New food a-fare: San Diego’s restaurant scene is already heating up


This month, there are many new reasons to love San Diego’s culinary scene. Here’s a roundup of recently opened spots around town, plus some highly anticipated newcomers of 2019.

Ad Libitum Cocktail Bar & Global Restaurant, Hillcrest

In Latin, ad libitum means “at your liberty.” It’s also the name of a globally-inspired restaurant/bar owned by Peter Shih, which opened in late December 2018. Mixologists and beverage consultants Jay Choi and Ram Udwin head up the bar program, which includes barrel-aged cocktails, Boy Drinks World Bitters and Nostrum Shrubs.

Specialties on Chef Irene Yoon’s menu are tuna tartare, vodka-fried mushrooms, Korean chicken wings, grilled squid and grilled lamb pops.

1263 University Ave., Hillcrest, 619.487.0361,

El Gato Room, downtown

Good Time Design closed its Cat Eye Club tiki lounge downtown in September and reopened it three months later as the El Gato Room, a private dining room expansion space for The Blind Burro restaurant, which Good Time owns next door. The 670-square-foot room is partitioned from the restaurant with retractable glass garage doors. The renovation of Blind Burro will be complete with the introduction of a new menu early this year.

639 J St., downtown, 619.795.7880,

Exhale, Oceanside

From the founder of Oceanside’s Local Tap House & Kitchen, Gabe Hogan, comes this new wood-fired Southern Mexican restaurant, which opened Jan. 7 in Oceanside. LTH chef Daniel Pundik — whose cow heart pastrami taco won the “People’s Choice” award at the 2018 San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival — has developed a menu centered around cooking on a Santa Maria-style wood-fired oven. Tortillas, moles and other ingredients are made in-house. Specialties include flatbreads, tacos and plated entrees.

236 S. Coast Hwy., Oceanside, 760.547.1469,

Fort Oak, Mission Hills

Trust Restaurant Group co-founders Steve Schwob and chef Brad Wise opened this new restaurant/bar in January. Anchoring the mixed-use The Fort complex, Fort Oak specializes in seasonal small plates spotlighting the chef’s wood, coal and ember cooking techniques. The restaurant features a 16-seat chef’s counter and raw bar in the kitchen, a stand-alone cocktail bar and a dining room that’s a bit bigger and quieter than the company’s signature eatery, Trust, in Hillcrest.

1011 Fort Stockton Dr., Mission Hills , 619.722.3398,

Insomnia Cookies, Pacific Beach

When you’ve got the late-night munchies, this new wee-hours bakery (that opened in December) will come to your rescue. Insomnia was started in 2003 by then-college student Seth Berkowitz to satisfy the cravings of students cramming all night for exams. The Philadelphia company’s more than 100 locations stay open and make deliveries until 3 a.m. daily. The P.B. shop — one of four in California — sells five varieties of fresh-baked cookies, as well as brownies, milk, cookie cakes and ice cream.

1007 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach, 619.600.0416,

Javier’s Cantina, Westfield UTC

Founded in Laguna Beach in 1995, Javier’s opened its first San Diego County location in early January. Javier’s serves elevated Mexican cuisine and a vast selection of tequilas in luxurious surroundings. Traditional and contemporary Mexican dishes are prepared with prime Nebraskan Angus beef, Mexican prawns, Maine lobster, Dungeness crab and natural chicken.

4545 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla , 858.200.2222,

Jeune et Jolie, Carlsbad

Jeune et Jolie, Carlsbad.

Jeune et Jolie, Carlsbad.

(Howard Lipin / The San Diego-Union-Tribune)

This nouvelle French Bistro opened Dec. 16 in Carlsbad Village. It’s the second project from Campfire restaurant owner John Resnick and chef Andrew Bachelier. Before launching the rustic wood-fired culinary program at Campfire two years ago, Bachelier honed his fine dining credentials at five-star Addison in Carmel Valley. The refined art deco-inspired restaurant, named for the Resnick’s daughter Elsie June and Bachelier’s daughter Margot Jolie, has a modern, whimsical and lighter take on French cuisine.

2659 State St., Carlsbad, 760.637. 5266,

Jeune et Jolie, Carlsbad.

Jeune et Jolie, Carlsbad.

(Howard Lipin / The San Diego-Union-Tribune)

Little Sakana Japanese Sushi Bar & Grill, Mira Mesa

This all-you-can-eat sushi spot opened in mid-December in the Mira Mesa Mall. It’s the latest restaurant concept from entrepreneur Tuan Nguyen, who operates Pokeland a few doors down, and partner Jenna Hu, co-founder of ICMonster dessert shop. The 40-seat restaurant serves hot and cold items, including sushi and nigiri, noodles and teriyaki dishes.

8270 Mira Mesa Blvd., Ste. E, Mira Mesa, 858.860.5000,

The Morning After, Gaslamp Quarter

In December, nightclub impresario Jamie Johnson opened this unique dual-use bistro/bar, serving breakfast, brunch and lunch by day and serving as a sports bar by night. Featured daytime dishes include Fruity Pebbles pancakes and a red velvet waffle with cream cheese icing. Bar offerings will include chicken and waffles, sliders, buffalo wings and more.

531 F St., Gaslamp Quarter, 619.542.9664,

Natural Style Chicken, Hillcrest

In 1979, Natural Style Chicken opened on West Point Loma Boulevard and quickly became famous for its #11 plate: Teriyaki Chicken with Rice. Over the years, the family-owned fast-food restaurant has also earned a following for its rotisserie chicken and Korean-style ribs. After 40 years, the company has expanded with a second location that opened in December in Hillcrest.

501 University Ave., Hillcrest, 619.228.9442,

Ramen Ryoma Japanese Ramen & Tapas Bar, Pacific Beach

Founded in Beaverton, Ore., Ramen Ryoma is now expanding rapidly across San Diego. Its first local noodle shop opened last summer in Clairemont Mesa. A second opened Dec. 26 in Pacific Beach. A third will open later this year on University Avenue in Hillcrest. Owned by Yoshinari Ichise, Ramen Ryoma is known for its housemade Rustic Temomi (hand-massaged) ramen noodles that don’t get soggy because of a special wheat flour that’s used that doesn’t absorb too much of the house black pork broth.

825 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach, 858.483.0177,

Sugar Factory American Brasserie, Gaslamp Quarter

Sugar Factory American Brasserie, Gaslamp Quarter.

Sugar Factory American Brasserie, Gaslamp Quarter.

(Howard Lipin / The San Diego-Union-Tribune)

This whimsical, Instagram-worthy restaurant is the culinary centerpiece of the Theatre Box entertainment complex, which opened downtown on Dec. 11. Corporate chef Bryan Ogden, son of James Beard Foundation award-winning chef Bradley Ogden, has created an over-the-top comfort food menu that includes Monster Burgers loaded with toppings from waffles to plantains, sliders, sandwiches, pastas and brunch items. But the real reason people arrive, phone cameras in hand is its Goblets — huge colorful cocktails (and non-alcoholic drinks) for a crowd, filled with fruit, gummy candies, smoking dry ice and toppings of cotton candy, suckers and more.

701 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter, 619.814.2225,

Sugar Factory American Brasserie, Gaslamp Quarter.

Sugar Factory American Brasserie, Gaslamp Quarter.

(Howard Lipin / The San Diego-Union-Tribune)

Tahona, Old Town

Tahona, which opened in October, is a mezcal tasting room, bar and Oaxacan-style restaurant that serves 120 varieties of mezcal. The 52-seat restaurant/bar re-creates the look, taste and feel of the mezcal tasting rooms founder Amar Harrag visited during his travels in Oaxaca. Among the mezcal brands it will serve are Casa Tribal and Mezcal Animas. In February, owners will open a 25-seat speakeasy inside Tahona called Oculto 477, so named for the spirits of the 477 early San Diegans buried in the El Campo Santo Cemetery next door.

2414 San Diego Ave., Old Town, 619.255.2090,

Toast Gastrobrunch, Carlsbad

In late January, Sami Ladeki relaunched his former Pisco Rotisserie & Cevicheria in Carlsbad as a boozy brunch, breakfast and lunch eatery. The Carlsbad venue was originally a location of Ladeki’s long-established Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza chain. He revamped it in late 2017 as the Peruvian-style Pisco, but the concept failed to connect with diners. Sammy’s executive chef/partner Alfred “Alfie” Szeprethy has designed a hearty menu with items including smoked brisket hash and pistachio-shredded toast. A creative brunch cocktail program includes Flaming Coffee, Boozey Start, Lavender Lady and a number of bloody mary concoctions.

5970 Avenida Encinas, Carlsbad, 760.438.1212,

WhipHand American Brasserie + Beer Bank, East Village

Open since mid-December in the former Comun Kitchen space in East Village, WhipHand is the latest project of Grind & Prosper Hospitality Group (other restaurants include Miss B’s Coconut Club in Mission Beach and Park 101 in Carlsbad). The 2,000-square-foot restaurant has an open kitchen turning out gourmet comfort foods, as well as 24 self-serve beer taps in the intimate industrial chic dining room. Sample dishes from chef Quinnton “Q” Austin’s menu include short rib pie a la biscuit, lobster roll with jalapeno slaw and a smoked cheddar burger.

935 J St., East Village, 619.450.5515,

Most anticipated openings of 2019

  • Animae, downtown
  • Blade 1936, Oceanside
  • The Bungalow, Westfield UTC
  • Casero Taqueria, Carlsbad
  • Ciao Plaza Restaurant, Vista
  • Draft Republic, La Mesa
  • Eggies, PB & East Village
  • Feast & Fareway, Coronado
  • Flap Your Jacks, North Park
  • Herb & Sea, Encinitas
  • Huntress, Gaslamp
  • International Smoke, Carmel Valley (One Paseo)
  • Louisiana Purchase, North Park
  • Lump Rooftop, Gaslamp
  • Morning Glory, Little Italy
  • My Yard Live, San Marcos
  • The Outpost Urban Food Hall, Poway
  • Pan y Sal, Barrio Logan
  • Park Commons, Sorrento Mesa
  • The Plot, Oceanside
  • Sisters Pizza, Bankers Hill
  • Social Syndicate unnamed project, Del Mar
  • Storyhouse Spirits, East Village
  • Sycuan & Clique expansion, El Cajon
  • Travis Swikard restaurant project, location TBA
  • Unnamed Tajima project, East Village (in former spot of Café Chloe)
  • Ways & Means Oyster House, La Jolla and Carmel Valley
  • Wild ‘N Out Sports Bar and Arcade & iLov305, Gaslamp Quarter (in the Theatre Box entertainment complex)
  • Zinqué, Little Italy

Read more details about these anticipated restaurants here.