San Diego Zoo is our most popular attraction that I talked to people daily about because I offer discount San Diego Zoo tickets. One frequently asked question is which San Diego Zoo restaurants are worth planning your day around. After all, it’s a big park, and it can take quite a bit of time to get from one side to the other.
The answer is that you can buy typical theme park food and drinks to keep you fueled for a fun day of exploring exhibits. But, you can taste famous San Diego craft beer and fish tacos while you’re at it at a few establishments. We’re members, so I’ll update this post regularly as conditions change and new food debuts.
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Should I Eat at San Diego Zoo?
Yes, if your budget permits! We’re in difficult times, for sure, but I like to remind visitors that San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is a nonprofit organization that helps save animal species worldwide.
This means that every dollar you spend in the Zoo goes, of course, to overhead and animal care, but conservation as well. That’s it, and they need our help now more than ever.
What to Know About Casual Dining Outlets
If you’re the type to study menus and where to eat prior to arriving at attractions, you should know this.
Whether or not casual dining locations are open currently depends on attendance levels. This means that there are plenty of casual dining options open, but which ones are open can change on any given day. If it’s peak season, most of them are open.
The best way to find which San Diego Zoo restaurants are open is by checking the San Diego Zoo app on the day of your visit. You can also call the General Inquiries number at 619-231-1515.
Albert’s Restaurant Is Always Open
Location: Lost Forest
Type: Restaurant Dining
One place where you can enjoy a lovely dining experience on any day is at the signature San Diego Zoo restaurant — Albert’s.
During any time or season, I would tell you to make a reservation at Albert’s Restaurant in San Diego Zoo if time permits. When I know our visit overlaps lunch, I like to sit on the patio here, which has a little waterfall.
Many people visit San Diego only to experience San Diego Zoo, so I like to point out that Albert’s serves our top regional dish — the fish taco!
As a San Diego resident, I’ve eaten plenty of fish tacos and can say that the ones served here are pretty good. Especially paired with a local craft beer, a craft cocktail from the full bar, or in my case, recently, a Chardonnay. Another notable entree includes the delectable Albert’s Ancho-Dusted Crispy Chicken Sandwich.
Albert’s offers full-service dining and is the only San Diego Zoo dining outlet to do so. You can also join for a lovely brunch where the French Toast is very popular. Make reservations through OpenTable.
Casual Dining at San Diego Zoo
I think the best strategy is to focus on enjoying your day at the Zoo. In fact, that’s what we did for many years until I figured out where I or kids liked to eat.
However, keep an eye out for some of these places. They’re mentioned here because they fulfill a need, open early, or offer popular snacks.
There is a long list of options not mentioned that you can check here.
San Diego Zoo Sandwich Company
Location: Front Street
Type: Casual Dining (open for patio dining and take-out)
San Diego Zoo Sandwich Company is USUALLY the only casual dining outlet open early in the morning, starting at 8:30 a.m. Yes, this is before the Zoo opens to the public but, when operational, some tours start at 8:30 a.m. It’s also right next to the entrance.
Here, you can find counter-order coffee, snacks, sandwiches, and salads. If you need an early bite, check to see if it’s open. One of the signature sandwiches is curried chicken on naan, but they also have standard deli sandwiches like Italian torpedoes and even grilled cheese or kids’ meals.
Sweets and Treats
Location: Front Street (near the exit so a nice stop on the way out)
Type: Quick Bites
If you like cookies or fresh fudge, this is your spot. You’ll find these delectable desserts inside the San Diego Zoo Kids store on Front Street.
This is conveniently near the exit so if the kids aren’t ready to leave, perhaps mention that they can pick up a fun cookie for the road though it is obviously dangerously close to souvenirs they might ask you to buy. The gourmet coffee drinks are pretty good, too. (Note: This used to be a Nestle Toll House Cafe by Chip.)
Sabertooth Mexican Grill
Location: Elephant Odyssey
Type: Casual Dining
If you don’t have time for a sit-down meal at Albert’s, then Sabertooth Mexican Grill is the next best choice. This cafeteria-style spot offers Mexican cuisine, including salads, wraps, local beer, and some pretty massive burritos, including two San Diego classics — the carne asada burrito and California burrito.
I last ordered carne asada tacos. As a San Diego resident, I’ve eaten a ton of carne asada tacos, but these were actually very good with generous portions of meat. You can pair your Mexican food meal with a Cadillac margarita, wine, or craft beer.
Hua Mei Cafe
Location: Asian Passage
Type: Casual Dining
Hua Mei Cafe has been mostly open and it’s named after the first panda born outside of the United States. Through collaborative work between Chinese and American scientists, Hua Mei was born at San Diego Zoo in 1999 and the world watched her grow up on the panda cam. I remember the red banners rolling down with her name on her 100-day birthday (which is traditionally the day you name panda cubs) — I still have the documentary on VHS.
Hua Mei relocated to the Wolong panda reserve in 2004, which we visited before the Chengdu earthquake. The San Diego Zoo giant pandas all returned to China but the Hua Mei Cafe remains and kids like to eat here. It’s Americanized-Chinese food mostly but you can order a burger. The most popular dish by far is Orange Chicken.
There’s also a little soft serve ice cream spot here called Hua Mei Cones. I personally think it’s some of the best soft serve in town but if you want to go big, you can dress it up. Super Sundaes can include warm churro pieces, caramel sauce and whipped cream, for example.
Tip: Red pandas still live in the Lost Forest and they are adorable. There’s also a panda-centric gift shop next to Hua Mei Cafe.
Busy Bee Cafe
Location: Zoofari Party Area
Type: Casual Dining
One thing this new eatery does a bit differently is offer family meals that include a pizza feast, bucket of corn dogs, and a bucket of hot dogs. You can also find fruit salad and a tasty vegan burger, but the focus is clearly on Hebrew National gourmet hot dogs.
Location: Discovery Outpost
Type: Quick Bites
This is where the good stuff awaits. If you need a quick pick-me-up during your Zoo visit, Kettle Corn in a variety of flavors found here is a guest hit. You can also order a churro, Icee, or local draft beer.
It’s on the way to the Children’s Zoo (which is still under construction) and Skyfari Aerial Tram near the Reptile House so perhaps avert young eyes if you’re not ready for them to ask for sugar.
Front Street Sweet Shack
Location: Front Street
Type: Casual Dining
Sweet Shack’s current claim to fame is the doughnut burger. It’s also known for a pretty good monte cristo sandwiches, shakes and other fried goods.
What About Adult Beverages?
Albert’s, nearly every casual dining, and some quick service San Diego Zoo restaurants serve alcohol.
You can find our famous local craft beers in several places including Zoo Brew (location: Lost Forest) which also serves mini donuts and coffee, Bamboo Bar (location: Asian Passage), San Diego Craft Beer & Margaritas (location: Front Street), and Boardwalk Beer Garden (location: Australian Outback) to name a few.
San Diego Zoo Food Policy Allows You to BYO
Yes, you can bring outside food into the San Diego Zoo. Large coolers are not permitted but you can bring your own small coolers, snacks, and items to eat.
Basically, if you can carry it on your person (or in a stroller), it’s okay. If you have dietary restrictions, consider bringing your own food (more on this below).
Leave the glass, alcohol, and straws at home. Straws in the Zoo are a big no-no for animal safety reasons, which is also why you need to be extra careful to avoid dropping wrappers and other litter. You’re visiting San Diego Zoo with kids who need a straw, sippy cup and water bottles with straws attached to the lids are okay. I cover this and more in my San Diego Zoo tips post.
What About Food Allergies and Dietary Preferences?
Vegetarian options are available at Albert’s and all casual dining San Diego Zoo restaurants. If you have ingredient or gluten sensitivities, you can request an ingredient list.
However, one of the reasons why you are allowed to bring your own food to San Diego Zoo is because as a nonprofit, they do not have the ability to customize dishes according to dietary restrictions at the time of ordering.
Albert’s Restaurant menu items are marked vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. If you have food allergies, they ask that you alert your server, as here they can moderately customize dishes to taste and preferences.
The bottom line is that if you do have food allergies that make navigating around a set menu difficult, plan to eat at Albert’s or bring in your own food.
What Restaurants Are Near San Diego Zoo?
San Diego Zoo is adjacent to Balboa Park where there are several other popular places to eat. You can check my list Balboa Park restaurants but my favorites are the Tea Pavilion and Panama 66 which both offer patio dining.
See also: Hotels Near San Diego Zoo and Hotels Near San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).
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