Balboa Park has been in the limelight this year because of the centennial of the Panama-California Exposition, but for all its cultural, scenic and recreational offerings, its dining scene is woefully anemic.
Although several new cafes have popped up in the park in recent years, there are few options for diners after the museums close their doors in the afternoon, and many outlets aren’t open on Mondays. Here’s an insider’s guide to navigating the park’s sometimes challenging culinary landscape.
The park’s only fine dining spot, run by the Cohn Restaurant Group, serves lunch seven days a week, but it’s closed for dinner on Mondays. Prime dinner reservations are hard to come by on weekend nights, but if you put your name in at the hostess stand 10 minutes before dinner service begins at 5, you might get lucky with a scenic patio table. The best-kept secret is the lounge-only happy hour menu with $4-$5 wines and $5-$8 appetizers from 4 to 6 p.m. and 8 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays and 8 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For dinner, try the spicy calamari fries in Korean chili sauce ($13.50) and the red-wine-braised beef short ribs ($26.95). 1549 El Prado, San Diego. (619) 557-9441 or cohnrestaurants.com/theprado
This promising newcomer in the San Diego Museum of Art’s outdoor sculpture garden serves light fare (soups, salads, sandwiches), a dozen local craft beers on tap and cocktails, as well as a popular weekend brunch. It’s brought some much-needed night life to the park center, but call first to check availability. Evening hours can be spotty due to special bookings like weddings. Be sure to order a sandwich made on the house-baked bread. 1450 El Prado. (619) 232-7931 or sdmart.org/panama_66
This new Mexican cafe is hidden inside a narrow corridor by the Model Railroad Museum. Similar to Chipotle, it offers build-your own burritos and bowls. Prices are reasonable, but get your meal to go because the noisy, windowless location can’t compete with the peaceful beauty outdoors. And plan your visit wisely. Service concludes at 3to 4 p.m., and it’s closed on Mondays. 1649 El Prado. balboapark.org/in-the-park/casa-1915
Need a coffee break? This excellent and speedy new walk-up window outside the Mingei museum serves hot and iced espresso drinks, teas and gourmet cocoa along with locally baked pastries. If it’s available, order the New Orleans cold brew coffee with cardamom and The Dreamer, a salted caramel and pecan biscotti from San Diego’s Darling Gourmet Biscotti Co. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 1439 El Prado. mingei.org/visit/cafe
The Tea Pavilion
If coffee’s not your thing, just a few dozen yards away is the recently renovated outdoor cafe at the Japanese Friendship Garden, offering dozens of hot and iced green, white, oolong, herbal and black teas. The Cohn group oversees its affordable lunch menu of Japanese soups, noodle dishes, tempura appetizers and salads. 2215 Pan American Way. (619) 231-0048
Best of the rest
Most museums have snack bars with candy, cold sandwiches and nachos, like the kid-friendly Dinosaur Cafe at the Natural History Museum. Village Grill near the giant banyan tree serves burgers and hot dogs. The Old Globe has sweets, sandwiches, coffee and wine at Lady Carolyn’s Pub, and there are food carts in the park central plaza. Still hungry? Three to four food trucks pull up each afternoon by the Casa del Prado Theatre.
For more, visit balboapark.org/in-the-park/Restaurants.