San Diego’s food scene is often overlooked and underappreciated thanks to its neighbor to the north—the glittering vegan food mecca of Los Angeles. However, this SoCal city’s burgeoning plant-based dining culture is helping California’s second-largest city make a name for itself on the culinary stage. From high-end meals to the best cookie you’ve ever eaten, peel off that wetsuit and park your bike at one of these vegan San Diego eateries.
1. Donna Jean
Located just two blocks from the tree-lined streets of Balboa Park, diners of all kinds flock to Donna Jean to enjoy homemade vegan pizza and pasta. Named in homage to chef Roy Elam’s late mother, the restaurant boasts a spacious patio and herb garden for customers to enjoy year-round. Locals love this spot for a date night while others regularly order the speckled wood-fired pizza to-go. Made with a blend of vegan gouda, ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella, the customer-favorite Four Horsemen pizza has been on offer since the restaurant’s inception.
What do eclectic cocktail bars, metal tunes, and gastropub culture have in common? Nothing, at least not until Kindred opened its doors back in 2015. The LED-illuminated ceiling, vibrant pink walls, and retractable garage-door-style window set the stage, but the food and cocktails steal the show at this South Park hotspot. Begin the night with the tangy, spicy chargrilled seitan skewers before grabbing hold of the best vegan barbecue sandwich west of Memphis. Come back for brunch on the weekend and enjoy pancakes topped with caramelized banana and bourbon butterscotch or the benedict served with luscious cauliflower hollandaise.
3. The Plot
It’s not often that anything lives up to the hype, but The Plot delivers with a menu that is mindful yet approachable. Located in the northernmost part of the county, this restaurant focuses on local ingredients—from the onsite produce garden to its secret San Diego supplier of fresh tofu. Velvety pink peppercorn cream sauce and lentil caviar give a nod to fine dining while the salty sweetness of chicken and waffles ground the menu. The Plot is perfect for date night or anytime you want to treat yourself to a nourishing, hearty meal.
Not all pop-up food retailers find the success necessary to graduate to a brick-and-mortar, but then again not all pop-ups feature bites as decadent nor as memorable as Maya’s Cookies. Born out of the desire to find vegan cookies that passed the taste, texture, and aroma test, owner Maya Madsen got to work crafting what would become the nation’s largest and most successful female and Black-owned vegan cookie retailer. Flavors vary from White Chocolate Espresso to Birthday Cake and Brown Sugar Butterscotch to Classic Chocolate Chip with several gluten-free options. Madsen developed a foolproof shipping standard so even those outside of the San Diego area can enjoy her edible delights.
Eve Vegan Eats
Crispy-thin cauliflower crust pizzas, hefty veggie burritos, and roasted butternut squash salads attract a steady, beach-going crowd at Eve’s Encinitas and Oceanside restaurants. Both locations are always packed, but the wait is worth the fresh food and generous portions. Each eatery was designed as a community space, so when indoor dining is back in full swing, venture down the hall into the back of the Encinitas location where you’ll find a wide, open space dotted with mix-matched couches, pillows, and a stage for the occasional improv troupe or open mic night. Plop yourself down with a book or your laptop and enjoy the time spent waiting for your order. No matter what, it’s going to be good.
Sibling co-owners Napatr Chayodom and Katiya Hendricks borrowed inspiration from the brewery-centric University Heights and North Park neighborhood when planning out their business. Grains’ craft beer selection complements a versatile menu of Asian-meets-bar food. Think fried shiitake mushroom appetizers served with plum sauce; sesame balls filled with red bean paste; pepper-glazed chicken strips with scallions; and a classic Philly cheesesteak sandwich thrown in for good measure. To sample more than your fill at a discounted rate, swing by for happy hour (Monday-Thursday, 3-5pm) for 15 percent off all food and drinks.
7. The Yasai
Globe-trotting chef Junya Watanabe fuses food and art with a westernized take on Japanese classics at his Kearny Mesa and more recently opened Little Italy sushi restaurants. Here you’ll find Instagrammers charmed by intricately constructed vegan sushi while hungry patrons slurp up silky, handmade ramen noodles floating in a creamy dashi. Celebrate seasonality with a chef’s selection bento box available for take-out exclusively at The Yasai’s Little Italy location.
Owner Vanessa Corrales made the leap from selling directly to coffee shops to setting up her own storefront in Grossmont Center in February 2021. The international selection of baked goods encompasses ube-filled brioche, confetti-sprinkled scones, pain au chocolat, Thai tea pastry cream-infused cruffins, and so much more. The menu is continuously evolving, and fresh pastries are made every three hours to guarantee a superb, just-out-of-the-oven quality. Can’t decide? Let the baker choose for you by pre-ordering the Chef’s Choice Variety Box. It’s a wonderful surprise every time!
Think what you will about this affirmation-themed restaurant, but there’s no denying the food is good. Go ahead and roll your eyes when you tell the waiter “I Am Humble” (translation: I’d like the Indian dahl bowl) and “I Am Dazzling” (translation: “with the Caesar salad”)—you’re going to enjoy what you order even if you feel a bit cringy asking for it. Keep those affirmations coming to order dessert. The I Am Divine (strawberry shortcake parfait) and I Am Remarkable (raw mocha cheesecake) are truly worthy of their descriptions.
10. Veganic Thai
The minute this plant-based Thai cafe opens, the inescapable aroma of drunken noodles and multi-colored curries flood the streets of Hillcrest and draw a mixed crowd of plant-based and gluten-free eaters. Unlike many other Southeast Asian vegetarian restaurants in San Diego, this menu completely omits egg and dairy, offering relief to the wary vegan by ensuring no modifications are necessary. Grab your spring rolls, Tom Kha, and sweet mango sticky rice to-go or enjoy the outdoor patio seating.
11. Peace Pies
The entirely raw menu is a reflection of this zero-waste restaurant’s bohemian Ocean Beach neighborhood. Beach-dwellers swear by the Mystical Mushroom Quesadilla, Loving Lasagna, and namesake Peaceful Pizza. Save room for dessert—the tiny spot dedicates an entire refrigerated section to its raw pies, brownies, truffles, and cheesecakes.
With a smoothie selection as expansive as its rooftop view of the Pacific Ocean, this yoga-studio-meets-all-day-eatery prides itself on organic and nourishing ingredients. Sit back with a plate of Buffalo Cauliflower Tacos and watch the aerial-silks class, or sign up for a yoga session and refuel with the Nourish Green Bowl afterward. It’s not just a restaurant, Trilogy is truly a vegan sanctuary.
As San Diego’s first vegan fast-food restaurant, Evolution has set the bar high. It was one of the first restaurants in the city to adopt completely biodegradable packaging—what appear to be plastic utensils and containers are in fact byproducts of wheat and corn which will eventually be reabsorbed back into the soil. The familiar fast-food favorites are also exceptional—from the flaky fish street tacos to the In-N-Out-style EVO Burger. Like any quality fast-food restaurant, its shakes (both raw and classic) are not to be missed.
Jared Cross is a writer, avid traveler, and environmentalist based in San Diego, California.
Photo credit: The Plot