Where to Eat and Drink in University Heights, San Diego

Eat your way through this under-the-radar neighborhood filled with a surprising number of culinary gems



For foodies, a visit to sun-drenched San Diego might mean satisfying cravings for Baja-style fish tacos and carne asada burritos, or sampling splashy dining establishments in its buzzy Little Italy and North Park neighborhoods. Meanwhile, one stretch of San Diego’s University Heights neighborhood, situated just north of Balboa Park, has quietly blossomed in recent years with new restaurant openings, menu revamps and culinary diversity. Park Boulevard is a one-stop shop for eclectic dishes, on-trend cocktails and small batch sweets. It’s possible to spend an entire day eating and drinking your way through University Heights, and here’s how to do it.


Breakfast and Brunch
Follow locals to Lestat’s, an unpretentious coffee house open 24 hours, for an initial jolt of caffeine. For something more substantial, Meraki Cafe does eggs, large salads, sandwiches and nearly 10 variations of acai bowls enjoyed best beneath a canopy of trees in the locale’s quiet, outdoor seating space.

Then, head for the rooftop at Kairoa Brewing, a New Zealand-inspired (seafood and lamb) restaurant and brewery in a sleek and modern farmhouse setting accented by ferns from plant boutique Eden across the street. Order standouts like the fried shrimp butties and lamb fries to pair with their craft beer lineup. Mainstays like the Kairoa Back Paddock pilsner, and Kairoa Cheeky Buggah, a Belgian blond ale, are poured year-round, while ciders and kombuchas rotate on guest taps. Kairoa’s latest release, the Kiwi Crunch, is an imperial stout inspired by a traditional cookie popular in “the land of the long white cloud,” as New Zealand is known to the Maori people. The full menu’s vegan, plant-based and gluten-free options feel intentional, as opposed to an afterthought. Aim to settle in around one of several fire pits on the patio, pup in-tow (they have a menu for pets, too).


Cocktail Hour
Beyond its aquamarine entrance, Madison procures cocktails that taste as good as they look in your Instagram feed. Take the Queen of Crowns, for example; featuring Botanist Gin and aromatic fennel, anise and citrus, the cosmic tipple is served with palo santo incense and accompanied by a tarot card and a crystal — both yours to keep. Although the 3-year-old restaurant updated its cocktail menu last fall, most recently added sips are made with essential oils; the Balthazar includes Pisco Porton, blackberry liqueur, lime and frankincense essential oil. So are a series of natural wines from several Central Coast wineries, including Amplify Wines and Lo-Fi Wines from Santa Barbara County, and Field Recordings Wines in Paso Robles. Groups will find ample elbow room in cozy booths wrapped around the bar area, or in the indoor-outdoor dining room at dinner beneath high vaulted cedar ceilings.

Dinner and More
Gather for wood-fired steaks, a Caesar salad with “a lot of pecorino” and family-style sides — truffled creamed spinach, roasted mushrooms with thyme — at Rare Society, which opened at the end of last year. Chef Brad Wise leads the savory way, but save room for executive pastry chef Jeremy Harville’s cakes (naturally, of the chocolate, carrot, butter and cheese variety). Alternatively, taste-test casual predecessors like Bahn Thai and veggie-forward Plumeria, or try El Zarape’s tacos and burritos, and Muzita Abyssinian Bistro’s Eritrean and Ethiopian fare.


A few blocks from Rare Society, Stella Jean’s small-batch ice cream scoops are velvety, frozen treats for all palates. Their classics are solid — Madagascar Vanilla, Double Chocolate made with 70 percent dark chocolate — though their main draw is the menu of ephemeral flavors which vary by season and creative whim. Don’t sleep on the plant-based Mango Sticky Rice, made with coconut milk (satisfyingly creamy), or Honey Yuzu with shortbread crumbles made in-house — like most of their baked goods additions. Whether your dessert comes in a cup, cone or ice cream sandwich form (a toasted brioche bun, to be precise), head next door afterward to Stella Jean’s sister shop, Pop Pie Co. (coming to Costa Mesa in 2020), for a slice of warm fruit pie and enjoy a la mode.


Late-Night Fare
Still not ready to call it a night? Head to Small Bar, whose interiors just got a refresh after a decade in business, now offering expanded cocktail options and bar snacks like crispy cauliflower with chili aioli. Next door, Park & Rec projects a more spirited vibe with multiple lounge areas, live music and creative performances, and a dance floor in the adjacent abode designed in the craftsman style that’s common to the neighborhood.


Feature image: KAIROA BREWING in University Heights, San Diego.


Jan. 22, 2020

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