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San Diego - Great weather, but where is the outside dining?

  • j

I am constantly searching for a restaurant to enjoy the sun and weather we pay for here in America’s Finest City. I have dreams of a large SUNNY grassy area that may have a view or some sort of garden, something that includes the color green and is outside… A place where parking is free/easy and the vibe is relaxed and not touristy…Time and time again, I find a small collection of wobbly tables facing the parking lot, golf course (lol) or tucked in the back facing a brick wall.

Stone World Bistro, Bernardo Winery, Hacienda de Vega and a few others in La Jolla (damn that parking) are fine but am I missing something…? Is that all the green space restaurants we have in a city of over three million people?

Where are the outdoor patios, gardens or seating areas in San Diego?

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  1. Piatti's
    Crab Catcher
    LJ Shores resto
    Island Prime at Harbor Island
    Fish Market Downtown back patio
    Brigantine Del Mar
    Kitchen 1540
    Flavor Del Mar
    JRDN at Tower 23
    Rooftop bars at Marriott Gaslamp, Andaz and Hotel Solamar

    Agree for America's Finest City we should have a plethora of outside dining resto's.
    Good call on Hacienda de Vega...one of my 'sacred cow' faves.

    1. La Villa in little italy has an outdoor patio which seems like it would be nice once summer comes. This summer will be their first summer.

      I think there has to be some kind of law against open air restaurants, patio dinning and outdoor drinking in san diego.

      San Diego is literally the only place I have encountered across the globe with nice weather that doesn't embrace it from a restaurant, bar and nightclub perspective. It is almost bizarre.

      1. Amaya at the Grand Del Mar
        Argyle at Aviara. Yeah there is a golf course, but nice lagoon views.
        AR Valentine has a small patio. golf and ocean views.
        Casa Bandini. nice garden patio. a little tight seating though.
        Cosmopolitan reworked the old Bandini space and has a nice patio with foliage that is now starting to grow in.

        1. May want to hit a farmers market or Little Italy, pick up some tasty bites a stick of fresh bread, fresh fruit and something to drink, head for a picnic area on harbor on one of our beach areas.

          1. "Where are the outdoor patios, gardens or seating areas in San Diego?"

            They're out there, just not where the average tourist would probably want them, which would be at the beach. The coast is too expensive, and not enough available/zoned places to put new places with space for a patio and outdoor seating. As for the rest of the county, consider that San Diego is essentially a massive suburb with a very small downtown. And like most places in California, you have to drive 20 minutes to get anywhere, which means that any places either have to join an existing strip mall or try and go it alone in isolation in an area where people probably wouldn't frequent enough to sustain your business.

            As for the beachfront....between the stretches of houses which have blocked off so much of the coast, the state-owned beaches and parks, and the enormous military bases, there really isn't that much available area to get developed on those beaches that we're supposedly known for. The downtown area on the water is surrounded by a convention center, naval shipyard, harbor terminals, and an airport. Not exactly Waikiki, with your feet in the sand. Also, keep in mind that the coastal geography of San Diego isn't the same as say, Florida. We have bluffs and cliffs for large stretches on the coastline. For much of the beachfront where the coastal communities are, there are already freeways and busy streets and the real estate is long carved up, so expansion is limited. Some areas are getting so rundown that it's not even worth bothering (Imperial Beach, Oceanside), and for many of the others, the locals have a heavy say in how much the coast can get built up (Del Mar, Carlsbad, Encinitas), which makes new developments unlikely.

            Also, the coast is actually overcast for a good part of the year with the marine layer. We San Diegans call 65 degree weather "cold", so naturally people would prefer to sit indoors a lot of the time. They can get enough sunshine in their backyards, or driving around town in their car. It's just not the same for us who have grown up here as it would be for someone who comes from back east where every breath of cool wind and every ray of sunshine is "magical". We are spoiled by our weather and geography, but not enough to want to exploit it any more than we have.

            For inland, there are plenty of nice places, and small cafes, patios, etc. It's just not what people think of when they think San Diego. They assume that all of San Diego is one big beach walk, with the waves crashing right up onto the Gas Lamp. There's even a travel commercial on TV running right now where someone mentions that they're taking surf lessons in San Diego, and the picture pulls back to show a picture of downtown surrounded by beaches. Funny.

            4 Replies
            1. re: cookieshoes

              There are a few on the beach dining options up on the north coast. I will make the suggestion to keep it simple and don't set your expectations too high and you can have an enjoyable time on the beach. Lunch seems to be a better bet than dinner at most of these places. Yes and you can flame away.
              Posideon in Del Mar only when they pull that heavy plastic tarp away.
              Sbicca while not on the beach, the patio has nice ocean views and 15th street isn't, as busy as 101
              Beach house in Cardiff, the best ocean view of the bunch, but the food, nice staff though.
              Pacific Coast Grill hasn't opened up yet but the view will be good, and the food at their old location was decent.
              Vigilucchi's off of Tamarck. Nice view but looking across 101. the food is about the same as the other restaurants in the chain.

              1. re: cookieshoes

                I see your point, however it is just simply a matter of opening some big windows and knocking down some walls to get some fresh air going, isn't it?

                Think Underbelly. That place is now open air.

                It is a revolutionary revelation in san diego, however, anywhere else in the world it is standard.

                Just make some big windows and open them.

                Or skip putting up the walls.

                Outdoor, open air dining for all.

                Problem solved.

                1. re: cookieshoes

                  "There's even a travel commercial on TV running right now where someone mentions that they're taking surf lessons in San Diego, and the picture pulls back to show a picture of downtown surrounded by beaches. Funny."

                  I just saw that. It is a hotwire commercial.

                  Yeah, you are right, the waves are breaking right in front of downtown.

                  Oh well, maybe it will bring in some more tourism business.

                2. Sorry, Cookie Shoes. I disagree. And JKCDN, you hit on one of SD's major failings in my book. The reason we don't have great outdoor dining is because real estate is too expensive and because the restaurant scene is too backward to recognize how popular al fresco dining is. In SD, too often it's a just a lazy afterthought. We dine outside at Bread & Cie in all kinds of weather, and it's one of the best designed al fresco spots in the city. There is a real art in making outdoor dining that is more than just tables on a sidewalk, which is all they do in Little Italy.

                  In addition to places above,

                  Tender Greens, Don Bahia Bravo (bird rock), JRDN for drinks, and George's Bar (when the windows are full open to the view it feels al fresco), Underbelly

                  19 Replies
                  1. re: pickypicky

                    "the restaurant scene is too backward to recognize how popular al fresco dining is"

                    That I don't get. Other comments above too about there not being any outdoor dining in San Diego, and that it's the fault of the restaurant industry. There are plennnnty of outdoor spots in San Diego. Honestly, I can't believe that anyone would claim otherwise. Like I said, just because it's not located in the sand, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. We've got everything from Swami's Cafe in Encinitas, the Cottage La Jolla, what used to be Charlie's alongside the Beach House in Cardiff, the large patio on the rooftop of the main shopping center in Del Mar, Poseidon, Brickyard Cafe in downtown, Shakespeare's Pub, the patio at Kitchen 1540, balcony at AR Valentien, Jimmy's World Famous, Station Tavern, Feliccia's Under the Moonlight in Vista, Caroline's at Scripps Pier, O'Brien's in Kearny Mesa, Stone will be opening up a huge place at Liberty Station, Wine Steals and TG both are open patio, La Jolla Brewhouse, Prep Kitchen La Jolla, WhisknLadle, Zinc Cafe in Solana Beach, about 2 dozen places in PB, along with patios at places like Pizza Port in OB and Carlsbad, Newsbreak in OB, Sushi Taisho and Coyote in Carlsbad, the roof at Mr A's, the back patio at the Prado, Zanzibar downtown, the rooftop at Proper Gastropub next to the ballpark, El Vitral, Hotel Del, the landing at Coronado, etc etc etc

                    For bars/clubs there are open-air rooftop bars at Stingaree, Altitude, Hotel Palomar, Hotel Solimar, and Ivy in the Gaslamp.

                    We have an abundance of outdoor places. So, I'm curious what the criteria really is here? That we don't have a string of cheaply-priced 4 star restaurants that only "locals" know, located on our beaches and in the parks around the county? That's an impossibility. If they existed, in some space not already taken on our coasts, they'd surely be like any other place on the globe and full of tourists and churning out low-quality over-priced food. No different than Hawaii, or the coast in Mexico.

                    This is Southern California, where the strip mall is still King. You can't invent parks that aren't there, or squeeze into coastlines that are already taken. It's no different than in Orange County and Los Angeles. Real estate is key, and it comes at a premium which most places won't ever be able to afford. Those places that were grandfathered in take full advantage. But it's the real estate that governs everything, which in turn fosters a culture here of people not needing a restaurant to give them their outdoor fix. We live in the sunshine, so no reason to look for it at a restaurant. Other cities with less than ideal weather may try to bulk up on outdoor dining or dedicated outdoor parks with restaurants attached because it's the only sun they can get. Has nothing to do with the restaurant industry here being backwards. I wonder where exactly people are envisioning outdoor dining where we don't already have it? In addition to all of the lesser-traveled places around the county I mentioned, we have the Gaslamp and Little Italy, both full of streetside dining, but those get accused of being too touristy. Places like Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, and Ocean Beach get dismissed for being full of college kids and beach types, and La Jolla doesn't have enough parking and is too expensive. North County is too far away. I wonder that people are expecting a place like Kaito, or Aqui Es Texcoco, or Bruno's to be located on a secret plot on the beach? Craft and Commerce and Underbelly are recent hits, and both have big windows, and guess what, both are getting huge condos built right across the street from them, and just like that they join the dozens of other places with patios or views facing another building or have a sunset view around the corner now obstructed by something built just a little bit closer to the water than they are. That's par for the course in California. No good real estate stays empty forever.

                    1. re: cookieshoes

                      Many of the places you list have lousy food. My criteria is a thoughtfully designed outdoor space (clever landscaping, nice coverage, delineation from the sidewalk, a water feature etc) and/or great food. You did mention Zinc Cafe, which I love-- and that place satisfies both criteria. So, why, oh, why is there nothing like Zinc Cafe within San Diego city? That's what I'm talking about. The Cottage is mediocre food, and the outdoor dining is just tons of tables stuck together outside with umbrellas on them. In Austin TX, even the grocery stores have designated, well-designed outdoor dining, and that's a city that's virtually unliveble outdoors for most of the year.

                    2. re: pickypicky

                      "because the restaurant scene is too backward to recognize how popular al fresco dining i"

                      In san diego's defense, I think there are draconian laws preventing sidewalk dining.

                      That is why there are always these cramped areas with two tops and many times you can't even have a glass of wine for glass or alcohol reasons.

                      And there are those ridiculous laws that you "can't cross the plane of the doorway" with a drink that are suitable for a 5 year old. People that stay in san diego and california too long get institutionalized without even realizing it.

                      Compare this with a place like for instance, Florida or Spain, and you don't have those railing laws, glass laws, walking outside with a drink laws etc.

                      At least I think that is the reason.

                      It's either that or every restaurant owner in san diego has never left california and is a complete idiot. (Possible, but I doubt it).

                      1. re: stevewag23

                        Check out Bread & Cie's outdoor dining sometime. Charles K, the owner, does travel, and when he upgraded their outdoor space he bothered to level it, pave it, put up an awning, and then skirt it with a railing. I think the railing was the city's pressure, but while he was at it, he actually improved the space. Even though it faces a busy street, the space has an air of its own. But then Charles is smart, traveled, and a former director of b movies.

                        1. re: pickypicky

                          "But then Charles is smart, traveled, and a former director of b movies."

                          Yes -- all the above, and more.

                          1. re: pickypicky

                            Yeah, I have checked it out.

                            You are right, that place does have good outdoor dining.

                            "But then Charles is smart, traveled, and a former director of b movies."

                            It shows.

                            1. re: pickypicky

                              I agree, the patio at B&C is wonderful with interesting foot traffic.

                          2. re: pickypicky

                            I have to disagree with you picky. I've lived in many other parts of the country, and only in So Cal do people says it's too hot to eat outside if the temp is above 85 and too cold if its below 75. I've been asked on a 70 day if I'd like the heater on when I was sitting outside in sunlight. People complain that outside seating is noisy, dirty, smelly--I could go on and on--so lots of restaurant owners decide not to bother with it. Too bad for those of us who like to eat outside, the pickings can be slim. Luckily in Escondido, outside dining is popular both on the street and in wonderful patios tucked behind restaurants featuring grills, fountains and more.

                            1. re: escondido123

                              I was thinking the same thing, escondido. Many San Diegans end up with such a small comfort range when it comes to weather condidtions that they'd probably eschew outside dining most of the time. I think it probably is closer to the 70-80 range when you get to the coast, though. :)

                              1. re: RB Hound

                                I have to admit that we fall in this category - We hardly ever eat lunch in restaurants but only dinner, normally around 8-9pm, and at that time there are very few days in SD when the weather is good/warm enough to sit outside for us. The weather is great during the day in SD but most of the time way too cold in the evening/night throughout most of the year.

                                1. re: honkman

                                  Karl Strauss restaurant in Sorrento Valley has an outdoor patio with a pond and japanese garden, remember it as being quite beautiful. Don't remember the food, it was many years ago.

                                  1. re: honkman

                                    Of course, in Escondido most evenings in the summer you can sit outside until midnight--with no mosquitoes!

                                2. re: escondido123

                                  So I wanted to extend an invitation to everyone who finds themselves shivering on the coast come summer and wants to sit outside for a nice meal--come to Escondido where it's likely to be warm and sunny,

                                  1. re: escondido123

                                    So, is Escondido the undisputed champ of outdoor dining, or are there other contenders? An inquiring mind (who is sitting on the East coast, counting the seconds until her last day of work, and still learning about neighborhoods) wants to know :-D :-D

                                    1. re: jvanderh

                                      Escondido is not a "neighborhood" of San Diego but a city of 150,000 about half an hour north with a very mid-century downtown. Where the coast is often overcast, thus the terms May Gray and June Gloom, we are inland on the otherside of hills and usually get sunny by noon so great for lunch most of the year. Now in summer we can get very hot, 90+, so sitting out at lunch can be a little much. But that means in the evening it stays nice and warm like back East, but without the humidity or mosquitoes! I'm from RI so I know what East summers can be like.

                                      1. re: escondido123

                                        Shows what I know :-D. Erm, is Escondido the undisputed place-within-half-an-hour of San Diego with the best outdoor dining scene?

                                        1. re: jvanderh

                                          If there's a better place, I don't know it, assuming you want warm with a variety of places.

                                          1. re: escondido123

                                            To reiterate my recommendations above...La Jolla which is even closer to SD has 2 outstanding restaurants both of which have outdoor dining with great views and food....George's and Eddie V's. you will not go wrong at either!

                                            1. re: josephnl

                                              I understand those are great spots with great views. I thought the OP was looking for a selection of places which is why Escondido seems a great choice. Of course, I can't say you will have green views, but you will certainly have mountain views since we are in a valley here. (Oh and parking is free within a block or two of most restaurants, right in front if your plan is for 2 hours or less.)

                              2. The patio at Casa Guadalajara in Old Town. Their lot is pretty big and free, and if that fills up there is lots of free parking (after 5 pm and weekends) across the street at the CalTrans building.

                                The patio of Casa de Pico in Grossmont Center. Easy to forget one is in the parking lot of a major shopping mall. Free parking, tho' not enough, and if it's busy you have to park in the boonies and hike back to the restaurant

                                1. Cavaillon has a nice outdoor patio that overlooks a small, nicely manicured public park, in a quiet upscale residential area, with ample parking. Definitely not touristy. However, I have not been since the original chef left, so maybe others can chime in about their food now.

                                  Pacifica Breeze Cafe in Del Mar has an outdoor patio that overlooks Camino del Mar, L'Auberge and you can see the ocean behind all of that. No greenery, unfortunately, but a decent view on a clear day.

                                  I would NOT go to The Beach House in Cardiff. Their food is barely edible. The only thing they have going is the view, and that's it.

                                  Vigilucci's is average food, at best. Better than The Beach House, but you can get better food at those prices.

                                  I gave up on Sbicca's years ago. Overpriced meh food.

                                  1. Gingham in La Mesa has a very nice outdoor patio.

                                    1. My fellow Hounders, I submit to you that in this metropolis of nearly 3 million souls, not one restaurant exists (with the exception of stone world brewery) that include the following:

                                      • Outdoor seating in excess of 2000sqft or 25 tables
                                      • Garden, Ocean or Mountain View
                                      • Accessible, close proximity, free parking
                                      • Passable or better food at market rate prices

                                      It is with great sadness that I pass judgment on this travesty and return to my half consumed glass of Pliny

                                      PS -
                                      I am going to open a bakery/wood roasted steak restaurant in Santa Ysabel with outdoor picnic tables overlooking the pasture and a rotating list of wines under $40 a bottle, maybe some live music on the weekends….ahhhh to dream :)

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: JKCDN



                                        At least 25 outdoor tables and more inside.

                                        In excess of 2000 square feet.

                                        Mountain views.

                                        West from the 15 at Via Rancho Parkway then left on Del Dios, it's at the second signal light.

                                        Free parking next to the buildings and outdoor seating area.

                                        Better than passable food.

                                        Santa Ysabel is nice also. I look forward to your place. But have some indoor options; drove to Julian last Monday and the rain, cloud cover and cold was not conducive to outdoor eating.

                                        As far as outdoor dining, I always associated it with smokers and I guess still haven't gotten used to the access for everyone, so never really think about it as a seating option.

                                        1. re: Cathy

                                          Uh-oh. Every time Loic is mentioned in a thread, somebody that seems to be very closely associated to the restaurant shows up to "review" it, then the thread disappears...

                                        2. re: JKCDN

                                          "I am going to open a bakery/wood roasted steak restaurant in Santa Ysabel with outdoor picnic tables overlooking the pasture"

                                          Great idea.

                                          Only you won't get any business from San Diego restaurant owners visiting your restaurant.

                                          San Diego restaurant owners hate open air dining.

                                        3. Okay, a couple of points - First, there are very few restaurants in San Diego that do not have an outdoor dining area. Now they may not have the miles of grassland you want (outside of the Prado, or the Rancho Bernardo Inn), but there is always an outside seating area. Second, and perhaps this is news to you, but San Diego gets cold at night. So a restaurant putting in a large outside seating area does so with the full knowledge that no one will actually sit outside during the dinner service.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: jmtreg

                                            "First, there are very few restaurants in San Diego that do not have an outdoor dining area."

                                            I can think of a lot that don't.

                                            But the ones that do are usually cramped with some railing.

                                            And many close early in the night, and have strange rules about glass and alcohol.

                                          2. The top patio at George's is best bet, I think.

                                            On a related note, I used to do work a lot at Goldfish Point Cafe by the cove (awesome ocean views, it's the only reason they're in business from what I can tell), but now my laptop's battery doesn't last so I have to plug it in, and they have no power outlets.

                                            There's one table at the Living Room with a decent view, but that's about all I've found. Anyone know a better place? I love working with an ocean view, it makes it feel a lot less like working :P

                                            1. Two interesting points above I must comment on: that the coast weather isn't great for outdoor dining and that San Diegoans are picky about dining out unless the temp is right. But that's where thoughtful design comes in! I'm in Palm Springs right now and it's 100 degrees. The best alfresco spots have misters and/or good vegetation, awnings, open windows, heat lamps at night-- anything it takes to make dining outside comfortable. That's what I mean about SD restauranteurs being lazy or slow when it comes to taking advantage of our temperate climate. Outdoor spots like Zinc and Bread & Cie are pleasant even in the rain! It just takes vision. . .and consideration for patrons, not maximum return for minimum expenditure.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: pickypicky

                                                I think it is easier to find good solutions if the weather tends to be too warm, e.g. Palm Springs. If the weather is too cold like in SD there isn't too much one can do. Using heaters isn't a solution as they radiate heat in an uncomfortable way and we always avoid them. SD is good for outdoor seating during lunch and a few days every years at dinnet but otherwise not so much

                                                  1. re: honkman

                                                    Le Vallauris, a wonderful French restaurant in Palm Springs, has a beautiful court yard that you can eat in whether it is hot or cold (yes, Palm Springs does get cold in the winter). They have fans, AC and heaters mounted on the bldg--extravagant but effective, and the prices reflect it. Going much farther afield, in Paris there are outdoor places virtually year round, folks just bundle up and enjoy it.

                                                1. San Diego city permit fees for a patio are in the (ridiculous) $10K range: http://www.10news.com/news/31040404/d.... Hopefully this can be reduced and we'll see more patios in the future. Now if we could just get more warm evenings...

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: sdurban

                                                    Interesting timing on the article.

                                                    I wonder if chowhound helped spark this.

                                                  2. Two great places which have outdoor dining in La Jolla are George's at the Cove, and Eddie V's. Both have outstanding views (especially Eddie V's) and terrific food and drinks.

                                                    1. I've wondered this a million times myself! I've been living in Berlin the last few years and will be coming back to San Diego soon, and strangely enough one of the things I know I am going to miss is the number of great options for sitting outside (at least for part of the year...). Maybe it's just because Berliners appreciate good weather so much when it comes around that more places prioritize outdoor seating. There are, of course, great places to sit outside in San Diego, the Prado comes to mind first, but I want more! I'm sure the expense/complication of getting a license in San Diego is part of the problem, and I hope it gets easier for restaurants.

                                                      8 Replies
                                                      1. re: RosiD

                                                        Thanks RosiD and Escondido123, for confirming my view that the problem is with San Diego restauranteurs of low imagination/funds rather than our weather. I rarely feel [here in SD] that my needs as a diner matter, but rather, I just need to suck it up and take what I'm dished.

                                                        1. re: pickypicky

                                                          I think it has a lot more to do with funds than imagination, and I can't imagine that it has much at all to do with the (nearly perfect) weather. Three or four years ago I was working with a restaurant that was trying to get a permit for an outdoor seating area that was a no-brainer; fenced in, not impinging on the public right of way, and would have been a great addition to the walkable feel of the neighborhood. The permit would have been so expensive and the different requirements so onerous to meet that they had to abandon the idea of the outdoor seating altogether. It was really too bad.

                                                          1. re: RosiD

                                                            RosiD - thanks for this info. Now I can blame the al fresco issue on San Diego's lack of vision as a city, which is one of my favorite things to do!

                                                            1. re: RosiD

                                                              "...with the (nearly perfect) weather..." - When was the last time you had dinner at 8pm or later in San Diego and the weather was warm enough to sit outside without some heaters necessary

                                                              1. re: honkman

                                                                Sure, it can get a little chilly at night in San Diego, but when I was back for my last visit at the end of November I loved being outside whenever possible, even after the sun went down. I'll admit to a little cold climate smugness as I roll my eyes when my mom complains about a cold night at 60 degrees, but I find that the Berliners deal well with the cold by having lap blankets outside for customers, making space heaters unnecessary.

                                                                1. re: RosiD

                                                                  I think the critical difference is that people in SoCal have a different approach to cold weather than people in Germany (or other places with seasons) and tolerate chilly much more than people here. When I lived in Hamburg my tolerance for chilly weather (and most nights in SD are chilly) was very different than it is now living in SD

                                                                2. re: honkman

                                                                  Agree. Lunch or early dinner outside is great and I'm usually warm enough with a heater after dark but my food isn't.

                                                                3. re: RosiD

                                                                  I think that article above says its 10-15k for an outdoor permit.

                                                                  I also had a feeling it had to do with rules/laws/permits.

                                                            2. I moved here from Portland, OR a few months ago and am so happy to be out of the rain. However, Portland has it over SD for restaurants and although it rains 10 months a year, they offer so much more outdoor dining. I am with the idea of putting it large windows that open up to the fresh air. A restaurant owner who has taken advantage of this idea is Brian Malarkey at Gingham in La Mesa (beautiful patio, windows open onto the street) and Gaberdine in Point Loma. We live in PB, so JRDN's HH and hitting La Jolla are more likely to happen. Thank you for all the suggestions. We shall try them all!

                                                              2 Replies
                                                              1. re: Portlandtransplant

                                                                You're absolutely right! For a city of its size, Portland, OR is without question the best restaurant city in the country...or perhaps, anywhere!

                                                                1. re: Portlandtransplant

                                                                  The Linkery also has large windows that retract giving the dining room an indoor-outdoor dining feel

                                                                2. Amazed BeachChick didn't point this out to me, but this place seems to solve a perennial conundrum: