By Dina Eliash Robinson
America’s growing interest in wholesome foods and healthy eating has been taking over home kitchens and restaurants not only in metropolitan foodie heavens, but—surprise! surprise!—in nooks and crannies tucked among rural and small town bastions of cured meats, fried everything and fast-food convenience.
First cooked up in upscale spas and enthusiastically adopted by fitness-loving Californians, the breakaway trend to nutritious meals is re-energizing the creative imagination of stove jockeys everywhere. Celebrity chefs wow restaurant patrons and TV audiences with exotic combinations and cooking techniques, while novices fresh out of culinary schools transform plated dishes into art projects and dream up innovative recipes. Even amateurs are emboldened to subject families and friends to their cooking experiments.
Whether called slow, sustainable or real, the rediscovery of farm-to-table food has ignited a passion for the incomparably rich and versatile flavors that only fresh—ideally organic—ingredients can produce.
As more people join the nutrition revolution and become unwilling to check their taste buds (and possibly, health) at the restaurant door, requests for simpler dishes and more wholesome substitutions are becoming frequent enough to prompt changes in menus, ingredients and even in the culinary cultures of dining establishments—from five star rated to mid-range chains. Julia Child would be heartbroken to see olive oil replacing her beloved butter in recipes and as breadbasket companion. And one can only imagine the Colonel’s horror at the banning of transfats from KFC kitchens and customers’ preference for baked, rather than deep-fried chicken.
Not only are front-line kitchen warriors called upon to abandon many recipes they had perfected in favor of healthier adaptations, but they are also expected to graciously bow to patrons’ requests that sauces and dressings be served “on the side,” fish be grilled without seasoning or fat and other changes that many chefs consider sacrilege.
It is actually good business practice for restaurants to readily change dishes in deference to their patrons’ allergies and other medical limitations—such as preparing dairy-free meals for the lactose intolerant, sans tree-nuts or gluten-free for those sensitive to these otherwise benign ingredients, as well as catering to the preferences of vegans and vegetarians. Some restaurants even go the extra mile by omitting or substituting ingredients some diners simply do not like. Cilantro and cumin, for example, are favored by many, but abhorred by the rest, while tolerance for spicy foods range from none to blazing hot among restaurant patrons. With this kind of customized service, eating out has never been a more delightful experience.
Now that rampant obesity and diabetes make us all more mindful of what we eat, even fast food restaurants are joining the revolution with salads and fat-free dishes popping up on their menus.
This Guide is a continually growing and changing “work in progress.” It is limited to restaurants with menus that feature at least two or three healthy dishes and a few more that can be easily adapted to diners’ special needs or preferences. We have also selected them for their congenial atmosphere and accommodating staffs.
Email us your recommendations of restaurants in the United States or overseas that possess similar attributes to [email protected]. They will be reviewed and appropriate ones added to this Guide. We also welcome your critiques, suggestions and comments about our selections—which will be posted with the attribution you indicate (i.e. name, initials, Twitter handle, etc.).
NOTE:For your home-cooked meals, you’ll find richly flavored and easy to prepare dishes on this site’s RECIPES section. Our recipes are focused entirely on optimum nutrition, modestly priced ingredients and timesaving cooking methods.
San Diego–A Hot Restaurant Town
By Dina Eliash Robinson
Celebrity chefs, food writers and sophisticated travelers have been aware for years that San Diego was rapidly catching up to leading restaurant cities—even leaving a few in the dust, in spite of its late entry in the competition for culinary stardom.
Whether or not this once laid-back Navy town with its perfect climate, sunset beach walks, surfer dudes and world-class Zoo ever aspired to be anointed as America’s Finest City, it seemed have been pushed into the big time by a construction boom that changed its landscape with a sail-topped Convention Center and enough world-class hotels, resorts, spas, parks and cultural attractions to fill a city twice its size.
Completing this metropolitan transformation, powerhouse restaurateurs such as Sami Ladeki (a Wolfgang Puck alum), David and Leslie Cohn (owners of the Cohn Restaurant Group) and Brian Malarkey (a culinary rock star) set up shop throughout the County, adding gastronomic fame to San Diego’s allure.
As the hub of an international region sharing economic and cultural interests with Mexico across its southern border and Pacific Rim countries off its coastline, San Diego is rushing to feed and amaze its multi-cultural residents and visitors by opening one multi-star restaurant after another.
If anyone doubts that this impatiently growing Southern California upstart is muscling in on the culinary fame of New York and San Francisco, all the doubter needs is to peruse the menus of its proliferating, high-value restaurants. Not only those run by famous chefs, but even a good number of mid-range establishments.
The secret of San Diego’s culinary successes is its close proximity to first class ingredients, grown with expertise, great care and dedication by surrounding farms (mostly of the small, family owned, organic kind) and purchased fresh, daily by local chefs. Not surprisingly, the region’s abundance of farm-to-table foods has inspired a slow food and whole food philosophy, which, in turn, has evolved into the richly flavored and nutritious California Cuisine.
Rounding out the area’s gastronomic riches are the vineyards tucked into its hilly coastal and inland corners, where wines can be tasted, purchased and accompanied by tasty morsels in some vineyards’ own, or nearby restaurants and pubs. And speaking of pubs, San Diego is also climbing the ladder of national fame as a hub of microbreweries and the award-winning private label beers they produce.
While San Diego restaurants cater to a wide range of foodies, from carnivores to vegans, most of them include in their menus dishes preferred by health-conscious diners. What’s more, local restaurant staffs are quite accustomed to patrons’ requests for substitutions and omissions of certain ingredients. In fact, some chefs even welcome the challenge to create tasty dishes that incorporate these requests.
With gastronomic tourism added to its many attractions, San Diego has recently been ranked by Automobile Club travel agents as the region’s number one destination (topping Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco and the Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Monterey). It is a magnet for day-trippers and weekend visitors who drive in from Mexico, Orange County, Los Angeles, Arizona and even from parts of Nevada. The area is also attracting a growing number of international travelers from Pacific Rim countries, South Africa and Europe. Dining out in San Diego amidst their lively polyglot conversations, conjures up a Paris bistro or United Nations conference.
(1) This San Diego Restaurant Guide is merely a sampler, which will be expanded as additional restaurants catering to health-conscious diners come to our attention.
(2) New restaurants open and existing ones close faster than we will probably be able to list or remove from this Guide. So check their status before you go.
(3) Menu items listed here change with the seasons and sometimes with changes in restaurant ownership, chefs and diners’ tastes.
(4) We gather our information from various sources—seldom from our personal dining experience. Because of this, we appreciate your dropping us an email ([email protected]) about any restaurants known for healthy fare and pleasant interiors that you have come across. ∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞
2965 Historic Decatur Road
San Diego, CA (619) 542-1476
The Cohn Restaurant Group’s first full-service eatery, opened by David and Lesley Cohn at its original Hillcrest location in 1987—was focused on 1950s nostalgia in both its décor and menu. While the latter paid tribute to the era with burgers, fries and shakes, the former evoked it with visual cues that included staff attire and interior furnishings—the most striking of which was the Corvette Diner’s namesake and ‘50s iconic car, which seemed to be bursting from the back wall. ..…more>>…
Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza and Grill
2401 Truxtun Suite 102 (Between Worden Rd & Roosevelt Rd)
San Diego, CA 92106
Adding a Liberty Station presence to his other proliferating restaurants throughout San Diego County, Sami Ladeki brought new flavors and the same easy going ambience his California-style establishments are known for. Since practically his entire menu is designed for health-conscious diners, we have selected dishes from various types of foods represented in the restaurant’s daily offerings:…more >>
True Food Kitchen
7007 Friars Road (Fashion Valley #394)
San Diego, CA 92108
By Dina Eliash Robinson & Catharine L. Kaufman
The story goes that Dr. Andrew Weil, pioneer of healthy lifestyle—the cornerstone of his integrative medicine concept—suggested to Sam Fox, CEO of Fox Restaurant Concepts (FRC), that they open restaurants serving wholesome, farm-to-table fare. To attract a wider market, however, these restaurants would highlight the wide variety and rich flavors of dishes and drinks prepared by master chefs and mixologists, while understating the fresh and nutritious ingredients they use. The goal was to create menus that satisfy different preferences and thus attract both health-conscious gourmets and those who tend to avoid places suspected of serving “health food”—including even fast food aficionados. When Sam Fox—whose company had by that time launched more than 30 special concept restaurants—showed no interest in the project, Dr. Weil invited him for a home-cooked meal for a taste of menu items he had in mind. It’s a good bet that Fox’s decision to go for the restaurant idea was due in large part to Dr. Weil’s kitchen virtuosity and the flavors he coaxed from ingredients that included fresh-picked organic veggies and herbs from his own garden.…more>>…
Tender Greens ––––Two locations:
2400 Historic Decatur Road
San Diego, CA 92106
Tel: (619) 226-6254
Open daily: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
San Diego: University Town Center
4545 La Jolla Village Drive (on the main plaza next to the clock tower)
San Diego CA 92122
Tel: 858 455-9395
Casual, family-friendly interiors, patrons order off chalk-boards listing daily changing menus, as well as by selecting from dishes displayed on behind glass on prep-counter. Orders and dessert and beverage selections are made, paid and picked up at the next station—or delivered from by wait-staff. Seasonal menus, prepared with mostly organic ingredients and priced from low to moderate, feature locally sourced produce and ingredients in salads, roasted veggies and mushrooms; grass-fed beef, dairy and chicken (free of antibiotics and hormones). Dishes are flavored with organic herbs and condiments; cold pressed olive oils, mustards, vinegars, assorted nuts and ground spices. Also served are artisan breads and desserts, beverages including home-blended organic teas, wines from local boutique wineries and private label beers from local microbreweries. Among dishes preferred by health-conscious diners are:
• Tender Greens’ signature soups: Roasted Roma tomato soup with basil oil; and Rustic Chicken with lemon thyme.
• Salads of various sizes and compositions range from leafy greens with tarragon and other tasty dressings, to seasonal veggies with grilled prawns, Chinese chicken and sesame dressing; Cobb salad with tuna, Niçoise, with grilled ‘flat iron’ steak and the restaurant’s signature “Happy Vegan Salad.”
• Hot dishes range from chicken, steak and fish to vegetarian and vegan combinations.
The Prado at Balboa Park
1549 El Prado Balboa Park
San Diego, CA
Tel: (619) 557-9441
Dinner: Tue-Sun at 5pm Lunch: Mon-Fri: 11:30am-3pm Sat-Sun: 11am-3pm With its art-filled interiors and scenic location in Balboa Park’s historic House of Hospitality, The Prado is one of the award-winning Cohn Restaurant Group’s crown jewels and has been one of San Diego’s most popular attraction since its opening in 2000. A top-tier restaurant within walking distance of Balboa Park’s museums and The Old Globe Theatres’ three-venue complex, The Prado is as adept at serving leisure visitors, as it is to provide comfortably paced meals that help theatre ticket-holders and museum goers get to their events on time. more
Claire’s on Cedros
Bakery and Café
246 North Cedros
Solana Beach, CA 92075
Serves Breakfast, Brunch and Lunch
Hours: Monday through Friday, from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.;
Saturday, Sunday and Holidays, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Located in a charming bungalow within a block of colorful shops known for some of the region’s most versatile designs in clothes and home furnishings, Claire’s on Cedros offers a homey ambiance and a rich menu that proves healthy and mouthwatering delicious belongs on the same plate. more..
12995 El Camino Real—Suite 21
Del Mar, CA 92130
Tel: (858) 369-5700
Lunch, Dinner, Brunch
Executive Chef Brian Malarkey spices up each of his growing number of restaurants with fabric names and such attention-getting fare as Burlap’s “Asian Cowboy” cuisine—which he playfully describes as the place where “West Eats Meat.”
The menu is big, varied and divided in categories with such highlights as:
∞ Oysters on the half-shelf with Asian pear mignonette
∞ Hamachi & jalapeno with onion ponzu sauce; beef tartar with yuzu, mustard green, quail egg and chive.
∞ Prosciutto-wrapped albacore with Asian pesto & balsamic teriyaki
∞ Whole fish, 1/5 lbs “angry” Serrano with orange, garlic and basil
∞ Chamomille roasted Alaskan halibut with elderflower ponzu, summer squash & squash blossom
• Street Food
∞ Vietnamese tofu with mushroom, hot basil and mint
∞ Lamb pot-stickers with chicken soy and mint
∞ Mussels Filipino style adobo, coconut, crispy garlic and onion
∞ Suzie’s farm beets and radishes with Thai basil pistachio puree and brie
∞ Field greens with pear, 7-spice walnuts, goat cheese and plum vinaigrette
∞ Sirloin au poivre with romaine and maitake
∞ Lamb loin with peach mostarda, baby celery and peach
∞ Chicken breast with artichoke, tomato, baguette and egg
∞ Duck breast with black plum, black radish and black kale
∞ Char siu pork tenderloin with collard greens and shishito pepper cornbread.
∞ Truffled miso with wakame, shroom and tofu
∞ Asian roasted tomato soup with grilled cheese and steamed bun