Carlsbad is one of San Diego’s most popular coastal towns thanks to the vibrant Carlsbad Village center, fantastic beaches, and the fact that it’s home to LEGOLAND California. It’s 35 miles north of Downtown San Diego but a great place for tourists and locals alike who are looking for a relaxed vibe in a beautiful setting. Not surprisingly, it’s also a great place to eat! From trendy eateries with roof decks to upscale steakhouses to modern French bistros, the culinary diversity of Carlsbad restaurants means there’s something for everyone.
Carlsbad Village is the main hub of this seaside town, and in recent years, more and more great restaurants have opened up, drawing in young people and families in addition to tourists. Whereas the Village used to have a slightly kitsch vibe around 5-10 years ago, the plethora of modern and upscale restaurants with contemporary exteriors and beautiful interiors make it a busy culinary destination. State Street, in particular, is the center of the gastronomic action.
Campfire is one of the most popular restaurants in Carlsbad with locals of all ages, and, in keeping with its name, features many camping-inspired touches throughout. From the unique Quonset hut-style exterior with its arched corrugated metal roof, the pretty outdoor patio complete with firepits and a 12-foot teepee, to the gourmet wood-fired menu. Menu favorites include oysters warmed over coals, whole grilled Maine lobster, and Koji-Aged Ribeye.
It’s a great option for lunch if you have kids, given its outside vibe and decor, but come evening, it’s definitely better for adults as the inside can get very noisy due to tables being close together. The outside patio is adorned with fairy lights and is also a fun place for groups or a date night on warm evenings. Mind you, a friend and I were recently dining on the patio when the marine layer came in and lightly drizzled us with rain droplets. Inside was fully booked, so the waiter gave us warm blankets and turned on the heater. We ended up having a lovely evening with a slightly adventurous feel.
Worth noting is that Campfire was recognized by the Michelin Guide California in 2019 when it was bestowed with Bib Gourmand status. This culinary honor highlights ‘hidden gems’ that serve high-quality meals, including two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less. Another reason people think this is one of the best Carlsbad restaurants!
- 2725 State St.
2. Jeune et Jolie
This award-winning modern French eatery opened in 2018 and soon became Carlsbad’s first Michelin-star-rated restaurant. It’s owned by John Resnick, who also owns Campfire (listed above) just along the road, and both restaurants have firmly put the city’s State Street on the culinary map.
Jeune et Jolie means ‘young and beautiful’ in French, and the restaurant has an upscale French bistro vibe. There are two menu types: a four-course tasting menu with various options for the courses (this is often booked out weeks ahead) or an a la carte option called ‘Le Menu du Bar’ for walk-in guests, which is served in the bar and lounge.
The restaurant’s interior has an intimate feel, with circular bistro tables dotted around the edges and high stools arranged around the beautiful bar in the middle. It also has a pretty outdoor patio.
- 2659 State St.
3. 264 Fresco
This popular restaurant is a must when visiting Carlsbad. Specializing in modern Italian cuisine, it has a warm and inviting feel in its beautiful main restaurant, while its outdoor deck upstairs boasts picturesque ocean views. It can be hard to pick a favorite place to sit, with another option being the outdoor decks at the front of the restaurant, some of which include a firepit.
And the restaurant seems to keep on expanding. During Covid-restricted times, the owners set up a large outside tented area to the left of the restaurant with tables on artificial turf surrounded by pot plants. It proved so popular that the area is still there today.
Alongside favorite Italian dishes are menu options including Halibut, Salmon, Chicken Marsala, or Braised Short Rib. They also have a great cocktail list.
- 264 Carlsbad Village Dr.
4 & 5. Vigilucci’s
There are actually two Carlsbad locations of this hugely popular Italian eatery chain.
Vigilucci’s Seafood & Steakhouse: The first and probably most spectacular location sits along the coastal route leading into Carlsbad Village. Not surprisingly, you need to book in advance to secure one of the outside tables that line the front of the restaurant and have great ocean views. The interior dining room is elegantly decorated, and there’s also a tented area outside to the right, which is popular but doesn’t have ocean views.
The menu features a large selection of fish-inspired antipasti, oysters, and a shared Chilled Seafood Platter, and they have a whole seafood entree section alongside steak and pasta options. There’s also a pretty large kids menu.
- 3878 Carlsbad Blvd.
Cucina Italiana: The Vigilucci Group’s other Carlsbad restaurant sits on State Street in the heart of Carlsbad Village. Again, it has an elegant vibe inside and it also has a large outdoor seating area at the front of the restaurant. The menu is heavy on pasta choices but also features a comprehensive list of chicken, veal, and steak entree options with some fish and vegetarian choices.
The Vigilucci Group’s other Carlsbad location sits on State Street in the heart of Carlsbad Village. Again, it has an elegant vibe inside, and there is a large outdoor seating area at the front of the restaurant. The menu is heavy on pasta choices but also features a comprehensive list of chicken, veal, and steak entree options with some fish and vegetarian choices.
6. Barrel Republic
State Street is also the location for this rousing and inviting eatery famed for its amazing burgers (which are offered at a steep discount on Monday nights). The restaurant’s distressed wood exterior leads into a front bar area with high tops or there are bigger tables in the back room close to a roaring fire. The restaurant has a fun open-air vibe thanks to the two huge front windows being permanently open onto the street.
Another big draw for the restaurant is their Self Pour Tap system, meaning alcohol is served by volume. When you enter an attendant will register your credit card and give you a special wrist sensor (worn like a wristband) linked to your account. You then choose from their huge selection of craft beers and wines. Simply scan your wristband to the sensor next to your choice, and pour as much — or as little — as you want. So if you’ve had one glass of wine and just want half a glass more rather than a whole one, you can!
They also have rotating beer taps, meaning there will likely be a great new beer to try every time you return. Just note there’s a limit on how much an individual can drink per visit for safety reasons.
7. Nick’s On State
You guessed it, this next pick is also on State Street! Nick’s upscale chain of restaurants also has locations in San Diego’s Del Mar, Laguna Beach, and San Clemente in Orange County, and several branches in LA. And while the Carlsbad location only opened in 2021, it’s already a local favorite.
The menu is billed as ‘classic American comfort food’ but the restaurant’s interior is definitely on the sophisticated side — think upscale but casual. Inside the cavernous space is a stunning bar area flanked by largely dark industrial decor, huge windows, and wooden arches. Outside there’s a great patio area for warm evenings.
Menu highlights include Asparagus Fries and Shrimp Taquitos to start, followed by gourmet comfort food options of San Francisco Cioppino (a delicious mix of seafood served in a sourdough loaf), Buttermilk Fried Chicken, or Maple Glazed Meatloaf. There’s also a more standard burger and salad menu and a great cocktail menu to wash it all down with.
- 2742 State St., Suite 100
8. Pure Taco
Right next door to Nick’s is a great new family-friendly Mexican eatery marketed as a ‘Global Taco Bar.’ Alongside its more comprehensive menu, it serves a $1.99 Baha Fish Taco all day, every day, and they’re great! They have great Taco Flights if you want variation, or you can choose from more creative options of Green Curry Shrimp or Korean Pork Bo SSam tacos. I definitely recommend the Chicken Tikka Masala Bowl for an expected Indian twist.
Only the main part of the Carlsbad restaurant is covered, but the outdoor seating is sheltered with heaters, and it’s worth the wait to get a table. The bar is also an attractive place to hang out for both dinner and margaritas, and the whole place has a relaxing, casual, and fun atmosphere.
- 2742 State St., Suite 102
9. Karl Strauss Brewing Company
This is definitely one of the best Carlsbad restaurants for families, and it’s not on State Street! It’s actually right across the street from LEGOLAND California, and I highly recommend it.
Karl Strauss is a hugely popular local brewery, and its founders are among the pioneers of the craft beer movement in San Diego. Today, they have three restaurants in San Diego, including this North County favorite.
The Carlsbad location is spacious, has a beautiful wood interior, and a really friendly atmosphere. After transitioning to counter ordering during Covid restrictions, the restaurant continued this process, and you still go straight to the counter/bar as soon as you enter to order and pay before finding a table.
The Korean BBQ Rice Bowl with salmon is amazing and easily enough for two adults if you ask for an extra bowl. Or try their Beer Sausages, huge burger menu, or Carne Asada Tacos. As for sides, their Mac On Tap has actually won awards!
- 5801 Armada Dr., Carlsbad
10. Park 101
If barbecue in a casual outdoor setting is your thing, Park 101 definitely fits the bill. This open-air eatery is pure SoCal – even though it’s actually owned by an Australian! The sprawling multi-level design makes for a fun option for great food and a relaxed vibe in the midst of the downtown Carlsbad action. It’s one block from the beach, and the upstairs roof deck has beautiful ocean views. The deck also has a reputation as a great party venue.
Menu favorites include Surf N Turf Fries and Loaded BBQ Mac to share, and the Wagyu Burger or Tri Tip Burger for mains.
Park 101’s website says it’s kid and dog-friendly, but the last time I went, you had to be 21+ to go up to the roof deck. Check with a server if needed.
- 3040 Carlsbad Blvd.
11. Coyote Bar & Grill
This Carlsbad stalwart has been open since 1989 and is on the perimeter of the main Carlsbad Village center, just feet away from the fountain. It has a great outdoor seating area with plenty of firepits and live entertainment seven days a week. Expect to turn up to a live band playing and a busy outdoor dancefloor, even in the daytime.
The interior is also attractive, and it’s definitely a lively place to go for great food and drinks. The menu is typical Southern Californian fare, and favorites include the Smoked Chicken Enchiladas, Flat Iron Steak, or Grilled Salmon with Raspberry Chipotle Sauce.
The restaurant also becomes a nightclub every Friday and Saturday from 10 p.m.–1.30 a.m.
- 300 Carlsbad Village Drive, #114
12. Casa De Bandini
This large and lively Mexican restaurant is located in the upscale shopping center, The Forum, near where Carlsbad borders Encinitas. It’s won multiple best Mexican restaurant awards and was originally located in San Diego’s Old Town district. The restaurant is known for its fantastic authentic Mexican food and vibe. The main dining room features traditional colorful decor throughout, contrasted with dark wood tables and chairs, and the bar area is adorned with beautiful glass hanging lights.
The dishes are huge and delicious (their Shrimp Tostada and Chicken Mole Poblano dishes are to die for), and the margheritas are famously giant. Casa de Bandini is also known for its roaming Mariachi band, who might just pop up next to your table to serenade you and your party. And the Teresita Paper Flower Maker will keep the kids entertained.
The restaurant also has a great outdoor seating area but I recommend getting an inside table to get the best experience of this fun eatery that’s definitely a great family option. And if you fancy a spot of shopping after, The Forum stores include Anthropologie, Apple, lululemon, and Madewell.
- 1901 Calle Barcelona, Carlsbad
13. Ponto Lago at Park Hyatt Aviara
If you’re in North County San Diego, visiting this spectacular resort in Carlsbad is a must. Sipping cocktails while watching the sunset over the ocean on the hotel’s Pacific Point terrace is an exquisite experience, and of course, the dining options are fantastic. Because the hotel’s award-winning steakhouse Ember and Rye is temporarily closed at the time of writing this, I’m going to recommend the hotel’s Ponto Lago for now.
Housed in an elegant dining room, Ponto Lago features Baha-inspired cuisine, with standout menu choices including the Butter Poached Lobster Taco and Whole Hog Spear in peanut mole sauce. The restaurant exudes a warm ambiance thanks to the show kitchen, where chefs create in full view of guests. Tequila and mezcal dominate the drinks menu, so much so that the restaurant bar hosts the Agave Tasting Experience every Tuesday, featuring their 50 plus varieties of the two liquors.
The Carlsbad restaurant’s delicious Sunday buffet brunch menu includes Oysters, Paella, and and Wood Fire Asado grill mix, all washed down with Mexican hot chocolate or Margherita flights.
- 7100 Aviara Resort Drive, Carlsbad
14. Blue Ocean Robata
If you’re searching for a great sushi bar in Carlsbad, check out Blue Ocean Robata. It’s away from the main Carlsbad Village action, but it’s definitely worth a visit to get your sushi fix. They actually have an extensive menu of all kinds of Asian-inspired dishes alongside the sushi, sashimi, and nigiri options. Highlights include the Mizo Glazed Chilean Sea Bass, Korean BBQ Ribs, and the I Love Poke Salad.
They also have a creative list of craft cocktails and various kinds of Sake. Try the Pom Sake Bomb if you dare — a unique concoction of cold sake, pomegranate syrup, Sapporo, and a splash of cranberry juice. The restaurant is a popular Happy Hour venue on Mondays through Thursdays from 3 – 6 p.m. Their fun themes include Whiskey Wednesdays and Thirsty Thursdays, and you can expect great deals on drinks, small plates, and sushi.
- 2958 Madison St.
15. Pizza Port
This SoCal institution is a pizza and beer lover’s dream and has quite the local history. The original Pizza Port was founded in Solana Beach by siblings Gina and Vince Marsaglia back in the late 80s. It started life as just a pizzeria, with Vince using the storage room to build his hobby in beer brewing. The restaurant quickly evolved into a brewpub though, combining the perfect pairing of pizza and beer.
Pizza Port’s Carlsbad venue opened in 1997 and was the chain’s second location. Four more SoCal locations have since been added. A great addition to the Carlsbad restaurant is the premium bottle shop next door, which also offers hundreds of craft beers from other local breweries.
The restaurant’s fun pizza menu includes multiple custom-made creations named after various Californian towns and cities, to the Meet Extreme Meat, which says it all. Salads and other munchies round out the menu, while rotating brews on tap will quench your thirst. Try the Bressi Ranch (a Carlsbad neighborhood) pizza paired with a Swami’s IPA, named after the local beach.
- 571 Carlsbad Village Dr.
16. Tip Top Meats & European Deli
For something different and a place known for its legendary breakfasts, head to Tip Top’s casual but quality eatery. Part European-style food market/deli, part restaurant, Tip Top is hugely popular with expats living in San Diego who head there for its excellent meat options.
Their dining area definitely isn’t fancy, but it’s a firm favorite with locals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so expect to wait in a pretty long line for a table. The menu is loaded with amazing meats and cheeses, and international favorites like Sauerkraut. Popular hot sandwich options include the German Weiner and Chicken Cutlet, and of course, Strudel for dessert. Just note there are only ‘house’ options for wine and beer.
- 6118 Paseo Del Norte
17. Cicciotti’s Trattoria & Seafood
One of the best Carlsbad restaurants for Italian is Cicciotti’s Trattoria & Seafood. Situated in the middle of Carlsbad Village, this trattoria is an offshoot of the popular beach-front Cardiff location. Both restaurants have the same menu, including outstanding Appetizer choices like Bruschetta Mamma Mia with salmon and gorgonzola cheese. There’s almost every pasta dish you can think of to follow and a large selection of ravioli and gnocchi. Pizza, steak, chicken, and veal dishes round out the menu, plus a fish selection that includes the divine-looking Cioppino dish – a blend of shellfish and fresh fish of the day over linguine.
The restaurant has live music on Friday nights from 6 – 9 p.m. and you can check their calendar ahead.
- 595 Grand Avenue, Carlsbad
18. The Green Dragon Tavern & Museum
For dinner with an historical twist, Carlsbad’s iconic Green Dragon Tavern & Museum will provide a unique experience. A Carlsbad restaurant and museum in one, Green Dragon, may be located in the sunny climes of SoCal, but it was actually modeled on the 18th-century famed tavern of the same name in Boston.
Guests can soak up some history in the Revolutionary War museum, which is free to enter, before heading to eat. The restaurant continues the colonial American theme with its décor and New England fare, including Main and Connecticut Lobster Rolls. However, there are plenty of other choices, including comfort food classics Shepherd’s Pie, Beef Bourguignon, and Turkey Pot Pie.
The creative dessert menu includes a Churro Sundae and Cappuccino Mud Pie. They also have a great cocktail menu featuring the gin-based ‘Flower Fields’ in a nod to the famous Carlsbad Flower Fields located just across the street from the museum.
- 6115 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad
Darlene Horn also contributed to this article.