Since being back in San Diego I have not been hesitant to branch out and explore new places. I’ve got to admit I’ve had an absolute blast. I’ve also cultivated some key favorite spots where the staff is always friendly, the food always hot, and the drinks and music particularly strong and to my liking.
When I first lived in San Diego many years ago I had two favorite places downtown in the Gaslamp District: Searsucker and Taka. Since being back I have added to my list but these two still remain in my top favorite list.
When I first went to Searsucker, a mere 23 years old, I was immediately struck by the friendly and lively ambiance. New to the city I wasn’t too familiar with the downtown area and wasn’t too sure what kind of places I would find – or like for that matter. Not true for Searsucker. I was hooked the moment my foot crossed that threshold. It can be loud but the feeling you get stepping into the place is one of joy. The crowd, which hovers around the young 30s professional group, is usually dressed in business casual or cocktail attire. Boisterous groups laugh as they unwind from an arduous day’s work while small clusters of young women out for a night on
the town sip on top notch cocktails. Now the food can be pricey depending on what you order and most items are served a la carte, but I am fully of the mind that sometimes it is worth your wallet and waistline. The food is quintessential American fare with a slight southern twist. You have various meat dishes including
braised pork butt, sirloin, farm bird lollipops, brioche french toast with grilled mushrooms and melted cheese, spicy tuna tartar, and a decent seafood and greens selection. Each plate, whether it is a small bite or a full meal, is decadent and you will find that you will take your time savoring every bite down to the last scraping of your plate.
Taka provides top-quality sushi at a reasonable price. Nestled just a block south of Searsucker it’s almost easy to miss. The cabana is an understated black with white lettering and the restaurant itself is on the smaller side compared to all the other ones surrounding it. But don’t let its mere size fool you. Taka is only opened 5:30 pm – 10:30 pm and if you haven’t made a reservation you better arrive by 6:00 pm in order to secure yourself one of the few bar seats.
The place itself is understated and casual. I’ve never felt out of place when arriving on a Friday or Saturday night in my standard jeans and sweater. Everyone is friendly and sushi chefs are perfectionists. Most of the time I order New Zealand salmon (sake), raw scallops (hotate), Spanish mackerel (aji), and squid (ika). But it’s also best practice to ask your chef what the specials are or what is currently in season. The first time I did this I was given sardines. Now I hate the sardines that come out of a can. They are oily, salty, and worst of fishy. But the raw sardines dish I had at Taka has made it one of my favorites. It’s not on the menu but when I go in I always make sure to make a request for it. It’s even rewarding when the chef smiles at your preferred choice.
Since I’ve been back I’ve done some additional exploring. East Village has exploded during my absent years and there are easily a couple dozen new restaurants and night bars. I am going to call out to the few that have made my local hangout list:
Stella Public House: Thank god this place is located just around the block from me! For many the location is not that desirable. It’s near the homeless and at night I usually take the extended way home to avoid some of the darker, unlit corners. But the food, atmosphere, and drink are worth it. Stella is a farm to table café. The head chef is from Naples and if you come during the day you can see him pulling fresh buffalo mozzarella and prepping trays of dough preparing for the nightly wood-oven pizza rush. They have 30 rotating craft beers on tap. The layout is an open air restaurant with a newly-opened park right outside. I’ve definitely become a local coming 2-3 times a week thinking that one day I’ll get tired of the charred brussels sprouts with fresh ricotta or my go-to pancetta and arugula pizza with chili oil. Thankfully that day has not yet come. As long as they keep the beer flowing and the tiramisu appropriately drenched in homemade espresso I will continue to grace this establishment with my face – and stomach.
Knotty Barrel: Knotty is a relatively new bar in East Village. Placed squarely on Market Street it is usually pretty full on new customers and faithful locals. It has a large beer list and decent whiskey and scotch bar. My favorite dish is actually the seared ahi tuna salad with chilled seaweed as well as the fried pickles, parmesan truffle fries, and bison burger. During football season it is the defunct Penn State bar on Saturday and NY Giants bar on Sundays. But for you Cowboy and Patriots fans don’t be afraid. Everyone is nice, even to their rivals.
Bottega Americano: Bottega is an Italian restaurant located on Park Blvd. that also has an epicurean marketplace and decent bar and lounge area. The layout is open with a modern feel. It is on the quieter side and attendance can suffer do to its location, but it has a legit happy hour and brunch menu. My favorite times to come are around 7:00 pm and grab a glass of wine or bourbon while also ordering one of the pizza or pasta dishes or during brunch time on the weekends. Its brunch menu is pretty unique. My suggestion, order the eggs benedict with the grilled artichokes, pancetta, and cheesy grits.