Carlsbad is an upscale Southern California beach town about an hour north of San Diego. It has an eclectic dining scene that offers everything from hole-in-the-wall eateries to high-end experiences.
Most of the restaurants in this article are found in what is known as Carlsbad Village, a charming, walkable area of the city with the feeling of a small downtown. Carlsbad Village has a surprising number of Italian restaurants and a great brunch scene — with so many retirees in the area, brunch goes on all week rather than just the weekend.
I ate at all locations on this list, which includes some of the best restaurants in Carlsbad, California. You will find dives and little bistros, high-end culinary adventures, and even a meat market with a restaurant.
1. Shorehouse Kitchen
I enjoyed dining al fresco at the Shorehouse Kitchen on their darling outdoor patio for breakfast. It was just a great experience with quality ingredients and coffee.
The Shorehouse Kitchen focuses on finding the highest quality ingredients that are local when possible. They use free-range, veggie-fed brown eggs from the Eben-Haezer Poultry Ranch and have bread delivered daily from the popular San Diego Bread & Cie Bakery. This focus on quality really makes a difference.
What To Eat At The Shorehouse Kitchen
My incredible meal began with a latte made from their freshly ground espresso, a 5-bean blend from Calabria. The menu offers breakfast favorites and a unique variety of eggs Benedict.
As a travel writer I eat out quite a bit, so I always try to find a unique item on the menu that I haven’t seen anywhere else. At Shorehouse, I indulged in the Angus short rib and hash brown potato cakes. This concoction started with a base layer of crispy hash browns, which kept their crunch even after being topped with a cabernet-braised Angus beef rich with drippings. This was then covered with two over-easy eggs that, when broken, formed a rich sauce to smother everything. Wow, it was good.
2. Señor Grubby’s
Señor Grubby’s is a dive joint with both indoor and outdoor seating. It is very popular and was busy during my visit, but I was still able to find a place to sit. Order at the counter and your food is delivered to the table or packaged for takeout. If you want to grab a drink (or know when to avoid the crowds), happy hour is from 3 to 6 p.m. daily.
When researching the dining scene in Carlsbad, I saw it was one of the stops on the Carlsbad Food Tour. More on that tour later!
What To Eat At Senor Grubby’s
Definitely try the signature al pastor tacos. It starts with fresh tortillas made fresh on site, then topped with the al pastor pork. The tacos are then topped with onion, pineapple, cilantro, and green onion. (This style of cooking was introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants.) The flavor was spicy without being overly hot, and I loved that the corn tortilla was soft and pliable but thick so it didn’t fall apart when eating the taco.
I also had an order of chips with the Cheezy Gringo Dip, a small cup of beans, and a small guacamole. The guac was just average, but the dip and beans were delicious, especially when served with thick chips that didn’t break when dipped.
Hands down the best meal I ate while visiting Carlsbad. Campfire takes the freshest of local ingredients and prepares them over a woodfire.
The Campfire theme is present in the building, which has a Quonset hut feel to it and offers indoor and outdoor dining. Executive Chef Eric Bost is inspired by the outdoor opportunities in California and draws inspiration for the menu from this vibrant landscape. The menu is broken up into Kindling (the appetizers), then Vegetables, (which can be an entrée or a side), and From the Hearth (the entrées).
The chef generously sent out dishes to try in addition to what my husband and I ordered. We left with a shopping bag of leftovers but got a good feel for the menu. The service was outstanding, and our waiter Jason really knew the menu and gave insight into each dish. He knew the answer to every one of my myriad questions involving preparation and ingredients.
What To Eat At Campfire
The oysters were uniquely prepared: served in the shell with salted butter, bone marrow, and pickled mushrooms after being gently warmed over coals. The broccoli dish in the Vegetables section is so popular that it is always on the menu. Such an interesting dish! It is roasted to a nice crispiness then set on top of an aioli, brushed with chermoula and a bit of lime, and sprinkled with roasted, seasoned peanuts. I can’t even describe how delicious this dish is, but it is a must-try.
Pro Tip: Executive Chef Bost is also the executive chef at the award-winning Jeune et Jolie, which is a very upscale restaurant. Check out this Michelin Star restaurant — and the glitzy Paon Restaurant & Bar, while you’re at it — if you want to step up your dining experience.
4. The Succulent Café
This darling open-air café is a unique spot to enjoy a cup of coffee or one of its unique creations, such as the lavender mocha.
If you love succulents, then the Succulent Café is your place. The whole venue is covered with succulents in unique arrangements and unusual containers. It is so creative, and all the plants are for sale. Unfortunately, I was flying, so I couldn’t take any home, but I did enjoy some downtime relaxing in this one-of-a-kind venue.
5. The Windmill Food Hall
This is the place to go if your group can’t decide where to eat. You can’t miss this iconic windmill building. The Windmill Food Hall houses a fun, eclectic group of local vendors with great food and a large full bar called “The Bar.” Food options include Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean, barbecue, burgers, a sushi bar, and much more. There are currently 13 vendors.
This is not your average food hall. It utilizes the Kyoo online ordering technology so you can place your whole order from multiple venues while sitting at your table and receive a text when it is time to pick it up. It is a lively place that hosts live music, trivia nights, and more — check the food hall’s calendar for events throughout the week.
6. Café Topes
The family-owned Café Topes is located on trendy Roosevelt Street, and the hype for this brunch spot is well deserved. Its breakfast is amazing, and everything I saw coming out of this kitchen, I wanted to try. Café Topes focuses on fresh, local ingredients such as large eggs from cage-free, veggie-fed chickens from Hiliker’s Farms. So much to choose from it was hard to decide.
What To Order At Café Topes
I tried The Goods toast, which was listed under small plates, and it was anything but small. Country sourdough from Prager Brothers, a local bakery, was topped with avocado, heirloom tomatoes, microgreens, toasted pepitas, and a balsamic drizzle. That drizzle really elevated this avocado toast, especially when topped with what they call “Crack,” a marinated grilled tri-tip that can be ordered with a variety of dishes. So good!
I also had to try a ginormous housemade cinnamon roll, made fresh every morning and topped with fresh cream cheese frosting. Order it dirty if you want to double the icing.
Note: If you want to guide yourself on a tour of Carlsbad’s cafes, add the well-reviewed Naked Cafe to your list.
7. Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant & Creative Catering
I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it. Located in the heart of the Carlsbad Village, Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant is a family-owned treasure well worth a visit. Four generations of the Garcia family have operated the restaurant since it opened in 1960. It is very popular with the locals. What To Eat At Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant
I ordered the Tello combination, which included a chicken flauta and a cheese enchilada with beans and rice. Flautas are usually served plain, but Garcia’s smothers it in cheese, guacamole, shredded lettuce, and diced tomatoes. The enchilada sauce was flavorful without being too spicy. Yummy! The margaritas are seriously tasty as well.
8. Tip Top Meats
This unique butcher is also a European market and restaurant. The restaurant has an extraordinary menu with a huge number of offerings. Lunch alone has 12 cold sandwiches, 3 burgers, 11 hot sandwiches, and a variety of sides and desserts.
Tip Top Meats’ European market offers a variety of German foods, sausages, meats, cheeses, and much more. It is a perfect stop to grab picnic supplies.
What To Eat At Tip Top Meats
I just chose a simple grilled cheese with hot German potato salad. The sandwich was a sandwich-and-a-half and was one of the best grilled cheeses I have ever had. Such a generous amount of cheese, and I must admit I ate all three pieces. The menu was huge and based on how extraordinary the grilled cheese was, I am sure everything you try would be good.
9. Gelato Love
A cute Italian ice cream spot in Carlsbad Village Gelato Love serves up delicious, handmade gelato with organic and natural ingredients. This luscious treat has less than 5 grams of added sugar in a 4-ounce cup. In addition to gelato, the shop has a gourmet Italian market with a variety of products including olive oil and pasta sauces.
Note: If your sweet tooth somehow isn’t satiated after Gelato Love, grab a sweet at Village Kitchen and Pie Shoppe.
I ran out of time to eat in an Italian restaurant, but when he was in town on business, my husband tried both Vigilucci’s Cucina Italiana on State Street in Carlsbad Village and Vigilucci’s Seafood & Steakhouse on Carlsbad Boulevard. He enjoyed both of them, and I wish I had been able to squeeze them in.
Bonus: Discover Culinary Delights With A Carlsbad Food Tour
Unfortunately, I was unable to squeeze a Carlsbad Food Tour into my trip, but I did research my restaurant choices from their website, and every one I tried was spot on.
I love a food tour, especially if I don’t have a lot of time. It gives me the opportunity to try more dining options from a local who knows the food scene. On the 3-hour Taste Of Carlsbad tours, you’ll find yourself cast into the culinary delights of Carlsbad Village and learn a bit of the area’s history and culture along the way. The tour includes six tastings of Carlsbad restaurants, from Italian restaurants to cafes, a creperie to Mexican food. After the tour, your guide will give you a Carlsbad Food Tours’ Tasting Guide with local maps, discounts, and coupons for Carlsbad’s artisan food scene.