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Where to eat in San Diego during SfN 2016

In just a few days, the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting will be kicking off in San Diego, California. I’ve had a number of homes in my 48 years; the most recent being the New York/New Jersey area for the last ten years as part of Oxford University Press. But the longest home, and the one I keep coming back to, is San Diego. The weather is perfect, the multi-cultural facets are inspiring, the local universities top-notch, and the food scene is divine. If you consider the relatively small geographic area surrounding the San Diego Convention Center where the conference will be held, you are pretty much guaranteed to find every type of food you could desire. And since the annual meeting will be bringing nearly 40,000 neuroscientists to the Gaslamp Quarter, being prepared and in the know will guarantee that you can try some outstanding restaurants.

(Relatively) New to the San Diego restaurant scene

For fans of Bravo’s Top Chef, Richard Blais (season 4) opened Juniper and Ivy in Little Italy (which is an enjoyable walk—or a faster taxi ride—from the Gaslamp Quarter). When I first went to this cavernous warehouse of a restaurant, I wasn’t sure how I felt, even though I found the food to be fantastic, as expected of Chef Blais’ techno-gastro style. But when I returned the following night, I was hooked: it is fun, vibrant, and an experience to behold.

Right around the corner, and newer to the San Diego restaurant scene is Herb & Wood by famed San Diego chef (and Top Chef season 3 contestant) Brian Malarkey. This large former furniture store is gorgeously decorated with a mix of warehouse style, comfortable fabrics, and stunning chandeliers to create a truly magical environment. And the food? Stunning! It’s a bit of east meets west via a bit of the UK if you ask me. Oh yeah, arrive early and have an old school cocktail! (But no driving folks: call a taxi or walk home!)

Little Italy

Before we leave the Little Italy part of San Diego, there are a couple of favorites that I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about. Mimmo’s has fond memories for me, and that includes the food! The portions are huge and the service is on point but not pretentious, and I think that this is about as close to real Italian as you’ll find.

Although I’m not a fan of chain anything (hotels, restaurants, bars, etc.) that doesn’t mean that they are all bad and Davanti is amazing. If the weather is perfect (which it should be), sit outside (and if you get chilly, ask that they turn on one of the outdoor gas-heaters).

Old Town San Diego

But let’s switch gears and talk Mexican food shall we? If you have a car, and you see a small restaurant with one of the ubiquitous names like Hilberto’s (my favorite), Royberto’s, or Roberto’s to name a few, just stop. Don’t question, just stop. (But don’t tell me because I’ll be envious as I won’t have a car.)

Old Town Trolley — Old Town, San Diego, California by fabrice gille. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you don’t have a car, there are still a few options that won’t let you down. Just hop on the trolley—the stop is right across from the convention center and at the bottom of the Gaslamp Quarter—and head north (south will take you to Tijuana) to Old Town. The go-to restaurant, albeit perhaps a tad touristy, is the Old Town Mexican Café. The food is classic and there’s nothing boundary-breaking because hey, you’ve come here for traditional Mexican food!

My other go-to, and admittedly my favourite for the food, the drinks, and the memories is Café Coyote. This restaurant is much smaller than many of other restaurants in Old Town, but the food is amazing and the staff is so helpful and wonderful that I often find myself sitting there eating more tortilla chips than I need, and having another margarita (that I probably shouldn’t have had either).

Old school San Diego

Two stand-out restaurants that have been around for quite some time are also within walking distance of the Gaslamp Quarter, albeit a healthy walk: Mister A’s and The Prado. But remember: “old school” often means “dress code” so be prepared.

Mister A’s is quintessential old school San Diego to me. Situated “up the hill” on the corner of 5th and Maple with views of Balboa Park to the east, Downtown (south), and the airport and ocean to the west, this is classic American cooking. With white table cloths, jacketed waiters, and menu items cooked “sous vide”, you will be in for a rare treat. But remember to make a reservation and dress appropriately.

Another classic San Diego restaurant is located in Balboa Park: the Prado at Balboa Park. Although the dress code here is not quite the same as it is at Mr A’s, you would certainly be well-served to be dressed appropriately. Enhanced with classic and warm décor, the Prado leans toward the Italian side of seafood cooking, with a refined touch. If you have the time, I would encourage you to stroll around Balboa Park before heading to the Prado for a pre-dinner cocktail. (A note of advice: although I recommend walking to many places, and you can certainly walk up to Balboa Park, I would not recommend walking back after your dinner as you may encounter some of the homeless population who have made the park their home.)

Can’t miss Gaslamp Quarter

If your day has been long and you just don’t want to venture too far, there are plenty of Gaslamp Quarter restaurants (and bars) that will meet your culinary needs.

My favourite Gaslamp restaurant that is still around is Bice. Bice is classic Italian dining at its best. Although their website says “fine dining”, which it is, don’t be afraid to arrive without a jacket: although preferred, it is not a requirement. The décor probably leans toward the “calitalian” side of things which I find relaxing and inviting. The homemade pasta is amazing and if they have burrata on the menu, grab it!

My other favourite, which also happens to be a Brian Malarkey restaurant (and I think, perhaps, his first in San Diego) is Searsucker. This is quintessential and unapologetic American cuisine and although now a chain, they still maintain the highest quality food and service. The wine list is outstanding and, arguably, one of the best in the city. Don’t be surprised to see a queue outside of the restaurant of people hoping to get in: make a reservation and this won’t happen to you.

We look forward to seeing you in San Diego during the Society for Neuroscience conference. Stop by our booth to explore some classic texts released as new editions, along with free copies of neuroscience’s top-ranked journals. Be sure to follow us on @OUPMedicine and stay updated during the conference with #SFN2016 and @Neurosci2016.

Featured image credit: Hotel del Coronado by nighowl. CC0 public domain via Pixabay

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