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. If you want something more casual but just as quality, check out their sister restaurant next door, The Crack Shack.
Okay, be forewarned that the rooftop location means this place gets to be 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.
We can't talk about NoLI without giving a nod some Italian food and its Little Italy roots. Bencotto does a great job at this (fresh, homemade pastas) without any of the kitsch (no checkered table cloths in site).
Yes, this neighborhood's historically all about Italian food but these days there's a lot more than that. One of two locations of this Tokyo-style ramen shop, Underbelly has a straightforward, no-frills ramen menu that's affordable (and raucous enough) you can take a crowd of friends there before a night out.
GET A DRINK
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.
Okay, this place is more about the atmsophere than anything else but we love heading here with a crowd to kickoff happy hour or finish off a bar crawl.
False Idol (opening Summer 2016)
Rumor has it that the soon-to-be-relaunched Craft & Commerce will have a hidden, not-so-secret tiki bar within the restaurant. The concept is being created by San Francisco tiki legend Martin Cate (of the awesome Smuggler's Cove) so you can bet it'll be legit.
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.
One of our favorite independent boutiques in NoLI, Casa Artelexia sells handcrafted goods from Mexico. Oh, and they have popsicles that we can't resist whenever we're in the area.
This is the sort of place we wish we had down the street from us in everyday life. Part cheese shop (with all sorts of quality domestic cheeses and accompaniments) and part bistro (with everything from cheese boards, salads, and tomato soup to grilled cheeses) it's the sort of place we'd stop by for a bite or a treat on the regular.
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.
Map illustration by Charmagne Kringstein