Since Paul and I are locals and live a scant five miles away from the convention center, convention-goers often ask us where to eat. Let’s face it: eating at the convention center is expensive. And not very good either. Concession stand sandwiches start around $8 (based on last year’s prices) and the cheapest thing on the menu is whole fruit at $2.75. Dang, that’s an expensive piece of fruit! We always avoid eating convention center food and instead wander outside to get some fresh air and lunch. We almost never pack food considering it’s always a rush to get out the door and into the convention center before 8 a.m to set up and beat the crowd. Yup, that’s the life of an exhibitor.
Well, Paul and I finally pulled ourselves together this year and came up with a few places to eat within a walk of the convention center. The eating choices in downtown are endless, but here are a few of our recommendations.
Ralph’s is my go-to place for all our lunches downtown. I would love to say we take industry lunches every day and shut the table down for an hour. We don’t. Someone is always there… and it’s always Paul. So my job every year is to hunt down some food for my man. Food that will keep him going until we’re released from exhibitor servitude.
Ralph’s is super-nice grocery store offering a full-service deli, a salad bar and hot foods. It’s sooo much cheaper to eat here and I can easily walk away with a full meal for two for under $6. They’ve recently remodeled their ready-made food area and have Nathan’s hot dogs for $.99 ready to chow down. Also included in the remodeling are several self-checkout lanes. A club card isn’t necessary to get the best lunch deals but I recommend it to shave a few cents off cold drinks and other snacks, especially if you buy in bulk.
Tin Fish is one of the places we always try to go after a hard day at the convention. It’s right by the trolley stop with a great view of the convention center. It’s one of two locations in San Diego (the other is in Imperial Beach).
The have the obligatory fish ‘n chips platter as well as a San Diego favorite— fish tacos. I know of a few out-of-town exhibitors who make their pilgrimage to Tin Fish every day of the convention. Everything is made to order and a basic fish platter starts around $10. And if you must, they even have hamburgers for those that prefer their food land-locked.
Mary Jane’s Coffee Shop
Mary Jane’s Coffee Shop is located near the south entrance of Gaslamp and is connected to the Hard Rock Hotel. It tends to be loud but the food portions are hefty and they offer disco fries (a New Jersey favorite — fries topped with gravy with cheese).
They are open early for breakfast and continue serving food late into the night. Meal prices average around $11 (similar to many Gaslamp eateries). They don’t accept reservations and the average wait time during Comic-Con is 45 minutes.
Rockin’ Baja Lobster
Rockin’ Baja Lobster is one of those places to bring a lot of people, especially since it tends to have a party-like frat boy atmosphere. They are well known for their baja buckets: a small pail filled with shrimp, slipper tail lobster and grilled chicken and steak. Buckets vary in size but easily feed 2-3 people.
My favorite is the salsa bar which includes a refreshing mango salsa with endless chips. Rockin’ Baja Lobster’s downtown location will also feature a special Comic-Con themed drinks menu so if you’re inclined, check it out.
Cafe 222 is our default place to take out-of-towners to breakfast in the downtown.
It’s located at the street level of an unassuming condo complex. It’s always packed on the weekends for breakfast and lunch, so it’s no longer an insider secret (especially after being featured on The Food Network). The interior is funky with utensils hanging from the lights overhead.
My favorites are the waffles and they offer a choice of Spam alongside bacon and sausage in their All-American breakfast.
Morton’s Steakhouse is a restaurant located under the Harbor Club towers (twin high-rise condos right across from the convention center). The entrance faces away from the convention center but keep a nose out for the smell of grilled steaks.
After doing some investigating, I’m actually surprised I haven’t written about Morton’s because their happy hour is amazing.
Unlike McCormick & Schmick’s, which has discontinued their happy hour during Comic-Con, Morton’s continues to offer their great deals at their bar. Happy hour is Monday thru Friday from 5-6:30 p.m. and continues with a second happy hour starting at 9:30 until they close at 11 p.m.
Their “Bar Bites” include filet mignon sandwiches, blue cheese steak fries and mini crab BLTs all for around $6 a plate. Select drinks are also priced accordingly.
Heavenly Cupcake works on the premise to be like Sprinkles Cupcakes as much as possible. They even have a signature piece of fondant on top of select cupcakes. While they don’t break new ground in the area of cupcakes, everything they bake is delicious and it’s within walking distance of the convention center. An interesting flavor to try is their orange chip— a vanilla cake with a hint of orange flavoring with chocolate buttercream frosting. Be on the lookout for free cupcake fliers around ‘Con time!
Smashburger just opened their downtown location a few months ago to add to their growing San Diego hub. Other locations include Mission Valley, Del Mar and La Jolla.
This Colorado-based burger chain has half-pound burgers for around $6 — a steal compared to the bland ones offered inside the convention center. Secret menu items include PB&J shake (using Haagen-Daaz ice cream) and a Sin City Smashburger with bacon, fried egg, two kinds of onions and cheese with a beef patty on an egg roll. They also offer veggie items, “smashed” chicken sandwiches and hot dogs. If you must get veggies, they also served them here flash fried.
The Lincoln Room
The Lincoln Room is my favorite find this spring and if you happen to cosplay as Lincoln at Comic-Con this year, you’ll fit in with the log cabin decor and penny-topped tables. Heck, I think even the steampunk crowd would get a hoot out of this place.
They have a great happy hour with hearty specials in the $5 dollar range. My not-to-miss favorites are their wasabi deviled eggs, fried green tomato stack, fish & chips and chili dogs.
Hodad’s is another burger joint that joins the fray of burger places migrating to downtown. It’s the furthest place from the convention center with a walk being a little over a mile — but it’s well worth it.
It’s a Ocean Beach institution that has grown in popularity since being featured in Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Hodad’s second location on Broadway doesn’t have the line out the door like its OB location… but that may soon change. Popular items I recommend are the bacon cheeseburger for $5.5o and a half-order of frings. Be forewarned that a full order of frings (onion rings and french fries) is a huge order, even for two people.
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In addition, a variety of food trucks will also be stationed in a lot across from Cafe 222. Participating food trucks include Chop Sooey, Ms. Patty Melt, Super Q, Asian Persuasion, Two For The Road, Devilicious, SD Street Eats, Flippin Pizza and Green Truck. The list may change as the week progresses but this is a great opportunity to check out a variety of gastrotrucks without having to track them down around the city.
Even if you don’t have tickets for the big event, people watching is always immensely entertaining outside of the convention center. Convention events spread to nearby hotels, bars and restaurants and they usually don’t require proof of admission. If you’re like me, you might luck out and run into a celebrity throwing his own convention!
See you at the convention!