In the time we’ve spent in Southern California over the last few years, one of the things we’ve discovered is that good (and more often than not, great), food is everywhere, especially in San Diego.
Every corner, every neighbourhood, every town, there is stunning cuisine to be found. And because of the hugely diverse nature of the fine citizens of SoCal, the style, range and geography of eateries are staggering.
Want Mexican? Puerto Rican? Brazilian? Burgers? Pizza? Sushi? Fried Chicken? Even good old English Fish and Chips? There will be a stall, shopfront, food truck or pop up to suit every palette. Sometimes they’re all on the same block!
The City of San Diego
We’ve reached the southernmost point of our California Adventure for 2019 and we’re in SAN DIEGO! A city we very briefly (21 hours!) visited on our 2018 SF-SD HWY1 Road Trip, we both just got really amazing vibes from the whole area and knew we had to come back and really experience it.
The Downtown San Diego area curves from the Coronado Bridge and the Convention Centre (SD Comic-Con, anyone?) around the Seaport Village, waterfront museums including the USS Midway and Museum of Contemporary Arts, the famous Top Gun bar (give it a miss, grubby, busy, disappointing and dreadful service), around to Little Italy and the SD International Airport (BA fly direct but it is costly. Waaay more fun to fly into LA, from as little as £300 with a host of carriers, including Norwegian and Air New Zealand, and drive the PCH like us!).
As you move north and into the Mission Bay area, you’ll find Seaworld, Belmont Park Theme Park which is right on the beach, then the neighbouring beachfront communities of Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach and the glitz and glam of La Jolla.
Our San Diego journey this time around will take us from the immaculately presented northern sandy La Jolla Shores, right to the heart of the Downtown saloons.
Mission Bay – Catamaran Resort Hotel
Our 4 day San Diego experience begins north of the city at the Catamaran Resort – Mission Bay. Only 15 mins from Balboa Park and 20 mins from Downtown, this waterfront resort feels like a world away from the bustle of a major city. You can see the skyscrapers in the distance but as soon as you arrive, you feel disconnected from that world, in a really good way.
The resort faces onto Mission Bay, a saltwater lagoon that sits adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, just a couple of minutes walk away. The beachfront is buzzing through the day, with loungers on the sand, just steps from the resort. It’s a tiki-themed paradise, with koi ponds weaving through perfectly manicured gardens. At night, the pathways are lit by flaming torches, transporting you to a tropical paradise. Throw in the SoCal weather and it basically is!
We were incredibly lucky to have been placed in a bay view suite, with a private garden and patio. We even had our own hammock, between two actual palm trees!! Through the sliding doors and you step onto the warm sand. I’m not exaggerating when I say, with all the travel we have done, we’ve had some incredible experiences in stunning venues, and this sits right up there with the absolute best. The service throughout our stay was world-class, and the view wasn’t too shabby! As an aside, if you, I don’t know, happen to leave your own room keys in your own room, then casually stroll out onto the beach from the private garden, closing the gate behind you, carrying nothing but a smile and wearing nothing but a pair of boardshorts, they’re pretty helpful and understanding when it then transpires you’ve locked all the doors from the inside and Maintenance are required to be called out to open them. Hypothetically. Ahem.
The hotel restaurant sits facing the bay, half indoors, half outdoors, to take advantage of the picture perfect Californian sunsets. For our evening meal, we came into the restaurant from the Moray’s Bar, which shows all major sports fixtures (it was ‘March Madness’ College Basketball knockout stages during our visit. You know those American movie cliches of fanatical devotion to sport? All true!) and serves local San Diego beers and a massive spirit selection. In fact, San Diego recently came 4th for cities with most craft breweries in the USA, trailing only the much larger cities of Chicago, Denver and Seattle! (Credit vinepair.com).
The central architectural feature of the Oceania Coastal Kitchen is a vast, floor-to-ceiling jellyfish tank! Whilst initially mildly terrifying (for me!), they became quite soothing over the course of the evening, the soft blue light picking out all the phosphorescent details of the stunning creatures, effortlessly and silently gliding around.
As you’d expect from a restaurant sitting on the Pacific Coast, the menu was heavily seafood based, which was perfect for us, but there was definitely something for everyone.
We started with some stunning, hand rolled sushi, sharing huge portions of crispy shrimp roll and Togarashi seared tuna roll. For a smaller appetite, these could easily be a main, but we had such busy days every day that come dinner, we were good to go!
I’d gone for duck with an oriental twist for my main, nicely pink and delicately flavoured, whilst Annie’s scallops were seared perfectly, to the second. No mean feat. Presentation and dining experience certainly far exceeded the 4 star rating of the resort.
Returning for breakfast via the beach path from our patio, and hoping we hadn’t just got super lucky with dinner, we were treated to a fantastic experience, in both food and service. We sat outside in the early morning sun and watched the many joggers, dog walkers and scooterers (might be a made-up word…) zip along the promenade.
I’m not that easily impressed by hotel service, and will generally just chalk it up to experience and move on. However, when it’s good, I like to shout it from the rooftops, and boy, pass me the megaphone. Catamaran Mission Bay is the whole package, 4 star rated, 5 star experience.
After an action-packed day spent with EVERYDAY CALIFORNIA at La Jolla Shores, paddling our kayak around the bay and learning about the unique ecology of the local area, we stopped off at a great little ice cream parlour called Scoops for ice cream and coffee, post kayak. By the time we finished our activities, we were so ready for dinner on day 2! A leisurely drive back through the beautiful, winding streets of the Muirlands neighbourhood, soaking in the sunshine with the roof firmly down on our Camaro, we’re really starting to like this place! So next up…Nine-Ten at the Grand Colonial Hotel, La Jolla.
NineTen Restaurant – La Jolla
We’re spending our 2 days north of the city staying at the Catamaran Resort, but a quick Uber took us up to La Jolla centre and the Regency splendour of the Grand Colonial Hotel. This stalwart of the La Jolla coastline has been welcoming guests since 1913, before there was organised tourism, paved streets, or even house numbers! Whilst it’s been through many owners, and many renovations, you can definitely feel the history, and changing economic fortunes, of this corner of Southern California.
We were offered the choice of dining inside or outside, and with Nine-Ten having one of the most stunning terraces, and Pacific Ocean views, that we’d come across, it was a no-brainer. The sun set as the wine was poured, the sky changing colour with each course, perfect.
We both decided to choose exclusively from the daily specials menu and take advantage of the local flavours. We both chose an endive salad starter with local crayfish, chilli and mango, finished with a really refreshing citrus dressing. Simple doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, simple food done well trumps poorly executed ‘fancy’ food all day long. And this was simply fantastic. Really well balanced between heat and tart, not heavy handed and overpowering, an impressive start.
A bottle of Santa Barbara Sauvignon Blanc (Savage Sulde) sat perfectly with both main dishes.
This time Annie taking the duck with roasted squash, blackcurrant coulis and finished with crushed walnuts, whilst I bucked my trend of ordering something outrageous (wish for the Nile!) and took the excellent stuffed chicken with charred beetroot and asparagus puree. It’s definitely fair to say that this wasn’t a ‘restaurant-in-a-hotel experience’, this was a great restaurant, that happened to be attached to a hotel. It was creative, playful flavours, brought together with a fantastic presentation. Throw in ‘that’ sunset and you’ve got a pretty unforgettable package. Skip the chain restaurants and ignore the hotel restaurant tag. Nine-Ten is special.
Eating and drinking in San Diego Gaslamp District
In a massive shift mentally, but not geographically, we moved away from the laid back Pacific coast. We’ve travelled just 10 miles, and the ocean is still close by, just 6 or 7 blocks away, but this is a very different San Diego. We’re in the Gaslamp District. This is the Shoreditch, the Midtown, the WeHo, of San Diego.
Our digs for the next 2 nights in San Diego is the cool-but-understated Kimpton Solamar, one of 2 Kimptons in the Downtown area. We’re both massive fans of the Kimpton brand, each venue seems to infuse itself with its city home, making every location familiar but unique. We ate at the Kimpton Rowan in Palm Springs, and we’ll round out this trip at the Kimpton Everly in Hollywood, our suite’s vast windows facing Mount Lee and the Hollywood Sign. The highlight of our 2018 trip was the Kimpton Shorebreak in Huntington Beach, so we’re excited to be taking in San Diego from this super-central location.
We were unfortunately just a week or so early for Baseball season, but Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, is about 100 yards away. Really! Imagine a football ground on Oxford Street?! This area is the beating heart of great food, flowing drinks, sports and live music in San Diego.
We had a blast, wandering super close to the hotel, just 2 or 3 blocks, and dropping into wherever took our fancy. Top picks? Bubs at the Ballpark for All-American snacks, The Blind Burro for tequila, and The Deck at Moonshine Flats for a) the best selection of taps in SD and b) wall to wall bar games, cornhole, shuffleboard, foosball, pool, arcade games and then, just when you think it’s safe to go home, it becomes an audience participation line dancing bar and live music venue. Approach the IPA’s with caution, and add a massive dose of ‘joining in’ attitude, but don’t miss it!
Downtown San Diego
Our final stop before we headed north, back to HB, back to the freeways, to Hollywood and the big city, is the Gaslamp District. One of the many, many, things we both love about SD is that, depending on how energetic you’re feeling, you don’t NEED to drive. LA is drive only. Period, as the locals say. Don’t believe anything to the contrary. We were impressed with the public transport system in LA, to be honest. We used it. Good old Red Line from Hollywood and Western, northbound to Universal CityWalk, and eastbound to Union Station for St Paddy’s Day celebrations. But it’s not perfect. It’s not everywhere. And unfortunately, it does get sketchy as night falls. Uber and Lyft time. In SD, from Gaslamp to the Embarcadero, to Little Italy and back, was probably an hour or so walk. At a decent clip (or on a Lime or Jump Scooter, use responsibly and sensibly, folks), Balboa Park is less than 20 mins away. Any time of day. We never felt unsafe at night.
The Downtown area is pretty compact and always busy, so, for us, San Diego seemed like a smaller, safer, friendlier, but equally cool and fun, Los Angeles.
We headed up to Little Italy for our final evening in San Diego. ‘L’Italy’, as it became known to us, is not a couple of city blocks masquerading a cultural troupe, this is a neighbourhood with seriously deep and proud Azzuri roots. A large migrant population of Italian and Portuguese tuna fisherman can be credited with the fishing fleets and canning industry of the area, right back to the 19th Century. Today, the Little Italy Neighbourhood Association is rightly proud of this historical connection, with Little Italy being home to some of the city’s finest eateries and breweries. The world famous Ballast Point Brewery has its taproom in the neighbourhood.
Herb & Wood, Little Italy
Herb & Wood sits at the northernmost tip of Little Italy, on a slither of land between ocean, airport and freeway. The room is impressive. Vaulted ceilings over a central bar that dominates the open plan layout, intimate booths encircling the industrial-themed space.
We loved our booth by the kitchen, as the whole workspace is glass-fronted, and we get to watch the beautifully orchestrated chaos of a busy service. And man is it busy. As a non-practising Chef (you never know when it’ll come back out, and you never, never, lose it!!) it’s a familiar sound of camaraderie and concentration. These guys are professionals of the highest order. We have a reservation and are taken great care of, but the restaurant is LOUD. That wide-open space echoes and amplifies, and as individuals struggle to be heard, the volume goes up, and up, and up.
The surroundings are spectacular, you could easily be in Lower Manhattan (and paying twice as much), and the quality of the food is beyond reproach. A shared starter of avocado toast with tomatoes and candied jalapeno was really special, and the roasted garlic and oxtail gnocchi, whilst a step out of the comfort zone for Annie, was really beautifully executed. Next time, I want the same table, but at 5pm on a Tuesday. The same food and the same service, in a less frantic atmosphere would undoubtedly be a triumph. Ultimately, in a city with so many high end dining options, the fact that Herb & Wood is such a sought after table is testament to the quality of the product. Book early to avoid disappointment. And bravo Chef!
Conclusion of a San Diego foodie experience
San Diego is easily the smallest ‘big’ city that we’ve spent time in over the last 2 years. Strangely, that, for me, is its most endearing quality. San Francisco, whilst beautiful, and certainly dramatic, didn’t really grab me. Los Angeles has its moments, but, like the city itself, the best bits are few and far between. San Diego has a warmth, heart, and charm all of its own, in people, in architecture and attitude, that draws you back. We had 4 unforgettable days across the Greater San Diego area, and a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do. I’m pretty sure we could do 4 days a year for the next 10 years and never get bored. San Diego is NOT Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, or San Francisco. And thank goodness. It’s the best bits of all of those places, and so much more.
*Some of these food experiences were gifted but all views and opinions are theat of our own