San Diego offers almost unlimited choices when it comes to enjoying a dining experience. With its location on the West Coast and the border of Mexico and being home to a large Italian population, San Diego features authentic cuisine from different ethnic groups and American dishes. And you can plan for anything from a quick bite during a busy day of sightseeing to a leisurely ocean-front meal with several courses accompanied by a relaxing glass of wine. Here are nine of my favorites that give you a variety of food and settings that capture the flavor of San Diego.
For an unforgettable Mexican food dinner in San Diego, head to Miguel’s Cocina. While Miguel’s has six locations in San Diego with the same menu, the Coronado restaurant’s atmosphere can’t be surpassed. The patio, decorated with bright colors, welcomes you to sit and relax. The servers immediately bring baskets of warm chips and the signature jalapeno and white cheese dip that’s famous even outside California.
Miguel’s is my family’s go-to restaurant for birthday celebrations. A generous, complimentary slice of mud pie -- coffee ice cream with chocolate crust and topping -- is enough to share and is always popular with all ages.
Pro Tip: The Hotel Del Coronado and the ocean are just across the street, so you can combine your tasty meal with a walk around the expansive hotel grounds and continue along the sidewalk bordering the ocean. Listen to the crashing waves and breathe in the salty sea air for the perfect ending to your day.
For fine dining at the water’s edge, you will treasure a meal at Peohe’s in Coronado. Located at the Ferry Landing, Peohe’s gives you clear views of the bay and downtown San Diego across the water. Kayaks and stand-up paddleboarders glide by, and the graceful, curving bridge completes the scene.
The location is just the start of your experience at Peohe’s. Cuisine includes mouth-watering fresh tropical seafood dishes and a Sushi Bar with new wave sushi creations. The elegant setting, seaside views, and tantalizing food combine to make Peohe’s a wonderful place to dine.
Pro Tip: The Crab, Avocado, and Mango Stack appetizer is even more yummy than it sounds. I’m not generally an appetizer fan, but I always order this one!
Tom Ham’s Lighthouse
Looking for premier waterfront dining in coastal San Diego? Tom Ham’s Lighthouse is an excellent choice. Walking along the water more than 50 years ago, Tom Ham had a vision for a restaurant built around the working lighthouse on this point of land. He designed the restaurant in the shape of California and built it to include the shining beacon, adding the finishing touch of his own fog bell.
The restaurant prospered, enjoying a reputation for fine dining and breathtaking views of the San Diego Harbor. Dine inside or outside on fresh seafood, beef, or chicken. Indulge in one of the seafood platters as an appetizer. My family ordered a dozen oysters, which proved a fun way to start our Lighthouse experience.
Stroll along the waterfront after your meal at Tom Ham’s and enjoy the sights of the Midway Museum, a large aircraft carrier; the Maritime Museum with the sailing ship Star of India; and parks and fountains.
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto
Little Italy offers an abundance of Italian restaurants, which is no surprise. It’s tough to narrow down recommendations with so many scrumptious menus. But if I could send you for one dinner in this delightful area of San Diego, adjacent to downtown, I would direct you to Filippi’s Pizza Grotto. This is one of the first restaurants I visited when I returned to San Diego after growing up. It offers pizza that holds its own with any other and provides that Old World atmosphere you crave when you go out for Italian food.
Founded by Vincent DePhilippis, who was raised in Naples, the restaurant opened in 1950. Filippi’s Pizza Grottos are still owned and run by members of Vincent’s family. Savor the family recipes brought over from Italy. Sit at your table decorated with a red-checked cloth while rows of wine bottles hang from the ceiling. Then stop to look at the family photos on the red brick walls.
Pizza is the specialty at Filippi’s, and you can also order spaghetti, ravioli, and lasagna.
Pro Tip: To take home a taste of Italy, stop in the small store on your way out and pick up some olive oil or pasta.
For a cozy breakfast in San Diego, choose The Cottage. This restaurant occupies a Victorian house and patio in the heart of elegant La Jolla. Open more than 25 years, The Cottage is a favorite of locals, so aim early and expect a wait. But even that part of your morning will prove enjoyable with the hot coffee and little cakes set out to ease your hunger.
Specialties are classic American and Southern California cuisine. Favorite menu items include the brioche French toast, roasted vegetable or wild mushroom omelets, and two eggs and bacon served with scones and cottage potatoes. You can order extra berries and other fruit, too.
Eat inside the cottage or on the sunny patio under colorful umbrellas.
Pro Tip: I have eaten outside, even in the rain, with a lovely red umbrella protecting food and people from getting wet. This actually made the morning even more fun.
George’s At The Cove
For an elegant dining experience, consider George’s at the Cove in lovely La Jolla. The weather here is beautiful year-round, so you can safely plan a dinner on the rooftop Ocean Terrace at George’s and take in the scenic Pacific Ocean as you enjoy your delicious meal.
Seating at the Ocean Terrace bar is elevated, so you can sit anywhere with a clear sight of the panoramic views.
Start your meal with appetizers of house-made focaccia bread and George’s Famous Soup made with smoked chicken, broccoli, and black beans. Entrees include sandwiches, salads, seafood, and pasta. Finish your meal with apple-pear cobbler or vanilla bean creme brulee.
You’ll have a hard time deciding whether it’s the atmosphere or the food that takes top billing at George’s.
94th Aero Squadron
The 94th Aero Squadron wins top honors for its atmosphere, and the food is tantalizing, too. The restaurant occupies a replica of a World War I French farmhouse. Old model planes sit in the front and back yards. The interior features a wood-beamed ceiling and is filled with memorabilia from the era, including framed photos, books, farm implements, parts of planes, and old radios.
The restaurant sits adjacent to Montgomery Field Airport. Score a window seat and you can watch planes take off and land. Some tables have headphones that allow diners to listen to the FAA control tower.
Dine on seafood, sirloin, or chicken. Early flight dinners of prime rib, fish, or chicken are served from 4 to 6 daily and come with all the trimmings including dessert and coffee or tea.
The restaurant is a hidden gem, as it’s not in a tourist area but rather tucked into an industrial section of San Diego. It’s easy to find, just off Highway 163, and worth seeking out if you are visiting.
Pro Tip: Be sure to ask for the creamed corn side dish, which is served tableside right from the pan and is a real treat. The Yukon gold garlic mashed potatoes are also a specialty.
Rubio’s Coastal Grill
San Diegan Ralph Rubio opened his fish taco stand in Mission Beach in 1983, introducing us to the yummy fish tacos he savored when visiting Mexico. And the rest is history. From that one stand, still serving tacos today, Rubio’s Coastal Grill expanded to more than 150 restaurants. And the menu now includes items such as my favorites, the Cilantro Lime Quinoa Bowl and the Wild Caught Mahi-Mahi Taco Plate.
Rubio’s is my family’s favorite place to grab a quick and tasty lunch or dinner. The atmosphere is fun and kid-friendly, and young ones in your group will love the quesadillas and churros.
If you are visiting, you’ll find Rubio’s a friendly place that gives you a true taste of San Diego.
Pro Tip: If you visit during the season, order the Langostino Lobster tacos with garlic butter, creamy chipotle Picante, and avocados. I may be slightly addicted to these amazing tacos.
When in Old Town, San Diego, your experience is not complete until you eat at an authentic Mexican food restaurant. Casa Guadalajara offers dining inside and on the patio with vibrant and colorful decor. A Mariachi band makes its rounds of the tables, adding lively music. You can watch tortillas being made at the station by the entrance. Order a specialty Margarita such as the Rolls Royce or the Pomerito to accompany your enchiladas or tacos.
Pro Tip: Right across the parking lot from Casa Guadalajara is Bazaar del Mundo, a festive shopping area with specialty items from Latin American and around the world. You’ll find folk art, jewelry, and home decor representing different cultures.
A visit to any of these memorable restaurants will enhance your time in San Diego and leave you wishing to return for more of the scrumptious food and fun in this fine city.