Comic-con banners are up again throughout downtown San Diego. Aside from which panels to attend and what to limited edition collectors items to buy, the question when your stomach starts rumbling is where to eat. Instead of resigning to the overpriced, unappealing meals at the convention center, there are a lot of eateries downtown worth checking out and they serve everything from right-priced meals to totally legit cocktails. Previous years, I’ve just listed my 10 favorite places but this year my list is broken down into subcategories like grocery stores, cheap eats, healthy eating, gluten-free and restaurants with amazing cocktails.
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For the longest time Ralphs was the grocery store closest to the convention center and I still highly recommend visiting this place to stock up on drinks and snacks, plus they make sandwiches and a variety of hot foods. In recent years, they’ve converted their patio to a quick service center, selling soda and prepacked sandwiches. And what other place is open 24 hours? I recommend applying for a Ralphs card before the convention to save a few bucks. 101 G St.; 619-595-1581
The newest grocery contender downtown is Jimbo’s. Located almost across from Ralphs, it’s a health-conscious grocery found in Horton Plaza but they also have several hot food areas offering customized burritos and wok’d dishes as well as a salad bar. Go here if the same old food at Ralphs is looking a little tired (which it tends to do after a few days). 92 Horton Plaza; 619-308-7755
For a hot custom-made pizza with unlimited toppings, Pizza Studio is worth a visit. It’s one of many customized pizza concept places hitting San Diego but this is the closest to the convention center. A 11-inch thin pizza is $7.99 but bargain hunters looking for something cheaper can’t go wrong with a margherita, pepperoni, veggies lovers, white or island pizza creation for only $5.99. For added savings (and if you think you’ll be hitting the pizza train often), sign up for their rewards program that awards free pizza. Gluten-free crusts are available for an additional $2. 119 Broadway
Another favorite is The Kebab Shop. It’s a bit more of a walk away from the convention center but the promise of spiced lamb- and chicken-filled schwarmas or döners (flat bread) meet you at the end for $6.99 each. For a low-carb option, order their döner box that omits the bread completely and is filled with your choice of filling including lamb, chicken or falafel with assorted greens. There is no additional charge to add rice or fries to the box. Also look for their wide selection of fresh salads at the front for those looking for healthy sides. 630 9th Ave.; 619-525-0055
My go-to Mexican restaurant joint downtown serves up burritos, tacos and plates piled with carne asada, carnitas and shrimp to name a few. But if you haven’t had a California burrito yet — a flour tortilla filled with carne asada, cheese, sour cream and fries —make it a priority; despite the name, you can’t find it anywhere else in California. Also good is their breakfast burrito (served until 11 AM) and starting at $3.85, it’s a deal. It’s filled with egg, cheese and your choice of ham, bacon or sausage. If you start your day with this, you’ll probably be full until evening. 202 Park Blvd.; 619-269-6055
Impressive Restaurants with Great Cocktail Programs
One of the hottest places in town is found in Little Italy, an adjacent neighborhood to downtown that can be accessed by the trolley or cab. Self-proclaimed foodies that have never missed an episode of Top Chef should put this restaurant by Richard Blais at the top of your list. It’s pricey but it’s an unforgettable meal that starts with a number of amazing cocktails like Devil in Disguise (rye whiskey, crème de mure, ginger and bitters) followed by thoughtful and delicious plates using foraged ingredients. I recommend ordering the carne crudo asada and saving room for their riff on the East Coast snack cake, The Yodel. Read my preliminary Zagat write-up here. 2228 Kettner Blvd.; 619-269-9036
This restaurant is new to the downtown San Diego scene and after one visit, I’m infatuated with all their drinks and the food is amazing to boot. A sample of their impressive cocktails includes The Death of Daffy with duck fat rinsed genevere yellow chartreuse, fresh thyme and orange, Cointreau and absinthe, and my favorite, the Flux Capacitor (pictured above) with gin, rosewater, violet liquor, lemon, honey, maraschino and dry ice. It’s served in a beaker for two people. The small plates are just a delicious. Here’s my full write-up about the restaurant on Zagat. If you’re even considering, make reservations now. 369 10th Ave.; 619-550-1262
Find this sandwich shop with hip cocktails inside Petco Park. The sandwiches are on the pricey side starting at $9 for their take on sausage and peppers. Personally, I like the B(E)LT ($11)with pork belly, egg, heirloom tomato and butter lettuce on sourdough. If you’re looking for a cocktail with your sandwich, this is the place to go. Their house drink, Rare Form Whisky cocktail with bourbon, housemade cherry cordial, Kirschwasser and chocolate bitters is a delicious beverage to sip on while taking in the decorated space and portraits. Their happy hour menu is from 4-7 PM Monday through Friday with discounts on cocktails and beer. 793 J St.; 619-255-6507
Inside this super luxe hotel is a classy restaurant serving up familiar cocktails using superfruits. Essentially, it’s a healthy drink while you get your buzz on. Look for new takes on piña colada with raw pineapple juice and rum infused with banana peels, Tequila sunrise with raw beet grenadine, mango and key lime and, my favorite, a Big Island Ice Tea with hibicius flower tea and miracle fruit cane sugar that gets progressively sweeter as your drink it because of the miracle fruit. All drinks are $12. While you’re there, check out the rest of the menu items like chicken in a biscuit and turducken pate. 326 Broadway; 619-744-2077 Other notable places for drink: Neighborhood (there’s a secret entrance to Noble Experiment) and get a taste of the San Diego craft beer scene from Stone Brewing Company’s downtown tap room (next to Rare Form).
Add Tender Greens to your list for satisfying salads, sandwiches and drinks from locally sourced farms. It’s sort of a cafeteria setup where you can watch them make your food but I assure you everything there is amazingly delicious. Order a big plate with their grilled medium rare steak as a salad with baby arugula, tomato and balsamic vinaigrette for a complete meal. 110 Broadway; 619-795-2353
A number of restaurants offer gluten-free items on their menu but for a refreshing item, you’ll love Blind Burro’s delicious and refreshing jimaca taco frio ($12). Sliced jimaca subs in for tortilla and it’s topped with cold cooked shrimp, mango salsa, lemon-serrano crèma and avocado slices. It’s so good that I forget it’s gluten-free. Other notable restaurants with gluten-free menus include Cowboy Star, Fine Foods Downtown, Toast Enoteca & Cucina, Jsix and Puesto. 639 J St.; 619-795-7880
If you’re not rushing off to the convention center, I recommend heading to Café 21, The Mission, or Café 222 for breakfast. The eclectic breakfast at Café 21 includes delicious tiramisu pancakes (pictured above), The Mission has unforgettable French toast and Café 222 is known for their waffles. If you’re not up for starting the day sweet, all three places have a great selection of savory options too. Note: None of these places take reservations.
Also be sure to check out my friend, Erin Jackson’s picks of where to eat downtown here.