To borrow a line from Charles Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, for San Diego restaurants in 2021. The industry endured COVID-related shutdowns, extreme labor shortages and skyrocketing food and labor costs. At the same time, a pandemic-weary public flooded local dining rooms leading restaurateurs to experience some of the highest traffic and sales in their history. And two years after its arrival in San Diego County, the Michelin Guide spread its love far and wide at local eateries, from taquerias to fine-dining establishments.
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Here’s a look back at the year in San Diego dining and some culinary predictions for 2022.
Restaurant of the Year: Callie
- 1 Restaurant of the Year: Callie
- 2 Most versatile chef: Davin Waite
- 3 Hottest food trend of 2021: Fried chicken
- 4 Hottest food trend of 2022? Plant-based cuisine
- 5 Hottest homegrown cuisine: Filipino food
- 6 Best pandemic pivots
- 7 Michelin’s midas touch
- 8 Most likely to earn Michelin attention in 2022
- 9 My 8 best bites of 2021
After two years of construction and COVID-related delays, San Diego-raised chef Travis Swikard finally opened his dream restaurant, Callie, serving the Mediterranean “cuisine du soleil” he helped develop, as right-hand man to Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud at Boulud Sud in New York City. The stylish East Village restaurant became a fast favorite with both local diners and the region’s chefs. Four months after Callie opened in June, Swikard earned both Michelin Plate and Michelin Bib Gourmand awards. I expect a Michelin star isn’t far behind.
Most versatile chef: Davin Waite
This longtime Oceanside resident has been wowing Southern California sushi fans for years with his wildly creative raw seafood dishes at Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub. A few years back he and his wife, Jessica Waite, added a ramen shop next door. In 2020, he expanded his skillset to tasty plant-based options at The Plot, and last month he added a fourth Oceanside restaurant, the quick-service taco/poke shop Shootz Fish & Beer.
Hottest food trend of 2021: Fried chicken
Comfort food became king during the pandemic, and many of the region’s chefs responded with gourmet, spicy Nashville and Asian riffs on fried chicken sandwiches and tenders. Among the best 2021 entries: Naegi Izakaya, serving chef William Eick’s special-recipe karaage chicken sandwiches in Oceanside; Junya Watanabe’s Crispy Karaage line at Raki Raki Ramen on Convoy, new bb.q. Chicken, also on Convoy; and Baba’s Hot Chicken in Hillcrest. Meanwhile, locally born Crack Shack expanded its fried chicken empire and many of the nation’s fast-food burger chains added chicken sandos to their menus in 2021.
Hottest food trend of 2022? Plant-based cuisine
Vegan dishes have become a staple on restaurant menus locally, nationally and even internationally, including Din Tai Fung, which added vegan options last April. Encinitas recently launched a seasonal pop-up vegan market. The vegan bakery Split Bakehouse expanded this year to La Mesa. Superbloom vegan café opened in Mission Bay. And 2-year-old The Plot aims to open more outlets.
Hottest homegrown cuisine: Filipino food
San Diego’s Fil-Am community is one of the largest in the U.S. For years locally, Filipino chefs have been making their mark on the local restaurant scene and in 2021, they came to the forefront. Tara Monsod took the helm of 2-year-old luxe Asian spot Animae in July, and it earned a Michelin Plate honor two months later. Chef-entrepreneur Phillip Esteban opened White Rice and Weapon Ramen shops at Liberty Station and in National City’s new multi-ethnic food hall Market on 8th, which was developed by Fil-Am developer Joel Tubao. In March, chef Anna Santos Hamilton opened Starfish Filipino Eatery in Ocean Beach. And pastry chef Justin Gaspar pays homage to his culinary heritage at newly opened Hommage Bakehouse in P.B.
Best pandemic pivots
When South Bay chef Steve Brown’s Japanese Wagyu dinner program shut down in March 2020, he relaunched with two concepts: Swagyu butcher shops and gourmet burger eateries in Imperial Beach and Pacific Beach and a butcher shop in Poway with plans for more. And Girl & Dug Farm — a San Marcos specialty grower that lost its prime customers, Michelin-starred restaurants, during the pandemic — found a new mail-order clientele among home chefs looking to liven up their nightly meals.
Michelin’s midas touch
In 2021, The Michelin Guide expanded its appreciation of San Diego County restaurants after taking 2020 off because of the pandemic. Michelin inspectors awarded Carmel Valley’s Addison its much-deserved second star, and three other restaurants also earned their first stars: Jeune et Jolie in Carlsbad, Soichi Sushi in University Heights and Sushi Tadokoro in Old Town. The Guide also announced five new Michelin Bib Gourmands (“great food at reasonable prices”): Callie, Little Frenchie, Dija Mara, Morning Glory and Ciccia Osteria. And five new Michelin Plate honors (“very good food”) went to Animae, Callie, Fort Oak, Little Frenchie and Menya Ultra.
Most likely to earn Michelin attention in 2022
After earning both Michelin Plate and Bib Gourmand honors within months of its opening in June, Callie is the restaurant most likely to earn a star next year. Chef Claudette Zepeda’s globally inspired menu at VAGA in Leucadia is worthy of Michelin attention. So is chef William Eick’s Japanese-inspired prix-fixe restaurant Matsu in Oceanside. Chef Brad Wise’s wood-fired, everything-from-scratch ethos has reached its zenith with Fort Oak, which should move up from a Plate honor in 2022. Chef Roberto Alcocer’s just-opened prix-fixe VALLE restaurant has huge ambitions and stunning execution. Multitalented chef Brian Redzikowski’s imaginatively conceived Yucatán-inspired menu at newly opened Camino Riviera may be his best effort yet. AVANT in Rancho Bernardo is returning to its adventurous culinary origins with a new tasting menu from executive chef Christopher Gentile. Semola, an Ambrogio15 Gastronomy Project, in La Jolla offers a fresh and imaginative mix of Italian, Argentinean, Japanese and Korean cuisines under the leadership of head chef Daniela Martinez. Hoxton Manor, opened in July by original Dija Mara chef Ryan Costanza in North Park, is wowing diners with its Southeast Asian fusion cuisine. And new Cori Trattoria and Pastificio in North Park won two international awards in 2021 for Sicilian chef Accursio Lota’s authentic Italian cuisine.
My 8 best bites of 2021
Callie’s Aleppo chicken, which has a three-day prep process that makes it juicy inside with a crunchy crust on top, was my favorite dish of the year. I also loved VAGA’s wood-fired sea bass, served with pour-over sauce made with coconut milk and lime leaves. Jeune et Jolie’s vegetable dishes change frequently, but newly minted Michelin starred chef Eric Bost works culinary magic every night with locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables. Seeing a concert at the new Rady Shell amphitheater? Order Urban Kitchen Market’s Indian-spiced fried potato and cauliflower dish, a mouth-watering dish topped with masala aloo gobi spice and yogurt sauce. The Plot’s vegan Cräb cake, made from fibrous lion’s mane mushrooms, crunchy apple slaw, shaved fennel root and creamy tarragon sauce, has the perfect stringy texture of jumbo lump crab meat. The Marine Room’s salpicón — from new chef Mike Minor — is a delightfully spicy and crunchy chilled poached lobster salad with mint leaves, fried tortilla strips, Fresno chiles, carrots and red onions. Cardellino’s whole roasted cauliflower with shallot sumac oil, dukkah and yogurt has a rich depth of flavor. Camino Rivieria’s Brentwood corn ice cream is molded in the shape of an ear of corn and served in a real corn husk with garnishes of baked corn flakes, popcorn and caramel corn — surprising, creamy and delicious.