national cuisine. It is equal to or superior to those cities in many ways.

FACT: Marine Room is now an Asian-Fusion restaurant. Making this list is like a math problem. I had Marine Room as “Best French,” but then realized one of my favorite chefs in San Diego—Patrick Ponsaty of Bellamy’s in Escondido—didn’t fit anywhere else. So I decided that Marine Room is now an Asian Fusion restaurant because chef Bernie and Ron Oliver are fond of Asian ingredients. Bellamy’s, then, got the French vote. I’m sure that was a surprise to Bernie—who is more French than a poodle in a beret bragging about its prowess in bed. But that’s how it works. Headed by a Master French Chef, Marine Room is now Asian fusion. Tell your friends.

FACT: In 1988 there was not a single brewery in San Diego. When they opened in 1989, Karl Strauss became the first brewer in San Diego since the Prohibition. Now we’ve got over 100 local breweries. A friend in the industry predicts there is room for about 250. We are the undisputed craft beer capital of the U.S., if not the world.

FACT: We eat with our eyes first. For a long time, it seemed like Jimmy Buffet was getting drunk and designing all of the San Diego restaurants. If I wanted decent food in an uninspiring environment, I’d eat fried chicken in my garage. But now we’re getting top architects and designers involved. We’re creating memorable, inspiring, artful spaces.

FACT: There’s a shortage of good bourbon in San Diego. A liquor distributor just told me this. Why is that a good thing? Well, there’s a shortage because of the craft cocktail movement. Our bars are serving better stuff than they ever have—making it hard for the rest of us to find some decent Kentucky gold. That’s a form of happiness.

FACT: No San Diego chef has won a James Beard Award. I publicly predicted that would change this year with the third nomination for William Bradley of Addison. I was wrong. But it will happen, and soon.

Cheers to another good year of eating.


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