And just like that, another year of dining out in San Diego is done.
Of all my nine-or-so years covering the scene, I think 2023 has been one of the most exciting. Michelin continues to shower our city with well-deserved praise, confirming what us locals knew all along: Our dining scene is better than it’s gotten credit for, something we’ve been banging the drums about at SDM for years (no big deal, it’s cool being first. But we’re glad everyone else has finally caught up).
In addition to seeing a glut of top-notch openings, we’re also still emerging from the antisocial, more locked-down days of years past. Pop-ups are taking advantage of real estate openings, neighborhood bistro menus at places like Juan Jasper and Wolf in the Woods are luring diners with comforting dishes, and people are wanting to just get out there—to eat, yes, but also see and be seen. To have an experience.
That means San Diegans aren’t just sticking to the tried-and-true spots. They’re also looking for what’s new, including Mission Valley, if you can believe it, and Barrio Logan, a neighborhood with a dining scene that’s been on the edge of exploding for years. I think the end of 2023 may have pushed it over the edge: It’s a bonafide destination now, and it’s popping off.
Here’s what else went down in San Diego’s food world in 2023 and what you can expect to see in ’24.
Local Restaurants Embrace Maximalism
Look around at San Diego’s new restaurant builds, and you’ll notice a few things many have in common: prints, plants, and plush fabrics galore. Gone is the era of beige-on-gray-on-beige color palettes, of Scandi-neutral everything. The world is on fire, and whether or not the pandemic is actually behind us, people have emerged, and they want to feel things. If the Medici family dropped acid and embarked on an upscale redesign of the Rainforest Cafe, the results would look a lot like newer SD spots such as Paradisaea, Wolfie’s Carousel Bar, Kingfisher, the revamped Mister A’s (especially the blue-velvet private dining room), Mothership, Marisi, Seventh House, and every dining concept at the LaFayette Hotel.
Earlier restaurants like Animae, Morning Glory (and all CH Projects’ eateries), Herb & Wood, Kindred, Realm of the 52 Remedies, and Seneca Trattoria helped usher in this trend, opting for glitz and glamour over anything sleek, like, say, the dining room at Callie, which is beautiful but austere. These were opened piecemeal over time. Now we’re seeing the maximalist approach at restaurants all over the county, and, as a result, it’s never been more fun to dine out (or stare at the walls).
Mission Valley Becomes Cool (We Swear!)
Believe it or not, San Diego’s next dining hot spot might be Mission Valley. In 2023, many car dealerships and other long-held businesses in the area began selling off land. Restaurants—brick-and-mortars with razor-thin margins always looking for a deal—are taking their places. Novo Brazil Brewing is opening a giant, screen-filled, multi-sensorial food-kombucha-and-beer wonderland targeted at sports fans. Gravity Heights is also launching a new concept. Plus, Fashion Valley is revamping its food and beverage offerings with spots like Craft House, following in the footsteps of other major shopping centers like UTC. Mission Valley: It’s no longer just Target and the mall.
The Golden Era of San Diego Bakeries
Arguably, we are living in the golden era of San Diego bakeries. Part of this is, undoubtedly, the result of all kinds of Covid-era kitchen tinkering. Pop-ups transitioned into permanent businesses as lots of properties suddenly became available. While there have always been great bakeries throughout the region, lately it seems as if a new and excellent option appears every week.
Wayfarer led the way in 2018 as a big-name bakery worthy of the buzz, but since then, many others have burst onto the scene, especially in the last year or two. Izola delighted the masses with its enormous, buttery croissants; South Park’s sourdough temple Secret Sister revolutionized the donut; PB’s Wildflour also paid strong tribute to sourdough everything with creative loaves; Rikka Fikka brought Japanese bakery treats and artisan coffee front and center (and founded a semi-permanent pop-up in the East Village); and Relic Bageri melded Danish creativity and precision with global flavors (you can find them at a semi-permanent space in Miramar and pop-ups throughout the county).
There’s more to come, too. Next year, downtown welcomes Adrian Mendoza’s Knead, which will be run in partnership with The University Club on the ground level of Symphony Towers.
Inflation Impacts Restaurant Prices
’Tis the season of the $100 egg. Not every dining-out trend of the year is one we hope carries over into 2024, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention inflation’s widespread impact on San Diego’s dining scene. Inflation doesn’t just hit our wallets—it starts at the very beginning of the food chain, somewhere in the fields or the abattoir. Those high prices get passed down the supply chain, finally ending up on that little silver tray presented to us after we’ve stuffed our gullets with truffled this and hasselbacked that. The federal government has said inflation is slowly easing, and lowering interest rates confirm that, but it’s likely to be a while before diners feel relief. In the coming months, you can expect to still pay a lot for a little bit less in return.
The So-Called Fringe Gets Less Fringey
Not so long ago, diet modifications in a restaurant were a punchline. Anthony Bourdain, with his affectionate mocking of vegans, certainly didn’t help things. But times have changed, and diet mods are no longer the sole realm of crunchy PETA donors. Instead, plant-based (and otherwise dietary restriction–friendly) meals are considered a normal, compassionate, and inclusive option on many menus. The Italian crew in San Diego made vegan practically de rigueur: Civico 1845, Cesarina, and Ambrogio15 all boast standalone plant-based menus alongside their dairy-and-other-animal-product offerings. It’s almost considered a crime not to have gluten-free options, including in many bakeries.
Next up? I’d like to see more low-glycemic offerings, or at least some acknowledgment of sugar content, owing to the prevalence of diabetes in our society. When I had gestational diabetes, I was shocked by how difficult it was to interpret menus, and I stopped dining out almost entirely as a result. Ensuring everyone has a seat at the table is essential, and it’s the job of any good host—including chefs and restaurant owners—to ensure their guests are taken care of.
Barrio Logan Comes into its Own
Barrio Logan, historically known for its strong Chicano roots, is blossoming once again, particularly from a gustatory perspective. Bread + Salt is welcoming a new bakery, Fish Guts is churning out some of the best fish tacos in town, Hasekura is opening an omakase-only spot right above it, Lia’s Lumpia is doing drool-worthy Filipino spring rolls, La Bamba opened its doors, and Hayes Burger continues to reign supreme with one of San Diego’s favorite burgers. As if the neighborhood needed any more outside kudos, Michelin granted Italian restaurant Ciccia Osteria recognition, too, designating it one of San Diego’s seven Bib Gourmand selections.