If the imaginative, farm-sourced fare at this eclectic collection of San Diego restaurants gives any indication of what's on offer state-wide, then it's clear that California chefs have got it on lock. These five recently opened San Diego hot spots are the hippest dens of culinary invention north of the border.
Juniper & Ivy
Opened in March by Top Chef: All-Stars winner and James Beard-nominated chef Richard Blais, Juniper & Ivy has the food world abuzz with creative dishes like seaweed Caesar salad, Bartlett pear ricotta with marcona almonds and kale, and strip steak with bone marrow bread pudding and a sunny-side up egg. Blais has famously dubbed the food here as “left coast cuisine,” which of course refers to the West Coast but also to the restaurant's liberal play on flavors and presentation. Blais' culinary skill isn't the only thing that's inspiring here—the restaurant is housed in a former warehouse on the outskirts of San Diego's Little Italy with cathedral-like ceilings criss-crossed by steel girders and antique redwood beams. A carefully curated wine list, chosen by one of the most celebrated young sommeliers in the country, Tami Wong (formerly of La Valencia), includes several obscure grapes and those more tried and true.
Común Kitchen and Tavern
With two successful restaurants in San Diego and a “gastro-bar” in Tijuana, chef Chad White opened his street food-focused Común Kitchen and Tavern in San Diego's East Village in July. The menu here urges people to “comer con sus manos” (eat with your hands), and with so many authentic Mexican dishes from which to choose, diners will have their hands full. Inspired by White's travels in his beloved Baja, the menu includes snacks like fresh radish with Maldon sea salt and coriander aioli, and smoked shark tostadas with charred onion, peanut-chile de arbol, lemon, and cilantro. The octopus and heirloom tomato salad and watermelon with Thai basil are surprisingly refreshing and made for sharing. Chocolate connoisseurs shouldn't pass up the Mexican chocolate with cinnamon and chile guajillo. If you can't escape to Mexico for the weekend, dining here is the next best thing.
Though not entirely new (there is one other location on Adams Street in downtown San Diego), Alex and Leyla Javadov's latest incarnation of Cafe 21 is perhaps the most impressive. Located in a sprawling, 6,000-square-foot space on Fifth Avenue in the trendy Gaslamp Quarter, this constantly packed farm-to-table cafe is best known for its bountiful brunch menu and the myriad mix of Bloody Marys on offer (made with HAN rice-infused vodka and organic house Bloody Mary mix). You can't go wrong with the PLT (prosciutto, lettuce, and tomato) or pancakes with strawberry rhubarb compote. As for the Bloodys, there's the Classic Mary for traditionalists, the Prawn Star (stuffed with a giant smoked prawn and fresh basil from the restaurant's herb wall), or the Ol' Yello' and California Greens, garnished with a skewer-full of raw veggies and tiny grilled cheese sandwiches. (With drinks like these, who needs food?) Conveniently, Cafe 21 also provides room service for the boutique Keating Hotel upstairs.
Rare Form & Fairweather
Deli nosh gets a gourmet makeover at Rare Form, a new bistro sharing the same address in the historic Simon Levi building as downtown San Diego's swankiest watering hole, the upstairs cocktail lounge Fairweather. Antique wooden chairs and classic reading lamps set the scene at Rare Form, but the real highlights are the sandwiches, simple and tasty. The El Cubano is superlative (smoked ham, pulled pork, bread & butter pickles, swiss cheese, and aioli on a Mexican Bolillo), while the Sicilian-grilled swordfish with Chimichurri sauce takes an easy second. Crisp, freshly-made cole slaw and marinated olives are worthy accompaniments. This dual concept venue owned by Anthony Schmidt, one of the czars of San Diego cocktail culture, allows patrons to order downstairs from the menu at Rare Form then take a seat—if they choose—in one of the outdoor leather banquets upstairs at Fairweather, overlooking Petco Park. As you nurse one of Fairweather's craft cocktails (try the Thin Mint Mojito) and feel the San Diego breeze at your back, your waiter appears from Rare Form downstairs to deliver the goods.
The breezy ambiance and buzzy vibe on the patio of Shorehouse Kitchen, just off the beach in La Jolla Shores, beckons passers-by to enter; the scrumptious salads, frittatas, and smoothies on the menu keep them coming back. From strapping surfer dudes to stroller-pushing parents to ladies who lunch, Shorehouse Kitchen's loyal following has helped spread the word about this casual indoor/outdoor eatery opened in June by Angela Montion and John Freis of San Diego's Pizza Nova restaurants. (Freis also sits on the board of The Fish Market in San Diego.) The Shorehouse chefs are sticklers about ingredients—not only is their water purified by reverse osmosis, but Valencia oranges are juiced daily for their tangy fresh OJ, free-range, veggie-fed brown eggs from Ramona-based Eben-Haezer Poultry Ranch are used in their omelets and frittatas, and bread and coffee is delivered daily by San Diego-based Bead & Cie Bakery and Calabria Coffee Roasters, respectively. Try the cherry almond smoothie and the tarragon chicken salad with dried cranberries, avocado, green apple, crushed pistachios, and citrus vinaigrette; it's the perfect power lunch after a morning of kayaking along La Jolla Shores Cove. The restaurant also hosts recurring dinners (announced on the website) with neighborhood winemakers offering a 5-course wine-pairing prix fixe.
Kristan Schiller is a travel editor for Fodor's, specializing in cities and cultural destinations. Follow her on Twitter @KristanSchiller.