Old Town: Birthplace of California Is Famous for Mexican Food and More

Old Town is one of San Diego's most popular attractions. Between shopping and exploring the state park area, you might get hungry or need a place to stop for a refreshing drink. Truth be told, Old Town is full of Mexican restaurants that get a little bit of a bad rap for being touristy and not authentic enough, but don't let that dissuade you.

If you ask a local what their favorite restaurant in Old Town is, you'll usually hear two answers. One is Cafe Coyote, where most dishes are made from scratch daily at the restaurant. The margarita/tequila selection is plentiful while the patio provides excellent people watching. The other is Old Town Mexican Cafe and Cantina for its delicious margaritas and carnitas. Both have tortilla ladies making delicious handmade tortillas as guests watch. Be advised that both places can get busy during peak times.

There are a handful of restaurants offering other cuisine choices. One is Sushi Tadokoro which is widely regarded as offering the very best sushi and sashimi in San Diego. Harney Sushi is also a popular option.

Should you like to indulge in a fish-bowl-sized margarita or the thousands of tequilas on offer, skip driving. The trolley stops in Old Town and there is, of course, Uber.


Barra Barra Saloon is a period saloon that is part of Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town State Historic Park. The furnishings and menu represent the merging of Mexico with American traditions in the mid-1800s. The cozy ambiance is akin to a ranch home in Old Mexico with authentic reproductions of Mexican artifacts and art as decor. In addition to indoor dining rooms, the outdoor patio has fire pits. The menu offers traditional Mexican favorites including what they claim is the best margarita in San Diego for $6. It's also easy to make reservations online, which are recommended during weekends.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: This is a great family-friendly option near the Old Town Park for drinks and food.

Katie's expert tip: Try the flavorful Barra Barra pork carnitas platter or Chicken Mole Verde Oaxaca. Kids under 10 eat free everyday with a paying adult.

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Jack & Guilio's Italian Restaurant used to be located in Pacific Beach and has been in business since 1961. In addition to a nice list of Italian wines, they are famous for their scampi recipe in addition to homemade pastas, veal, poultry, beef, and seafood specialties. They also have the space for large groups and events on their patio or private balcony. The hole-in-the-wall atmosphere is warm and the service is friendly, making it a perfect break from the Mexican food restaurants in Old Town. The chef for the last 40 years is none other than Guilio himself and most of the pasta is made fresh daily.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: It's an Italian food option in Old Town, giving people who aren't craving Mexican another cuisine choice.

Katie's expert tip: It's only open for dinner so plan accordingly.

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Casa Guadalajara

Old Town is among San Diego's top tourist stops, and all those visitors need to eat somewhere. Mexican restaurants are obviously popular, and Casa Guadalajara in Bazaar del Mundo ranks near the top of the list. Tortillas made in-house, great margaritas and live mariachi bands give it an edge over much of the competition, but the food is quite well-prepared and fresh with all the expected choices plus a few non-standard ones. Try the chimichangas or enchiladas. Be prepared to wait on weekend evenings. Choose to dine indoors or on the patio amid the fountains. People also love the folk art and overall ambience.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: It's an old standby that meets all the criteria: good Mexican food, mariachis and folk art decor.

Katie's expert tip: A few years ago, they were voted as having the best margarita in town by a local radio station.

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Casa de Reyes feels like its own little village with plenty of seating as well as a small entertainment area and shops lining the restaurant's courtyard. It's a great place to enjoy a margarita al fresco. Guests rave about the carnitas, tamales, chili rellenos and the fresh guacamole. Portions are huge as are the fish bowl-sized margaritas. Because it has an open air vibe, it's also a great place to eat with the kids. Live entertainment happens nightly in the lush garden area. Its location right off of Old Town State Historic Park, makes it a popular choice for tourists.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: Casa de Reyes has spacious al fresco dining, a convenient location and a festive atmosphere which makes it a favorite.

Katie's expert tip: Know that the wait can be long during peak times. Service can also be hit or miss.

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Miguel's is a popular Mexican restaurant chain in San Diego that's famous for their amazing jalapeno cream sauce that arrives shortly after being seated, in addition to chips, salsa, and pickled vegetables. The restaurant has made a name for itself by serving reliable Mexican-American food in a fun, kid-friendly atmosphere. You'll find a broad menu with plenty of options such as albondigas soup, ceviche, carnitas, fish tacos, pollo asado, calamari-wrapped chile rellenos, enchiladas suizas, and lobster or shrimp fajitas. Service is usually good though the restaurant can get busy. It's part of San Diego's renowned Cohn Restaurant Group and has another location in Coronado.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: Miguel's has several locations in San Diego that all serve very good Mexican-American food.

Katie's expert tip: They also have good fish tacos--a dish San Diego is famous for.

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The Old Town Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant's full-service restaurant and bar are open 7 days a week for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. The American grill, seafood and Mexican inspired favorites range from overstuffed chili rellenos to a rack of ribs to ahi lettuce cups. The menu changes throughout the year depending on what is in season. The restaurant, located inside of the restored 1870s hotel, prides itself on offering delicious food at reasonable prices with a choice of indoor or orchard patio dining. Private parties and specialized events are available and happy hour is honored daily from 3-6 PM.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: The Cosmopolitan gives visitors a slightly more upscale option for dining in Old Town.

Katie's expert tip: The restaurant has a great happy hour with drink prices at under $5.

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Old Town is one of San Diego's top attractions, and all the restaurants in the area are nearly always packed. OTMC has a bit of an edge over the competition: the "tortilla ladies" who make over 7000 tortillas every day, strolling mariachis, and an atmosphere that's unfailingly festive. Then there's the food. Most folks rave about the carnitas while other good choices are pozole, albondigas soup, menudo, Mexican style ribs or rotisserie chicken, Steak Azteca, chicken mole, or a big old burrito stuffed with chile verde, machaca, carne asada, or beans. Wash it all down with an ice cold margarita or cerveza.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: As a local where they like to eat in Old Town and many will recommend OTMC.

Katie's expert tip: Try to avoid peak times as it can get busy. The menu is slightly Americanized, but one of the best picks for Old Town.

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Not only is Harney Sushi a favorite of San Diego locals for sushi, they are pioneering the local, sustainable fish movement to ensure that customers are only eating the very best (no fish fraud here). Needless to say sashimi is a popular order, as are their specialty rolls, but there is also plenty of cooked Japanese food to choose. Harney has a festive vibe with both indoor and outdoor seating available as well as a DJ spinning tunes on some evenings. They also have San Diego's only sake bar, a long list of specialty cocktails, and more than 40 award-winning wines.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: Sushi in Old Town? Yes, and it's some of the best in San Diego.

Katie's expert tip: They have a non-raw sushi menu for those who are pregnant or just not into raw fish.

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Cafe Coyote
Photo courtesy of Henri Louis Hirschfeld

From tortillas to tamales to salsa, Coyote Cafe makes everything from scratch every day on the premises. Start the day with a Breakfast Margarita, chilaquiles, menudo, or a chile relleno omelette. For lunch, try the chile verde, a quesadilla, tortilla soup, or a taco salad. If your appetite is massive by dinnertime, this is the place to go. Hearty portions of traditional and gringo favorites arrive steaming and flavorful: tamales, tequila-lime shrimp, carnitas, California burritos (huge tortilla stuffed with carne asada, cheese and French fries!), and enchiladas. This Old Town restaurants is known for good margaritas, a decent selection of tequila, pitchers of sangria, and ice cold cerveza, too.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: Cafe Coyote is a local favorite for Old Town dining for fresh food, outdoor seating and good margaritas.

Katie's expert tip: The handmade tortillas with a side of guacamole are to die for. Also, they have a good selection of tequilla.

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Sushi Tadokoro serves up traditional Edo-mae-style sushi in Old Town. The venue is small and intimate, quite like sushi restaurants in Japan, and guests may feel temporarily transported when dining here. Delivery of some seafood from Japan is received by Sushi Tadokoro in the same amount of time that markets in Tokyo receive the same shipment (thanks probably to our new direct flight). Note that the restaurant is closed on Sundays and that they do not take American Express. They boast the best uni (sea urchin) in San Diego and you will get what you pay for here. However, they do have daily happy hour featuring discounted drink and appetizer specials.

Recommended for Best of San Diego's Old Town because: Really good, high-end sushi is hard to come by in San Diego. This is one of the best places to get it.

Katie's expert tip: This is as close as you get to Tokyo without leaving San Diego. The quality of the food is exquisite.

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Meet Katie Dillon

Katie Dillon originally moved to the seaside community of La Jolla to attend UC San Diego. When the opportunity presented itself, she and her husband set off for a 7 year stint overseas as...  More About Katie