Travel Eats: San Diego

San Diego is one of my favorite places for a weekend getaway. It has a nice mix of beautiful scenery, interesting attractions and relaxing vibes. Plus—there’s tons of great food! 

EncinitasI got my first real taste of San Diego back in college. I spent a couple summers interning  in North County, and fell in love with the local community. It was my first time living somewhere with an actual, pedestrian-friendly main street.  There were cute local businesses. I could walk to the beach in 15 minutes. And I ate really, really well.

These days, I’m lucky to live a short plane ride away. I make my way to San Diego a few times a year, and try to hit up different neighborhoods every time. There’s a real variety of things to see, from lush gardens to classic art. When it comes to food, you’ve got your pick of cuisines, from Mexican to Italian to that “New American” label we see all over the place these days.

But where should you eat? Here are my favorite spots. Whether you’re looking for brunch ideas, dinner reservations or just a sweet treat, this list should help you out!

Breakfast and brunch

Isabel’s Cantina (Pacific Beach): This charming restaurant offers a really nice mix of decadent dishes and healthy options. There’s something for everyone—and it’s all delicious. I usually convince someone to share with me so we can get one sweet and one savory dish. My faves are the Very Berry Pancakes and the Avocado Scramble.

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Clayton’s

Clayton’s Coffee Shop (Coronado): Clayton’s looks like an old-timey diner, but its food is fresh, and there are lots of interesting things on the menu. There’s usually a wait, so try to get there on the early side. The service is great here—they refill my coffee so frequently, I lose track of how much caffeine I’ve had!!!!

Potato Shack (Encinitas): The pancakes here are so big, they’re called Manhole Covers! It’s not a gimmick, though: they’re also big in flavor. If you go here, make sure to try their “American fries,” too.

Papagayo (Leucadia): I’ve always loved the atmosphere at this North County spot. It’s laid-back, with lots of personality and great food. I usually get the Macadamia Nut Pancakes or Gran Marnier French Toast.

Little Italy Mercato: Head to Little Italy on Saturday morning for their lively farmer’s market. The market takes over several city blocks with fresh produce, food stalls and local crafts. You’re sure to find something delicious!

Lunch and dinner

Juanita’s Taco Shop (Encinitas): My favorite Mexican restaurant in San Diego! No frills, but huge on flavor. I usually get a combo plate here, and love the rice and beans that come with it. 

Ki’s Restaurant (Cardiff): All meals are great here, but lunch is my favorite. I especially love the butternut squash enchiladas. The dining room has ocean views, so go here during the day and pick your seat wisely!

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Lunch at Volcano Rabbit

Volcano Rabbit (Gaslamp): We wrote this place off as another generic Gaslamp bar…until it came up with super high reviews on Yelp. Ten points to Yelp, because we loved this place! I got short rib tacos, a mushroom taco and a margarita flight. Yes, you read that right: a margarita flight. Highly recommend. 

Cafe Sevilla (Gaslamp): Grab a group for this Spanish restaurant, so you can try all the things. My fave dishes are the Queso Fundido, grilled lamb and veggie paella. Their sangria is great, too. I’ve never been to the nightclub downstairs but… maybe next time?!

Barbusa (Little Italy): This Sicilian spot is a real scene, but the food speaks for itself. Definitely make a reservation before you head over here, because it gets real busy.  

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Pasta at Leroy’s

Leroy’s (Coronado): One of my more recent finds, Leroy’s has an ever-changing menu with lots of interesting options. My favorite dish so far was fettuccine with duck ragu and chili threads. Last time we had some pretty awesome quail, and sweet corn spaghetti. You can’t go wrong! 

Trattoria I Trulli (Encinitas): I don’t want to sound controlling but…if you go here, get the pesto. It’s impossibly good, and they mix pine nuts, string beans and potatoes in with the pasta.

Bakeries and desserts

Charlie’s Best Bread (Pacific Beach): My go-to spot for breads like chocolate cherry, challah and olive. You can also find Charlie’s at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores.

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Cravory cookies

The Cravory (Multiple locations): These cookies are SO good, and come in really interesting flavors. Think Rosemary Balsamic, Taro and Lemon Matcha. I’ve never actually made it to their shops, but you can find the cookies all over town, from the Little Italy farmer’s market to Balboa Park.

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Gelato at Bobboi

Filippi’s Pizza Grotto (Little Italy): I’ve never actually eaten a meal here...but I’ve come for cookies many, many times. They offer a huge selection of classic Italian cookies. My favorites are the sandwich cookies filled with jam or chocolate!

Bobboi Natural Gelato (La Jolla): Come here for cool flavors! Last time I got a rose/hazelnut/pistachio scoop. They have lots of dairy-free flavors, too. Plus, they’re right by the beach!

Things to see in San Diego

I know this post is called Travel Eats…but I have to give you some sightseeing tips, too. Note that San Diego’s top spots are scattered around a large metro area. You might want to rent a car, but you don’t actually need one. Between public transit and ridesharing apps, it’s totally possible to get around without your own set of wheels. These are just a few of my favorite things to do in SD!

Meditation Gardens (Encinitas): These beautiful, well-maintained gardens overlook the ocean. They’re run by a local spiritual group that also offers retreats and meditation. It’s free to go in the gardens, but you can make a donation to contribute to upkeep.

Balboa Park Museums: Balboa Park offers a crazy amount of sights. Make sure to visit the Timken Museum, which is full of masterpieces and free to enter. You should also check out smaller museums like the Centro de la Raza and the International Cottages.

North County fun: Don’t limit yourself to downtown San Diego! Head up north to get a different feel. You can start your day with breakfast at one of my fave Encinitas spots, then hit up Moonlight Beach for a bit. After that, head a bit south to the meditation gardens. Then, go to the Cedros Design District in Solana Beach. It’s full of small crafts stores and a great place to discover local artisans.

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