If 2014 was a year of expansion for San Diego's restaurant community, then this year was one of rethinking and retrenching. New ethnic cuisines took center stage, beer pubs exploded, and dining "experiences" flourished. Here's a look at the 15 notable dining trends of 2015.
1) Restaurant of the year: Bracero Cocina de Raiz
Binational chef Javier Plascencia's famed Baja Med cuisine movement reached its zenith last spring with the opening of this two-story fine-dining restaurant and bar in Little Italy . Plascencia, who runs restaurants in San Diego, Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe, has built a brand by reinventing rustic Mexican dishes with modern techniques and ingredients.
2) Dining district of the year:Liberty Station
East Village might have gotten this year's nod, but it's been troubled of late with a string of high-profile restaurant closures. Instead, we've got our eye on Point Loma's Liberty Station, which is poised for a dining explosion in a few months. This year Soda & Swine joined long-established venues like Solare, Tender Greens and Slater's 50/50. But come February, the myriad new venues coming online will include Liberty Public Market, Fireside by the Patio, a Buona Forchetta pizzeria, Moniker General, Breakfast Republic and more.
3) Here today ...
Besides Bracero, a number of high-profile restaurants opened around town this year. Among them: Coasterra, Cohn Restaurants' 28,000-square-foot bayfront dining destination; Catania, Whisknladle's Italian coastal concept in
; Crack Shack, the casual fried-chicken follow-up for Juniper & Ivy pair Mike Rosen and Richard Blais; Water Grill, a Gaslamp outlet of the popular L.A. seafood chain; Oceana Coastal Kitchen at the Catamaran Resort; and Cannonball, an expanded sushi deck in P.B.
4) ... Gone tomorrow
Running a restaurant can be a bigger gamble than the roulette wheel, but 2015 seemed an especially challenging year for both new and long-established locations. The reasons included skyrocketing rents, overcrowding, failed concepts, undercapitalization and some owners' desire to try something new. Even some of the county's most respected chefs - Chad White, Kurt Metzger, Jason Gethin - shuttered locations. Some notable exits: White's Común Taqueria, Metzger's Kitchen 4140, Gethin's Table No. 10, 25-year-old Delicias, 17-year-old Roppongi, Local Habit, Rama, Saja, Toast Enoteca, Wang's
, R Gang Eatery, Bijou, D Bar, George's Fish Bucket, The Yard House and, in just the past week, 57-year-old Albie's Beef Inn and 1-year-old Brabant Bar & Cafe.
5) Gastropub takeover
With more than 100 craft breweries now established in San Diego, it stands to reason that a wave of beer-centric pubs serving carb-loaded comfort food wasn't far behind. New taverns popped up monthly around the county, along with older spots that retooled their menus to capitalize on the trend, including the Whistling Duck Tavern, Quad Ale House, Backyard Kitchen & Tap, Inland Tavern & Grill and San Diego Brew Project.
6) Eating and Drinking in San Diego
The brainchild of San Diego foodie Edwin Real, this year-old Facebook group forum has recruited more than 6,700 followers (including many chefs, servers, restaurateurs and brewers) who share thoughts, photos and recommendations on their favorite meals at local restaurants and bars. Real created the page to help consumers harness social media tools to promote little-known neighborhood eateries and up-and-coming chefs. He has also organized a half-dozen food cook-off/throwdown events and launched a page for dining in Baja. Future plans involve expanding the concept to multiple markets and then using the data to create stand-alone websites that traveling foodies can use to pick restaurants while dining in other cities.
7) The rise of ramen
Japanese noodle shops are giving taco stands a run for their money in some San Diego neighborhoods. Among the many that debuted around town this year: Ramen Yamadaya in Clairemont, Nishiki Ramen in Kearny Mesa, The Safe House in North Park and Jinya Ramen Bar in P.B. Still to come in January, Rakiraki Ramen & Tsukemen in Little Italy and the Whet Noodle House in
. Check out our DiscoverSD favorite bowls, here.
8) The great beer sell-off?
Two of San Diego's homegrown breweries were sold to "big beer" companies this year: MillerCoors bought majority interest in Saint Archer in September, and last month Constellation Brands spent $1 billion to acquire Ballast Point Brewing. Local beer writers predict a long-overdue shakeout of the overpopulated industry in 2016.
9) Doughnuts go upscale
Even fine-dining spots are now serving these fried circles of sweetness, often with weird ingredients, decadent dipping sauces and price tags up to $4. A few we love: The warm lemon poppyseed doughnuts at Herringbone in La Jolla; the honeydew mint prosciutto rounds at North Park's Nomad Donuts; the bite-size "crobits" at P.B.'s Lil Orbits; the Mexican hot chocolate variety at downtown's Donut Bar; the brioche doughnuts at North Park's StreetCar Merchants; the house specialty bacon maple doughnuts at Great Maple in Hillcrest; or just about anything coming out of chef Brian Redzikowski's 2-month-old Devil's Dozen Donut Shop in Little Italy.
10) Sustainable seafood
San Diego's leading chefs and fish suppliers have pushed for years to make restaurants more responsible and honest in their seafood sourcing. The tipping point was reached this year, with many restaurants switching to serving only sustainable and seasonal fish on their menus. And in a high-profile case this month, eight San Diego sushi restaurants were charged with criminal fraud for serving lobster rolls without any lobster.
11) Experiential dining
Dinner got interesting in 2015, with the growth of event-style dining programs around San Diego. Diners happily paid to experience unique group meals at Dinner Lab, The LAB Dining Sessions, Diner en Blanc, Field to Vase dinners, Pop-Up Dinner SD, Autumnal Equinox at Suzie's Farm, the Farmers, Friends and Fisherman dinner series at Red Door, and SoundBite, where chefs plan a meal inspired by the band playing live during the meals.
12) We love our ...
Wonder how much San Diegans love their food? This year, The San Diego Union-Tribune put together several online slideshows featuring our favorite food picks, and here's the rundown on how many page views each garnered: San Diego's 30 best burgers: 680,337. The top 25 pizzas: 614,813. The 25 best bakeries: 518,100 views. Best bites at Disneyland: 240,823. San Diego County Fair food roundup: 233,907. The 10 best doughnuts: 91,622. The 20 best bacon dishes: 49,146.
13) Mucho molé
In Mexico, virtually every town has its own molé, the complex sauce made with chilies, nuts, veggies and chocolate. Now, San Diego restaurants are competing for the best molé. Bracero has two on its menu. Prepkitchen makes a molé for its charred octopus dish. El Agave's molé poblano is legendary. The bars at Juniper & Ivy and The Nolen make cocktails with molé bitters.
14) Recognition, at last
For years, San Diego's culinary scene has run a distant third to what's happening in San Francisco in L.A., but cracks are appearing in the ice at last. It started when "Top Chef: All Stars" winner Richard Blais relocated to San Diego last year to partner in Juniper & Ivy and talk up the local food scene on his numerous national TV shows. Last summer, "Top Chef" filmed an episode at J&I featuring Javier Plascencia, and one of this season's cheftestants is longtime local Chad White. Unfortunately White is planning a move soon to his hometown of Spokane, Wash., but the local buzz is growing.
15) SommCon debuts
San Diego may be universally known for its craft beer, but maybe not for long. Last month, San Diego became home for the inaugural SommCon, four-day wine education convention that drew more than 1,200 sommeliers and wine aficionados. Local winemaker Skip Coomber of Coomber Family Ranch said he thinks urban wine-tasting rooms will one day equal the number of local beer halls.
Looking ahead to 2016
If 2015 was the year of the waffle and Brussels sprout, then what's hot this year? Keep an eye out for poke, the Hawaii-born raw fish salad. It's the menu star at two Chipotle-style restaurants opening in January: Pokewan in Oceanside and Pokirrito (poke wrapped burrito-style) on Convoy. A second pokiritto is planned later this winter in Little Italy.