Dine at these Downtown San Diego Restaurants or Bust (a Gut)

san diego dining
Ironside’s local halibut a la plancha with a Santa Barbara prawn, English peas, and morel mushrooms. photo by Lyudmila Zotova

The dining scene in downtown San Diego is always changing, but the latest crop of San Diego restaurants—11 new eateries and counting—has even jaded foodies doing a happy dance.

By Sarah Daoust

Florent Restaurant & Lounge
Designer Michael Soriano has transformed the former Jimmy Love’s space in the historical Old City Hall building into a split-level restaurant and “mega-lounge.” The main dining floor is a sexy space emanating a certain approachable glamour for which Soriano is known, filled with oversized booths, banquette seating and two bars. Executive Chef Richard Sweeney has crafted a menu reflective of the trendy “social dining” concept, with an array of whimsical small plates such as the Hog in a Sleeping Bag, made with grilled Andouille sausage, puff pastry and horseradish-mustard crème; and Duck a l’Orange Meatballs with grilled mascarpone and herb polenta. Mains included pan-roasted trout and a hearty duck burger.

➽Must-try dish: the Pork Tomahawk—a bone-in, 12-ounce chop with toasted saffron orzo, garlic chimichurri, pineapple-mango chutney and succotash.

Bottega Americano
Think of this new Euro-style “foodery” as a modern-day Italian piazza—i.e., an open-air marketplace combined with full-service dining. Sit street-side for an al fresco meal, sip vino at the bar, order freshly prepared food to go from the gourmet marketplace and shop in the retail area. At the restaurant, Chef David Warner and team whip up both familiar and progressive Italian cuisine at several interactive food bars—choose house-made pizza and pasta; plus seafood, meats, cheeses, spreads, salads and pastries. The 8,000-square-foot interior, designed by the renowned Thomas Schoos, channels 1950s Italian glamour, with a stone-fired pizza oven, black-and-white tile flooring, and snapshots of Italian culture dotting the walls.

➽Must-try dish: a pizza, any pizza.

Don Chido
Chef Antonio Friscia is in his element at RMD Group’s latest installment—a taqueria featuring handcrafted Mexican cuisine with an emphasis on wood-fired meats. The 4,000-square-foot den, previously Fred’s Mexican Café, is now an ode to modern Mexican culture with lots of reclaimed wood, exposed steel and stone, custom maraca wall sconces, star chandeliers, and an art wall made entirely from Mexican blankets. On the menu: wood-fired chicken breast with roasted local root veggies, a carne asada focaccia torta and wood-fired Baja fish tacos.

➽Must-try dish: the Seafood Chile Relleno with roasted poblanos, shrimp, scallops, white fish, manchego, jack cheese and corn.

Union Kitchen & Tap Gaslamp
Foodies, don’t let the neighborhood sports-bar atmosphere fool you; the New American cuisine here is exceptional. Grab a seat at one of two bars in the airy, wood-accented interior, or sit outside on the dog-friendly patio for some prime people-watching and a craft beer. The menu sings with elevated bar food packed with seasonal ingredients, including flatbreads (the savory smoked-chicken-and-pesto flatbread is excellent), seafood sliders, salads and pastas.

➽Must-try dish: the 8-ounce, house-made meatball, with stewed tomatoes, Parmesan and garlic bread.

Indigo Grill
The decade-old outpost by Chef Deborah Scott and the Cohn Restaurant Group is new again—featuring a remodeled space designed by Philippe Beltran, along with a new Latin-inspired menu overseen by new Executive Chef Jason Maitland. Boasting an expanded glass-enclosed terrace, a new patio facing India Street, loads of communal seating and hanging light fixtures, with tinges of indigo blue splashed throughout, the new décor is busy but welcoming. The meat-centric menu includes one-of-kind offerings such as tamarind-jalapeño-glazed pig tails with radish, peanut and buttermilk dressing; grilled nectarines with Serrano ham; and achiote-marinated Prime flatiron steak with cumin-spiced carrots, smashed fingerling potatoes and chimichurri.

➽Must-try dish: the “Flaming Hot Cheetos,” an imaginative interpretation of the cheesy snack, made with pig ears and cotija cheese.

Full Moon Sushi
Refined, authentic sushi in the heart of the Gaslamp? Yes, please. Full Moon is San Diego’s first Kaizen sushi restaurant—with an upscale, mod-Asian décor, cozy banquette seating and open kitchen. The menu features global, tapas-style dishes that showcase seasonal catches, including favorites such as the seafood ceviche, spicy tuna crispy rice and seared toro. The sushi bar offers the finest sashimi, nigiri and maki available; plus specialty rolls such as the Waxing Crescent with soft-shell crab, avocado, cucumber, asparagus and smelt egg wrapped in jicama.

➽Must-try dish: the First Quarter roll with lobster tail, tempura asparagus, romaine lettuce, avocado, onion sprouts and spicy aioli.

Encore Champagne Bar & Dining Room
As downtown’s only restaurant dedicated to bubbly, Encore offers around 30 Champagne and sparkling wine selections by the glass or bottle; plus tasting flights and sparkling cocktails. Pair your bubbles with caviar, oysters and cheese, or stay for a meal of shared plates such as duck confit with risotto, marinated lamb chops and braised pork cheek with crispy grits. Dinner is prime time to visit the chic outpost; or stop in to try its new weekend brunch menu featuring bottomless mimosas for $20.

➽Must-try dish: the melt-in-your-mouth potato gnocchi with bacon lardon, white wine, Parmesan, arugula and black pepper.

Saja Korean Kitchen
Restaurateur Alex Thao is on a roll with his growing roster of stylish Asian eateries. Saja is the newest—a festive Korean bistro serving up classic Korean cuisine with a modern flair. Standouts include the Korean pancakes with green tea salt and citrus soy sauce; and Bulgogi Korean Tacos, which are short ribs served in either butter leaf lettuce or Bao buns. Wash it all down with a Soju cocktail, sake or beer. The minimalist space features an open kitchen with 10 chef counter seats, plus patio dining.

➽Must-try dish: the Bibimbap Bowl, cooked and served in a traditional Korean clay pot, filled with meat, rice, vegetables and an egg.

Juniper & Ivy
The sprawling former warehouse on Little Italy’s burgeoning north end has been transformed into Top Chef alum Richard Blais’ culinary playground. His modernist Cali-American menu is filled with modestly portioned artisanal dishes such as local chicken served with seawater potatoes and Oregon chanterelle mushrooms; and smoked rigatoni with suckling pig, prawns and cherry tomatoes. The swanky restaurant also has a happening bar scene with ambitious cocktails such as the Beast of Bourbon with smoked vermouth.

➽Must-try dish: the Yodel dessert—devil’s food cake with white chocolate, hazelnut brittle and hot chocolate.

Ironside Fish & Oyster
The raw bar, bakery and restaurant in the heart of Little Italy is San Diego’s current “it” spot—with a bustling kitchen led by Executive Chef Jason McLeod, a double Michelin star honoree. The menu consists of a handful of raw seafood starters, including oysters on the half shell, crudo and crab claws; fresh catches such as salmon, sea bass and swordfish served a la carte; a single steak entrée; and sides such as asparagus topped with a hen egg and crispy seasoned fries.

➽Must-try dish: the lobster roll, made with huge lobster chunks in a light dressing, loaded inside a Texas toast-style bun.

Común Kitchen & Tavern
Chef Chad White and business partner Shane Brennan have brought “Baja gastronomy” to East Village. Judging by the menu, this means inventive dishes such as smoked marlin, octopus and chicken heart tostadas; squash, sardine and lardo tortas; and común (shareable) dishes such as beef rib cap and San Felipe salt-crusted fish. The space houses soaring industrial ceilings, art installations by Mexicali artist Gloria Muriel and an exhibition kitchen.

➽Must-try dish: the Borrego with black beans, lamb chorizo and bacon, served with tortillas and baby kale salad.

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