Could there be classier places than the ones on this list? For sure. Cheaper? Yes. Cooler? Of course. But the places I find myself going back to have this human thing going on. They’re small, they’re original, they’ve got real people, an eco-system, a vibe that you feel as soon as you walk in, a warmth, even if the food isn’t Zagat-rated. You savor new tastes on your tongue or, heck, you savor the fun you had. Whatever, you’re glad you went past your normal perimeter wires and ate strange food served up by strangers. Eating’s a daily show, folks. What I like is that in our town it can be a pretty wild variety show.
4711 34th Street, Normal Heights
This used to be a store room in back of Rosie O’Grady’s pub in Normal Heights. Now it’s a classy, bricky little go-to place for people who are into wine and talk. It’s too small — 20 chairs — not to get involved with everyone around. Mostly I get the plate of cheeses, salami, dried fruit, dark chocolate for $9, or something like a chili relleno topped with sautéed shrimp, off the menu from Rosie’s. (They share the same kitchen.) And some glass of the red stuff for around $8. Happy hour’s 4:30–6:30, Monday–Friday. And Sunday has free bites and half-off wines left over from the night before. (They’ve also opened in La Mesa, 7777 University Avenue.)
658 Hollister Street, Imperial Beach
I discovered this on my way down to the border, only to find out that hey! The food deals were almost better than in TJ itself. Like, that first time, 99-cent fish tacos and $1.50 Bud Lights. It is a little blue-and-white place with bars on the windows across from the Palm Avenue trolley stop. Meal deals I go for now: excellent Siete Mares soup (with shrimp, clams, octopus, squid, fish like marlin); shrimp burritos, octopus tostadas, and clams and cheese. They have Mariscos Germán food trucks, but this little place is especially cozy and authentic. And I like how, with each order, no matter how small, you get a cup of steaming fish soup, with onions and tomato and shredded cabbage, free.
4653 University Avenue, City Heights
One of my drop-in favorites up near Euclid helped me sate my yearnings for Asia: Trieu Chau is a Chinese-Lao-Cambodian eatery that’s bright and sunny in the mornings with its lattice windows, and has this great breakfast that I love, jork, a rice soup that’s been China’s favorite breakfast for nearly 4000 years. It’s great with interesting flavor adds such as rousong (“meat wool”), or chicken, or fish. Great for hangovers, too. Also here in the mornings, you get djak kwai, double croissants you can dunk into Cambodian coffee (spiced, with lots of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of the cup). Also, there’s usually a lively group of Cambodian men who don’t mind you joining in, if you can handle Khmer politics.
1441 L Street, East Village
The one thing Mission Brewery doesn’t have is, well, food. But I eat there all the time. How? The management happily allows customers to bring their own food or get stuff from, like, pop-up food tents that set up outside the front door. My favorite visitor to Mission: Mad Munch Grilled Cheeser Co. (They’re also at O.B.’s Wednesday farmers’ market.) They make seven varieties of grilled-cheese sandwich. Try Zach Daddy, with roast beef in French onion marinade, salami, Provolone. Or Ava Magoo (raspberry jam, peanut butter, cheddar, mozzarella, grilled). Matching beer? No contest. Go for Dark Seas, matey. Mission’s Russian Imperial Stout. Ooh arr. And, yes, Mad Munch delivers. Right to your bar stool.
2154 Logan Avenue, Logan Heights
El Nuevo Carrito
This is a survivor, a converted trolley car sitting in the garden of an ancient wooden house. Inside, with its decorated walls and hooped ceiling, it still feels like it must have, trundling up the tracks on Logan Avenue, sometime between 1889 and 1949. Lady cooks have been serving traditional Mexican food in here ever since. Good time to come is morning. One desayuno to ask for is their luscious garlic shrimp. Or bistek a la plancha con huevos (grilled steak with fried eggs), rice, and frijoles. Prices? So reasonable. It may be Nuevo, but it feels unchanged. Sitting at one of the nine tables, looking down the long carriage corridor, you feel like you’re aboard the Orient Express, circa 1920.
420 3rd Avenue, Downtown San Diego
The Whiskey House
You could spend $1000 on a single shot of whiskey here. Or $1. But you don’t have to be a serious whiskey drinker to like this romantic new-old place. Just come during happy hour (4–7 every day). For starters, the food deals are great, from $3 Scotch eggs to $5 mac-and-cheese to the excellent Angus house burger and fries for $6. The icing on the cake? Buy a pint of Staropramen Czech beer for $4 and you can get a shot of Benchmark whiskey for $1. Added bonus: you’re drinking and eating in one of the legendary ghostly Houses of Joy in downtown’s Stingaree district. I swear, at dusk you can hear the pit-pat of bare feet in the upstairs rooms.
3354 Hancock Street, Midway District
Hancock Street Café
Let Trump be Trump and Mario be Mario. Mario Waclawski is the eccentric owner of this place that’s festooned with Trump signs. He also has a music studio in here, has walked across the United States, has met the Pope-before-last, and just happens to love The Donald. He’s eager to talk, as long as you eat, too. He makes an awesome breakfast plate of potato pancakes, a two-egg omelet, and veggies. Or hot dogs, or hand-twirled “personal pizzas.” All reasonable, price-wise. Hot sandwiches are his stock in trade. But the thing to do is hang out, talk music, talk famous people Mario has met. And then...okay. Go ahead. Talk about The Donald. Chew the fat. Just keep chewing the sandwich, too.
4902 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
This place just has that feeling. “Those were the days, my friend…” I first went in on a dank Friday night. In half an hour I was eating, drinking, and yakking away like there was no tomorrow. It’s a dark spot at Newport and Cable, with an awkward shape, and yet so filled with the O.B. spirit, everybody’s comfortable. So, no surprise it always seems to be full. Food’s a combo of sushi and tapas, including burgers. And there’s a good happy hour. Five bucks for the California roll, $5 for two sliders stuffed with salmon, pulled pork, or chicken. And a jar of OzEKI One Cup sake for $4.50. Also: they have a totally interesting, active beer list.
4990 North Harbor Drive, Point Loma
Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern
This place fills my need for the sports-bar thing. But also for the green sustainability thing. Also the totally indulgent ribs thing. Also the history thing. Because, yes, Jimmy’s is a standard sports-bar tourist-trap on the waterfront. But it comes with happy hour $3 beers. Okay, Coors, but who’s complaining? And these guys have gotten serious about sustainability. They’re a certified GRA Green restaurant, in a sustainable kind of building, serving “organic livestock, fruits and vegetables,” and only “sustainable species of seafood.” But the must-have is their star happy-hour item, awesome ribs and herbed fries for $9. Oh, the history thing? This is where modern California began. Spanish Landing, 1769.