May 10, 2024 - News

A roadmap to San Diego's growing food scene

Illustration of a large neon restaurant sign showing a trophy symbol and the word "EATS"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

San Diego hasn't always been a great food city, says San Diego Magazine critic Troy Johnson. But now, it's arrived at that bleeding edge of being the country's newest and next big food scene — where the most excitement and culinary growth happen.

Why it matters: Restaurants tend to reflect the people in a city, and San Diego is cultivating talented chefs, culturally diverse concepts and sustainably sourced dishes that are keeping it on the cusp of being a top food destination.

Zoom in: The local food scene is growing rapidly as more restaurants are opening, chefs are delivering and people are craving social connection around a table, Johnson told Axios.

  • Yes, but: The local industry hasn't bounced back to pre-pandemic levels like it has nationally.

Between the lines: San Diego restaurants are either going big by investing into the experience with over-the-top design to create a scene (think Lafayette Hotel) or streamlining their operations to counterservice (like It's Raw Poke Shop).

  • Rising food, rent and labor costs squeezed out the middle ground of sit-down neighborhood bistros.
  • Fast-casual spots are on the rise, but they're more creative, innovative and have better food than ever before, Johnson said.

Driving the news: San Diego Magazine recently released its Best Restaurants of 2024 issue that's "a butter-drenched bible to our sizzling dining scene, bursting with all the bites, sips, chefs, and trends."

  • It features critic and reader picks for everything from upscale, Michelin-recognized restaurants (Callie) to hole-in-the-wall birria spots (Ed Fernandez) and the best Filipino food in the city (Lia's Lumpia).

Fun fact: When Johnson and his wife took over the magazine in 2021, he proposed getting rid of this beloved issue.

  • He admits that would've been a huge mistake, because everybody keeps this list in their pocket for tailored recommendations when somebody comes into town.

Dig in: Wolf in the Woods in Mission Hills was named restaurant of the year.

  • The European-inspired wine bar and tapas cafe "feels more like home than my own home," Johnson said.
  • The sweet corn-and-piñon soup is one of the best things he's ever tasted.

What we're watching: This year, North Park finally made good on its promise to be San Diego's next culinary epicenter, Johnson said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an account of Troy Johnson's thoughts on San Diego's status as a food city, and a Michelin star-related reference to chef Drew Deckman.


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