San Diego: A Foodie Destination On The Rise

San Diego: A Foodie Destination On The Rise

Conde Nast Traveler
readers recently named San Diego in the “Best American Cities for Foodies.” The Top 20 list calls San Diego’s growing food scene “one of the hottest in Southern California” and names George’s at the Cove as a mainstay. Someone asked me for my point of view on what's happening, so I thought I'd share it on our blog. 

I have lived and worked in San Diego for 15 years now. When I got here you could count the good restaurants on one hand. I explored the city trying to get a sense of its culinary fabric back then — checking out restaurants, going to food events and listening to local chefs complain that San Diego was only known for fish tacos and got little-to-no national attention. I was invited by the San Diego Convention & Visitor’s Bureau to help answer the question, “What will it take to make San Diego a food destination?” As a newcomer who had received national notoriety in my previous position, I guess they thought I might be the one to ask.

My answers back then are the same as they are today.

In order for a city to become an interesting food destination, it first needs to have its own voice. Then it needs critical mass – either enough good restaurants to train future chefs and restaurant owners, or talent from elsewhere that enters the market to open new restaurants – whether that is new talent or the return of young cooks who ventured out, got trained and opted to come back to San Diego to open their own places.

Back then San Diego had a long way to go from my perspective. We had little to offer in the form of compelling storytelling and that’s what it takes to get the attention of national media.

But we've come a long way in 15 years. San Diego is the 8th largest city in the nation and one of its fastest growing, with some of the highest income communities in the country. We are a center for biotechnology and military, and we have great tourism draws. Our restaurant scene is finally starting to find its voice as well.

Here are my Top 10 reasons why San Diego’s food scene is considered one of the hottest in Southern California (in no particular order). 

  1. OUR BEER CULTURE. We have one of the largest and tightest craft beer communities in the nation and plenty of great places to enjoy them.
  2. A SENSE OF PLACE. Casual restaurants with sophisticated offerings are opening and translating our lifestyle into unique experience with growing frequency.

  3. OUR PROXIMITY TO MEXICO. A border is only a line in the sand (or a wall with razor wire and armed guards depending on how you look at it), and our cultures have always mixed, today in more interesting ways than ever. San Diego and Tijuana chefs are crossing to take part in events and guest appearances with growing frequency. This would not have been thought possible 15 years ago, but the more it happens the stronger both our communities will become, and the more interest we will garner from national and international media.
  4. OUR MEXICAN COMMUNITIES & RESTAURANTS. Chula Vista, Ramona, Barrio Logan, Logan Heights, San Ysidro. All are rich in culture with great eats.
  5. CONVOY STREET. Some of the best Asian food in Southern California is found here. It is a hub of deliciousness where anyone interested in food is drawn. There are so many places to try that I wish someone would start on one end, dine all the way to the other and make a blog out of it. The Great Convoy Recon and Convoy Conquest are two blogs living the dream and great resources to check out.
  6. OUR SMALL FARM COMMUNITY. You simply can’t make good food without good ingredients, and San Diego has more family-owned farms that anywhere else in the nation. That’s a major competitive advantage.
  7. OUR COCKTAIL PROGRAMS. We have some of the best mixologists in the country and great places to enjoy their inventive libations.
  8. SEAFOOD. We are the first stop for all product coming out of Baja, as well as our own local fishing fleet – uni, white seabass, yellowtail, spiny lobsters, stone crab, etc.
  9. LITTLE ITALY. Some of our most interesting restaurants are in this community. From nationally recognized chefs, like Richard Blais, to great local spots and watering holes. Beyond the culinary scene, it's a perfect walking area with good shopping and galleries to visit.
  10. TBL3. I’m sorry, but I have to. When we started this 14+ course tasting menu, we received a lot of questionable comments about whether San Diego was ready for it or would want a high-end experience like this. Our goal is to distill the essence of San Diego into an experience that can only happen here. We have had a number of guests drive down (and back) from Los Angeles for a TBL3 experience. I did not think much of it at first, but then it struck me: when was the last time someone traveled to San Diego specifically to dine. That is the sign to me that we have made a turn. As people realize that we as a city offer something unique that can only be experienced here, they will come for it, and they are.   

It takes a special breed of chefs, restaurateurs, mixologists and brewers to choose a city like San Diego. We share a common love of the lifestyle, one that is wholly unique from anyplace else, and as we translate that into what we do for a living, our style will continue to develop and our city will prosper.