In a city where longstanding eateries constantly compete with shiny, trendy newcomers for business, it’s a notable feat when old favorites hold their own in a decidedly fickle dining scene. Luckily, good food speaks for itself. That’s why these five neighborhood institutions continue to be top contenders for San Diego’s most beloved restaurants.

North: Fat Ivor's

Valley Center in northern San Diego has pastoral fields, a panoramic view of Palomar Mountain, and since 1981, Fat Ivor’s Rib Rack. This all-you-can-eat restaurant enjoys full support from locals who love their food.

Owner Fred Yousefi said, “My two chefs have been here for 35 years. They’re hardworking, loyal, and love doing their job. They want to make good barbecue. Our menu is tried and true—Baby back ribs, slow-roasted prime rib, and pork chops are the main draw.”

Yousefi plans on adding lighter fare to the menu for people who want to eat less. “We’ll offer a two-rib and a five-rib dinner. We’re also going to be adding two salads: a Mediterranean salad and a roasted beet and arugula salad.”

When you visit, don’t forget to try the original BBQ sauce.

South: Red House Kitchen

(Now closed)

Bethany Case purchased the Red House Kitchen in 2017 because she had a vegan husband, lived in a food desert, and wanted to stay in Imperial Beach. She transformed it into a Best of Imperial Beach-winning, Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Restaurant that embraces locals and service members from the nearby military base.

RHK features many gluten-free and vegan options alongside sandwiches with clever names like Cake by the Ocean, a panini with housemade chocolate ganache, banana, and peanut butter, and the house specialty Donax Don’t Tell, a bacon, Black Forest ham, and pastrami tower on tangy sourdough covered with béchamel. Ryan Bros coffee complements in-house baker Lupe Moreno’s rotating specialties, like strawberry green tea muffins topped with matcha frosting and slivered almonds.

Visit RHK for breakfast and lunch seven days a week. The Neat Underground Dinner popups Thursday through Sunday evenings feature a monthly rotation of seasonally themed menus. Chef Alynn Emily emphasizes bold and provincial flavors with produce from W.D. Dickinson Farm that's worth checking out.

East: Narumi Sushi

Narumi Sushi is a no-nonsense establishment in a simple La Mesa strip mall. On a Saturday night, expect to find a long line waiting outside for a table or seats at the sushi bar. Inside, the crowded room buzzes as patrons devour Japanese-American classics from sushi to teriyaki, tempura to rice bowls, and satisfying yakisoba noodles.

Garlic green beans are a nice start, or try the grilled Spam musubi wrapped with a thin strip of seaweed. Oyster appetizers are prepared fried or on the half shell, or opt for the takoyaki—a deep-fried octopus snack. According to owner and sushi chef Ippei Kishida, a sushi favorite is the maki maki roll, with salmon, cream cheese, and avocado inside, and yellowtail tuna outside. The seared smoked salmon roll with grilled eel is divine, while the Louisiana roll sports a hot Cajun seasoning. The fresh bigeye tuna will satisfy sashimi cravings. Be sure to finish with the green tea cheesecake.

West: Tony’s Jacal

Tony’s Jacal is your dad’s favorite oldfangled Mexican restaurant and bar, the kind every San Diegan of a certain age loved as a kid. Who could resist their stained-glass bullfighters, vivid pottery, wooden beams, and wild red sun sculpture? It’s convivial with a solid menu that’s been serving Mexican food in Solana Beach for over 70 years.

The food is robust with classics like tamales, enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. Meatier options include carne asada, fajitas, and beef, pork, or seafood chiles. The salsa is garlicky, the beans are flavorful, and the pork chile verde is prepared with both green and yellow chiles. The turkey tamale, a surprising menu item, is made with tender masa and steamy shredded turkey and comes dressed in a rustic sauce. Try the chicken mole in a red sauce thick with chocolate, chile, and spices, or the green version, a blend of tomatillos, chiles, and peanuts.

Central: Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant

(Now closed)

After nearly a decade in business, neighborhood haunt Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant has proven it can stand the test of time. Although the modern American restaurant has a core group of dishes that go unchanged—including the revered BH burger and not-to-miss butterscotch pudding—most menu items are updated seasonally.

Executive chef Carl Schroeder (also at Del Mar’s Market Restaurant + Bar) and chef de cuisine Justin Braly serve up thoughtfully prepared plates like Mexican-inspired skirt steak with polenta and crispy beer-battered fish & chips made with sea bass. During cooler months, starters including carrot soup with smoky andouille sausage and the creamy burrata with glazed pears, toasted hazelnuts, and buttery toast serve as elevated comfort food.

Despite its industrial design, the dining room and patio maintain an intimate setting with rustic-chic decor, making it an ideal spot for both date night and happy hour.

—This list updated to note restaurant closures Nov. 2021

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About the Contributor
Robin Dohrn-Simpson
Lucila De Alejandro
Kai Oliver-Kurtin
Kai Oliver-Kurtin is a San Diego-based writer who contributes to several national and regional publications, covering dining, travel and lifestyle.