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The Best of San Diego 2024: Food & Drink

San Diego is a food-lovers dream—check out these restaurants, bars, and taste makers on your next night out
San Diego Magazine's Best of San Diego Food & Drink 2024: Books & Records in Banker's Hill
Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

Best Jazz Hands

Books & Records

A cool, well-designed room with history got new stewards who give a damn. This modern space was home to two standouts (Airport Lounge and Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant), then sat empty far too long post-pandemic. Brian Douglass and Anderson Clark of Hillcrest hit Common Stock gave it mouth-to-mouth, enlisting designer-fabricators Tecture (Nolita Hall) and bringing in live jazz, which is a lost art that’s maybe making a comeback (see also: Lou Lou’s Jungle Room at the LaFayette).

Best Upgraded Take on Your Fave Dive


Gaslamplighter is more than a glammed-up karaoke palace with a not-hyped-enough burger (a double-stack of juicy Wagyu beef served in a O’Brien’s strikes again. One of the Louis Vuitton knockoff). It’s a fifth-generation San Diego success story. Owner Frankie Scuito’s great-great-great grandparents opened San Diego’s first first deli with a liquor license, and his uncle and dad brought us the dark, cozy karaoke icon The Lamplighter. For the sister concept, Scuito and his brother put in ultra-upscale roaring-’20s décor, enlisted the city’s top cocktail minds, and garnered all the Gloria.

Exterior of Indonesian backyard hut restaurant (MEHKO) Warung RieRie in Sera Mesa, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Tran

Best News For Backyard Business

MEHKOs Extension

In 2019, California launched a first-of-its-kind program called Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations, or MEHKOs, which allowed home cooks to turn their homes into permitted restaurants. Originally intended as a two-year experiment, MEHKOs proved so successful that, earlier this year, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to make the program permanent. It’s a game-changer for aspiring restaurateurs, especially in SD, where 58 percent of MEKHOs are women-owned and 70 percent are minority-owned. Now it’s easier than ever to find delicious food close to home… maybe at your neighbor’s.

Best 30th-Birthday Present

O’Brien’s Pub

O’Brien’s strikes again. One of the first bars in San Diego to switch all their taps to craft beer back when the industry was seen as a passing fad, this Kearny Mesa institution just celebrated their 30th birthday. And, unlike some 30-year-olds who shall remain anonymous, USA Today named them the number-one beer bar in America in 2024. Not slackers, Tyson and Kristina Blake then partnered with fellow husband-and-wife owners (Lisa and Bob Townsend of San Diego Chicken Pie Shop) to take over and bring some of their convivial magic to another local icon: San Diego Brewing Co.

Courtesy of Next Wave Commercial

Best Hometown Heroes

The Harp

Few places resist change as fervently as Ocean Beach, so when beloved watering hole The Harp went up for sale, residents feared the invasion of malevolent outsider forces. However, their concerns disappeared when four OB locals snapped it up. Tyson Green, Steve Ashton, Jeremy Diem (Hodad’s), and Miles Doughty (Slightly Stoopid) promised to make improvements without sacrificing the spirit of the space. So far, that means far more and arguably better-quality live music (G-Love played there shortly after they took over). Dope news, indeed.

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Best Kearny Mesa Makeover

Zion Market

Kearny Mesa’s iconic Zion Market is moving and improving this summer. The new space, which is expected to open at the same time the current location shutters for a seamless transition, promises a (much) bigger market with more restaurants and retail, a rooftop food hall, and a cocktail bar. New arrivals include huge names like Bafang Dumpling, Marugame Udon, Shoo Loong Kan Hot Pot, and much, much more, so update your address book and come very hungry.

Best ramen restaurant in San Diego Marugame Udon at UTC Westfield in La Jolla
Courtesy of Marugame Udon

Best Reason to Stand in Line

Marugame Udon

This dinner-and-a-show is worth braving the theme park–esque queue for. The crew at UTC’s new Marugame Udon flex their noodle-making prowess (skills that originate in southern Japan’s Kawaga prefecture) in the theater-style kitchen. Don’t skip adding their housemade Gekikara Fireball paste to your dish. With togarashi and gochujang, this spicy extra will wake up every last taste bud. You’ve been warned.

Best Comeback Story

Coop’s West Texas BBQ

When Lemon Grove’s beloved barbecue-ist Brad Cooper announced that high operating and food costs were forcing him to shut the doors of Coop’s West Texas BBQ, the community rallied to keep his lights on and smokers lit. Now, the iconic cash-only joint is still open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or whenever Cooper sells out, a regular occurrence). It’s a fairy-tale ending, but better—there’s brisket!

San Diego's best breweries featuring PB Ale House
Photo Credit: James Tran

Best Places to Tap That

Our beverage expert spills the suds on her top spots across the county.

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Best Rotisserie Chicken That’s Not From Costco

Rovino Restaurant + Bar

It’s a family affair at RoVino, with married owners Frank Anctil and Rosalia Bruno and Bruno’s brother Vincenzo at the helm of the cozy Little Italy eatery. Chef Anctil, who was voted runner-up for Best Chef in this year’s Best Restaurants issue, slings out plenty of beloved Italian favorites like bruschetta and lasagna, but the star here has gotta be their epic carni miste: a half rotisserie chicken with spicy sausage and ribeye skewers that’s plenty for two. Their happy hour is a screamin’ deal three days a week—a rarity in the pricey hood.

Best of San Diego featuring restaurant Malibu Farm at Seaport Village
Photo Credit: Kambria Fischer Photography

Best Bellwether of Big Changes

Malibu Farm

Seaport Village is poised for big changes, and the newly open Malibu Farm is just the beginning. The San Diego location, which landed in September 2023 to much fanfare, may not have the iconic Malibu Pier view like the original, but it does boast that same Pacific salt spray and vegan cauliflower-crust pizza beloved by even the most skeptical carnivores—and serves as a promising harbinger of a much-needed makeover.

Best Beer, Year After Year

Pizza Port Brewing Company

Sibling rivalry who? Gina and Vince Marsaglia, founders of Pizza Port Brewing Co., have been successfully working together for over 30 years, building an empire of dreams. (Or of pizza and beer, but same thing.) Their throne is presumably made of melted-down awards—nearly 100 from the Great American Beer Festival alone and six more from the Brewers Cup of California just this year. Their six brewpubs in Southern California all serve locally inspired pies (the “Imperial Beach” has roasted poblanos) alongside craft ales and IPAs.

San Diego farm Rio Del Rey Heirloom Farms reviving heirloom beans from the past
Courtesy of Del Rio Rey Heirloom Farms

Best Magic Magic Beans

Rio Del Rey Heirloom Farms

Mike Reeske, the Bean Man, worked in science education for 40 years before devoting his “retirement” to reviving ancient varieties of heirloom beans.

Best Pizza for the Worst Breath

Pitfire Pizza

The James Beard–nominated Pitfire Pizza landed in Carlsbad in 2023, wowing ’za lovers with its signature fermented sourdough pizza crusts. Seasonal pies come and go from the menu, but traditional and esoteric toppings equally abound—take the Beasty Boy, for example. Topped with sausage, blue cheese, spring onions, and pickled jalapeños, it’s pungent perfection. If you haven’t been by to try a pie, fear not. Pitfire’s parent company American Gonzo Food Corporation promises more San Diego outposts to come.

San Diego's best liquor store sandwiches
Photo Credit: Cole Novak

Best Liquor Store Sandos

Forget national chains and sub shops—your neighborhood’s local market has the best grinders, heroes, and hoagies.

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Best Not-So-Secret Secret

Seasons Restaurant

San Diego has more than its fair share of not-so-secret spots: the swing in La Jolla, the steps in La Mesa, and Seasons Restaurant at the Four Seasons Residence Club in Carlsbad. Often, swanky hotels of this caliber keep their amenities strictly for guests, but anyone is welcome to dine at Seasons. The menu centers around local and seasonal (obviously) ingredients—think spiced orange custard brioche French toast for breakfast, ahi tuna tostadas for lunch, and lamb tagliatelle for dinner. It won’t cost a million bucks, but you’ll feel like it did. The secret’s finally out.

San Diego chocolate chip cookies from local bakery Uncle Biff's California Killer Cookies in Hillcrest
Courtesy of Uber Eats

Best Gooey Little Treat

The Cookie at Lazy Acres Natural Market

The right chocolate chip cookie can change the trajectory of a day. Feeling shrunken? Pessimistic? Morose? Try a chocolate chip cookie. Nothing flips the switch from morning ennui to afternoon ecstasy like a CCC. Butter, flour, sugar, chocolate chips—this is Cialis for the soul.

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Best App When Hangry (About Food Waste)

Too Good To Go Leftovers App

About 2.8 billion tons of food are wasted every year—the vast majority of it in the United States. You can help cut that number by using the Too Good To Go Leftovers app, which launched in Denmark in 2015 and finally made it to San Diego in March 2023. Users can get steep deals on perfectly good food that would otherwise be tossed at local restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, and bakeries, including SD partners like Blackmarket Bakery, Pannikin Coffee, and more.

Best butcher shop in San Diego Swagyu Butcher Shop featuring a wagyu beef cheeseburger
Photo Credit: J. Dixx Photography

Best Citadel of Steaks

Swagyu Butcher Shop

The latest outpost of chef Steve Brown’s Swagyu empire, this little butcher shop opened in April at the corner of Hawthorn and India streets and immediately matched Little Italy’s “take it to eleven” ideology. Browse American, Japanese, and Australian Wagyu (plus produce) at this minster of meat. The shop also hosts periodic pop-up events, and with the grilled meat, intimate setting, and San Diego sun, it makes for the perfect barbeque hangout (no cleanup required).

Best Way to Think Outside the Bun

Itty-Bitty Taco Bell

Taco Bell’s marketing may have peaked with the Chihuahua, but San Diegans can tap into nostalgia IRL in El Cerrito. Head to the Taco Bell at the corner of College and University Avenues and try to spy the miniature model situated just across from the drive-through window. This diminutive tribute, decked out in Mission-style design, pays homage to the city’s first Taco Bell, which opened in 1965 and closed in 2008. Yo quiero a treasure hunt.

Best coffee shop in San Diego The Mental Bar in Encanto's Black Arts & Culture District
Courtesy of The Mental Bar

Best Hot (Coffee) Spot for Culture

The Mental Bar

The Mental Bar in Encanto’s Black Arts & Culture District is not just one of the best places for a caffeine fix—it’s also a hot spot for culture and connection. Serving as the nexus for art exhibitions, live music, book readings, vendor markets, and a whole lot more, this Black-, veteran-, woman-, and family-owned shop run by Tommy and Daneyel Walker is a collective offering, built around warm drinks and good energy. Come for the coffee. Stay for the community. (And while you’re there, be sure to order a toast—we like the one slathered in PB and maple syrup.)

Best Noisemaking Chef

Tara Monsod of Animae

One small step for Tara Monsod, one giant leap for San Diego. Monsod, the executive chef at Animae, is the first-ever San Diego chef to make it to the finalist stage of Best Chef: California at the James Beard Awards. It’s a big-deal legitimization of her already-legit pan-Asian fusion bites (Miyazaki tenderloin, Szechuan spicy seabass, lechon kawali, and ube profiteroles, to name a few). It took 34 years for San Diego to finally get a nod; nevertheless, Monsod is not nearly done. She’ll assume the reins at Le Coq once it opens in La Jolla this summer.

San Diego local brewery Raging Cider & Mead Co. from San Macros featuring a bottle of cider
Courtesy of Raging Cider & Mead Co.

Best Use of Ugly Apples

Raging Cider & Mead Co.

Raging Cider founder Dave Carr uses 100 percent local apples (and native yeast) from historic San Diego County orchards, taking “ugly fruit” not fit for market and turning it into sessionable tipples like Guatay Pippin (from a single 100-year-old tree, it’s bright and bubbly on a warm afternoon), Wynola Scrump (a scrumptiously tipsy sip), and—the latest concoction—Wayfarer’s cider in a bag (take it picnicking!). As a bonus, SD’s dry climate means higher sugar content, which equals a higher ABV. Raging is pressed in San Marcos and available at the cider, at Finca Wine, or via direct shipping.

Best Use of Pickles and Mozzarella

TNT Pizza

Though the “TNT” in TNT Pizza stands for “thick and thin,” make no mistake: This East Village pizza is still bomb. Crust variations range from thin tavern to classic New York and deep-dish Detroit, making it an easy spot to grab a slice regardless of your style loyalty. Feel free to stick to tried-and-true faves, but real ones know the goodies are in the oddballs: pickle pizza (just trust us), rotating vegan specials, and anything featuring hot honey. Look for another location in Chula Vista later this summer.

San Diego brewery Karl Strauss featuring their Outpost location and food truck
Courtesy of Karl Strauss Brewing Company

Best New Trick from Old Dogs

Karl Strauss Brewing Company’s The Outpost

Good to see San Diego classics evolving. Karl Strauss has been synonymous with San Diego craft beer since it opened 1989 (at the time, it was the first brewery in San Diego since the ’50s). Now Chris Cramer and Matt Rattner have brewpubs across Southern California, but it wasn’t until late 2023 that they built their first bonafide outdoor beer garden: The Outpost in San Marcos. Sprawling over two acres are fire pits, picnic tables, plenty of beer, and the brewery’s first-ever food truck, slinging street tacos and “nachitos.”

Best Teeny-Tiny Tiki

Bali Hito

Hidden inside mid-century modern goods and home décor store Warshaw’s Provisions is Bali Hito, San Diego’s tiniest tiki room. Owner Dave Warshaw worked for decades as an artist (inking tattoos and sketching the menus for Bali Hai) before opening his own slice of Polynesia in the heart of South Park. Only two people can fit inside the space at a time, and, because it’s a tiki room and not a tiki bar, you can’t enjoy a mai tai (or any cocktail) here. However, guests can purchase a signature shot glass and a T-shirt to prove they were there—and, of course, you can always snap a selfie next to the hanging puffer-fish décor or weensy waterfall.

See our complete list of the Best of San Diego here


By SDM Staff

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