San Diego is like Los Angeles' sister city—both in Southern California, both beachside, both sunny— but that's where the similarity ends. San Diego is smaller, way more manageable and it's shared border with Baja California makes it feel like another world. In the last few years, San Diego has gone from it's tweens to adulthood in terms of food—as in fewer bottomless Mimosa brunches and more craft breweries—and one area that represents that change is Little Italy. Especially North Little Italy (aka NoLI) there are quality restaurants, local boutiques, and enough craft brew to make it bar-crawl worthy.
Okay, truth is, we're being a little loose with the borders of the neighborhood; the area we're covering starts at the Santa Fe Train Station on Kettner and West B Street and extends up to Kettner and West Laurel Street. Here are our picks for where to check out when you visit the neighborhood, which, by the way, we rec starting in the late afternoon, moving into Happy Hour, and then sticking around for dinner.
GRAB A BITE
Worth a visit as much for the decor (we're talking a wall of pirhana skeletons) as for the food (oysters and fresh seafood!), this place seems to get better everytime we go back.
Like the big sister to Ironside, Craft & Commerce has been in the NoLI neighborhood for over 5 years, which is why it's currently undergoing a huge renovation. It's set to open in late July 2016 with a wood-fired oven and the cocktails that first gave it a glowing reputation.
If you want something a bit more "Top Chef" caliber, head over to Richard Blais's Juniper and Ivy. A bit off the beaten path (as in one block off the main drag of NoLI), this restaurant elevated the dining scene in the hood when it opened a few years ago.
It seems like every other restaurant in San Diego has a take on fried chicken, but one you must try is Chef Richard Blais's Crack Shack. Pretty much from when they open ’til close there is a wait, but you can order online to get around that. The fried chicken is great on its own, but we rec an order of the Chicken Oysters or a sandwich — either the California Dip or the Coop Deville.
This cafe-meets-culinary store is one of the best choices for breakfast slash brunch in San Diego. We're partial to the Thai Croissant (layered with cilantro, eggs, and chicken sausage) or the vegetarian Hash and Egg (with crispy potatoes, fried eggs, mushrooms, and blue cheese).
Next door to Herb & Eatery, this fine dining spot is also owned by Chef Malarkey. The atmosphere, service, cocktails, and food at Herb & Wood are among the best in San Diego right now. It’s definitely worth doing dinner there but, if you can't get a reservation, at least snag a seat at the bar for happy hour.
It's hard to miss Cloak & Petal thanks to its open plan and showstopping decor complete with (fake) blossing cherry trees in the bar. Owned by the same people who have Tajima ramen, this spot serves up small Japanese plates with a side of gorgeous decor. It's always happening around happy hour with cocktails are as Instagram-worthy as they are tasty but it's worth it to stay for dinner because everything from their otsumami (snacks) to nigiri are delicious.
Okay, be forewarned that the rooftop location means this place can end up more club than class on the weekends. If you want to go for just a cocktail (which is well worth it), head there anytime of the week. But, if you want a more serious chef-driven meal, book a table midweek when you can check out the full menu without any bumping bass.
GET A DRINK
For high-end steakhouse in San Diego, Born & Raised is it. Owned by the same team who has Ironside and Craft & Commerce, this is by far the swankiest restaurant they own. Everything here is grand from the decor to the steaks to the pricey cocktails but it's worth the experience if only for the people watching.
We stop here on every trip to San Diego because they carry 6-packs and growlers of beers that you can't find outside of San Diego, like our personal favorite, the Habanero IPA. The food is okay so stick to the beer tasting unless your starving.
For the nerdiest beer lovers around, there's Bottlecraft. Once was once a a thimble-sized beer shop has now moved across the street into a larger space and grown to include a bar that always has interesting beers on tap and knowledgeable local beer dorks ready for a conversation.
The sister shop of Bottlecraft, as a wine lover, I'm partial to Vino Carta. The staff is super knowledgeable, there's always an interesting wine tasting, and the wine selection is small but impressive. (By the way, it's a great spot to get quality Mexican wine if you want to try it but aren't crossing the border anytime soon.)
As total coffee dorks we're always on the lookout for a great cup of locally-roasted coffee and this neighborhood has two local roasters. James Coffee Company roasts their own beans and features some high-quality specialty roasters from all over. Oh, and the minimalist space and creative collabs with other local small businesses only ups their cool factor in our book.
This award-winning microroaster has three locations around San Diego but we tend to frequent the NoLI coffee bar the most.
The granddaddy of craft beer in San Diego, Stone Brewing is now so dominant they have tasting rooms and restaurants scattered from the Ballpark to North County. Our favorite is this small, intimate tasting room near at the southern edge of Little Italy adjacent to the train station where you can sip a flight while you wait for your train.
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Map illustration by Melanie Lambrick