San Diego has long been criticized for what its dining scene lacks in comparison to other major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland.
Chalk it up to cultural differences like San Diegans’ trademark, laid-back attitudes, year-round sunshine and countless outdoor attractions that make our city less appealing as a “dining destination.” It would take a lot San Diego’s restaurants to overshadow its natural wonders; something along the lines of Julia Child rising from the grave and opening a restaurant in Little Italy.
But San Diego’s world-renowned craft beer industry has had a significant impact on local food culture. Dedicated brewers have proved that well-made beer tastes better than that watered down, soulless crap. Now more than ever, eaters want more out of their food, and a constantly growing crop of new restaurants is answering the call for more thoughtfully prepared food.
Without a doubt, San Diego is in the midst of a restaurant renaissance, making it prime time for big concepts from other cities to make their way over for a piece of the pie.
The latest comes from the LA-based, fast casual Lemonade, known for its wildly popular Cali-comfort food with a healthy, seasonal twist - and yes, several versions of the drink, including strawberry rhubarb and rosemary watermelon. Located next to Snooze in Hillcrest -- in the former home of failed fast casual concept Freebirds from Santa Barbara -- this is store number 17 for Lemonade, with a second location set to debut at Westfield UTC on Aug. 20.
It’s the best of both worlds inside this cafeteria-like setting, with speedy counter service plus staff on the floor making sure you have everything you need. Go for the six-salad combo ($12.95) that easily feeds two; beets, watermelon and mint comprised a standout scoop, along with the Asian-leaning shredded chicken salad made with coconut milk. The Bloody Mary shrimp cocktail - sold separately as a side - is spicy and delicious, and the truffle mac and cheese, though overcooked, didn’t go uneaten. Whatever you do, don’t leave without a slice of Lemonade’s cake, or a mini-version of it in cupcake form. It truly tastes like pink lemonade, complete with a sour tang.
All things considered, Lemonade is a much-needed addition to Hillcrest, with fast, healthy grab and go that won’t break the bank. Surrounded by hospitals, the gym, and people too hungry to wait in line at Snooze, the future looks bright for Lemonade in Hillcrest.
More incoming out of towners include LA’s Jinya Ramen Bar with locations set for Hillcrest and Pacific Beach; Japan’s Nishiki Ramen with its first location slated for Kearny Mesa; Chicago’s Rick Bayless’ unnamed La Jolla concept; and South Korea’s Caffebene, a liege waffle and gelato cafe with over 1,000 locations worldwide.
Café Gratitude is yet another LA-based chain with brand new San Diego digs. Dubbing its vegan, raw fare “flavor driven” - like all food should be? - there’s some equally perplexing marketing geared toward the vegan-yogi crowd that, frankly, isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of sustainable tea. With a menu featuring breakfast, lunch and dinner options, the gorgeous Little Italy restaurant has been busy since opening with people who aren’t phased by reciting a daily-affirmation to order food; yet, it’s hard to ignore that the term vegan is being taken advantage of here to charge outrageous prices - like $25 yogurt shots and $8 “elixirs,” i.e., glorified house made sodas. Two drinks and three “candies,” albeit good tasting, cost $32. That’s an afternoon snack not everyone can afford.
But as long as there’s a need to fill, it’s all good - and the same goes for out-of-town restaurants in general that are making their way to San Diego. As our dining options continue to rapidly expand, the only thing our food community can hope for is that locally grown businesses - new and longstanding - aren’t damaged by where the imports choose to land. If, and only then, there will be war.
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.