Dining Year in Review: San Diego soared in 2019

From terrific newcomers like Jeune et Jolie, Fort Oak, Animae, Il Dandy, Cesarina and International Smoke, to Addison’s Michelin star, Claudette Zepeda out at El Jardín and the Gina Champion-Cain scandal, it was a restaurant year for the books


Christmas came early to San Diego this year.

Back in January, we made our first visits to the recently opened restaurants Jeune et Jolie in Carlsbad and Fort Oak in Mission Hills. Simply put, we were blown away. And it was apparent, just weeks into 2019, that the region was about to experience a bar-raising, watershed year for dining.

And the gastronomic gift kept giving.

Animae, Il Dandy/Arama, Morning Glory, Cesarina, International Smoke and Rare Society were among the dazzlingly delicious newcomers that helped make this one of the most exciting culinary years in memory. With a critical mass of first-rate eateries, San Diego is finally shedding its restaurant also-ran status and emerging as a bona fide dining destination. From strip malls to historic neighborhoods, homespun fare to boundary-pushing creations, Convoy Street to Carlsbad, Little Italy to La Jolla, North Park and beyond, nearly every opening tasted like a step forward.

Even in a year with some surprising setbacks (farewell Urban Solace and Pisco), a veritable shocker (Claudette Zepeda out as chef at El Jardín!) and even a giant-sized scandal (WTH Gina Champion-Cain?), there was much to celebrate in 2019.

It was the year that ultra-persnickety Michelin inspectors deigned San Diego’s finest fine dining spot, Addison, worthy of a coveted star — even if the secretive guide’s other choices left us scratching our heads. Coronado and swaths of North County came out of hibernation and woke up to thriving restaurant scenes. And 2019 will go down as a milestone for elevated Italian dining worthy of a major American city.

So dig in: Here are bite-sized samplings of the 2019 Dining Year in Review, our main courses, Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year, and for dessert, we even have an all-sweets edition of the Top 5 Bites of the Year.

Before Animae's opening, partners Brian Malarkey (left) and Chris Puffer were the picture of calm. At least for that one moment when this photo was taken.
Before Animae’s opening, partners Brian Malarkey (left) and Chris Puffer were the picture of calm. At least for that one moment when this photo was taken.
(Hayne Palmour IV / Union-Tribune)

Snazziest restaurant: Animae

This is no malarkey — Brian Malarkey and team’s Asian-inspired Animae is a sexy, ultra-glamorous ode to style and substance. Chef Joseph Magnanelli’s mash-up of cultural influences and flavors is a smash, particularly coupled with executive pastry chef Adrian Mendoza’s innovative sweet endings. Malarkey and design savant Chris Puffer have created a luxurious, velvet-draped cocoon of hushed-tones and sophistication that best exemplifies San Diego’s culinary maturity. More than just the region’s shiny new thing, Animae is essential eating. 969 Pacific Highway, downtown San Diego. (619) 432-1225. (Parente)

Biggest honor: Addison earns a Michelin

San Diego was finally put on the elite dining map in June when the inaugural Michelin Guide California awarded a coveted star to William Bradley’s luxurious temple of contemporary French dining. Not to take anything away from the fabulous Addison — the hands-down best restaurant in San Diego — or the global recognition the star brings, but frankly, this was a no-brainer for Michelin inspectors. So, what was going through their heads to give Bradley’s exquisite, tasting-menu experience only a single star, thereby shutting out every other eatery in the county? Coupled with the bizarre “affordable,” “accessible” “hidden gem” Bib Gourmand designations for Juniper + Ivy, Kettner Exchange and El Jardín, Michelin showed itself as One-Percenty out of touch as its critics complain it is. Let’s hope it was just newbie blunders and that, at the very least, Addison gets the multiple stars it so deserves. 5200 Grand Del Mar Way, Carmel Valley. (858) 314-1900. (Parente)

Biggest dining scandal: Gina Champion-Cain charged with fraud

Restaurants fail all the time, but the shocking downfall of veteran San Diego restaurateur Gina Champion-Cain this fall took down nearly a dozen well-known eateries, including Patio on Goldfinch in Mission Hills, Fireside by the Patio at Liberty Station and Swell Coffee in Del Mar. Champion-Cain has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of operating a $300 million scheme involving restaurant liquor licenses that defrauded an estimated 50 investors. Cohn Restaurant Group is running a few of Champion-Cain’s remaining restaurants in receivership, including the beloved Saska’s in Mission Beach, but it, too, could be sold to pay off investors. (Kragen)

Chef Claudette Zepeda, photographed at the opening of El Jardin restaurant in 2018. The restaurant closed this year and reopened as a lower-priced cantina under the leadership of new chefs.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Biggest dining news: Claudette Zepeda flames out at El Jardín

Chefs quit or get ousted from restaurants all the time, just not as spectacularly as Claudette Zepeda‘s July departure from her ambitious, upscale regional Mexican eatery. Barely a year old, Zepeda and El Jardín were riding a wave of accolades from Michelin, The New York Times, local critics and the James Beard Awards; she was the only semifinalist from San Diego this year. Real world San Diego’s response? “It was too expensive, not family-friendly and needed more of a margarita focus,” owner and Breakfast Republic founder Johan Engman told the U-T. Zepeda, the U-T’s 2018 Chef of the Year, was out, and the money-losing restaurant was shut down for a quickie revamp into the more casual El Jardín Cantina. It’s less expensive, has a kids’ menu and more of a margarita focus. We didn’t have to pay Engman’s bills, but for those of us who were buoyed by what Zepeda was trying to achieve, the implosion was like (margarita) salt on our wounds. 2885 Perry Road, Liberty Station, Point Loma. (619 795-2322. (Parente)

The explosion in vegan dining options continues to grow, including this year the opening of the county’s first vegan Japanese restaurant, The Yasai on Convoy, and a branch of the nationally acclaimed The Modern Vegan in North Park. Bread service went from a throwaway free table item to a gourmet appetizer course, with many fine dining restaurants in town charging $5 to $8 for gourmet house-baked breads. Tasting menus proliferated at higher-end restaurants, giving hopeful chefs vying for a Michelin star the opportunity to better tell their culinary story. Counter culture, meaning order-at-the-bar fast-casual service like at newly opened Ciccia, Del’s and Bantam’s Roost, is an increasingly common millennial-driven self-service trend. Omakase, a chef’s choice menu option once reserved for traditional sushi bars, expanded to more modern formats and cuisine, including the new Hidden Fish, an all-nigiri, 90-minute speed sushi bar on Convoy Street. Zero-waste cooking went from economical to gourmet, as nose-to-tail-devotees like chef Davin Waite found innovative uses for protein and vegetable ingredients formerly destined for local landfills. Office park dining took off with more restaurant groups exploring the captive lunch crowd and lower-priced real estate in traditionally non-commercial zones, like The Florence in Sabre Springs, Park Commons in Sorrento Mesa and Gravity Heights in Sorrento Valley. The gastropub shakeout began as San Diego’s once-booming craft beer industry tightened its belt, leading to the closure or retooling of masculine, high-carb sports pubs like Westroot Tavern, which re-emerged this fall as the more-feminine, family-friendly Pacific Social. The experiential dining boom showed no sign of stopping with several dine-and-play spots opening countywide, including the massive Punch Bowl Social restaurant/bar complex in East Village, Del’s Hideout in Rolando and the Windmill Food Hall in Carlsbad. (Kragen)

Game-changing restaurant: Morning Glory

Leave it to the hipster heretics at CH Projects (Born & Raised, Raised by Wolves, Polite Provisions) to turn the least hip meal of the day on its head. Brunch will never be the same, thanks to the April opening of the stunning, $4 million sophisticated egg joint in Little Italy. An explosion of pink and brass high design, Morning Glory serves delectable global breakfast fare not found at any of San Diego’s zillion-and-growing other brunch places. And while the size of a brunch crowd don’t always equate with excellence, Morning Glory’s waiting list is a testament to San Diego’s hunger for a place that goes beyond passé obscene portions and bottomless mimosas. 550 W. Date St., Little Italy. (619) 629-0302. (Parente)

Notable closings

Some of the county’s most-beloved restaurants folded in 2019, victims of changing consumer tastes and times, rising rents and labor costs, retirements and more. Here are some of the most surprising closures of the year: Urban Solace in North Park; Solace & The Moonlight Lounge in Encinitas; Brooklyn Girl in Mission Hills; Gordon Biersch in Mission Valley; The Land & Water Co. in Oceanside; Blue Point Coastal Cuisine in the Gaslamp Quarter; Route 29 in Gaslamp Quarter; Isshido Ramen in Mira Mesa; Urge Gastropub and Whiskey Bank in Oceanside; Brothers Provisions in Rancho Bernardo; Pisco in Liberty Station and Carlsbad; The Barrel Room in Carmel Valley; Westroot Tavern in Carmel Valley; Smokeyard BBQ & Chop House in University City; Rimel’s Rotisserie in Cardiff; 52-year-old Su Casa in La Jolla; The Wooden Spoon in Escondido; and nearly all of the Patio restaurants (see “scandal” item above). Still to come: the Red Fox Room in University Heights is slated to close in January after more than 50 years in business. (Kragen)

New restaurants we loved in 2019 (honorable mention)

ALBACA, Coronado; Bibigo Kitchen, Fashion Valley; Black Rail + Kitchen + Bar, Carlsbad; Blue Ocean/Harumama, La Jolla; Bull and Bourbon, Sycuan Casino Resort, El Cajon; Candor, La Jolla; The Henry, Coronado; Herb & Sea, Encinitas; Hidden Fish, Kearny Mesa; HiroNori Craft Ramen, Hillcrest; International Smoke, Carmel Valley; Louisiana Purchase, North Park; Little Frenchie, Coronado; Medina, North Park; Nado Republic, Coronado; Oi Asian Fusion, Barrio Logan; Orfila Tasting Room, Oceanside; Semola, Little Italy Food Hall; Serea, Coronado; Simsim Outstanding Shawarma, Carmel Mountain Ranch; Sugar Factory, Gaslamp Quarter; Windmill Food Hall, Carlsbad; Zinqué, Little Italy. (Kragen and Parente) peanut butter cake with peanut butter ice cream, salted peanuts caramel and ethereal peanut dust. $8.

More coverage: 2019 Dining Year in Review