The San Diego Zoo is one of the city's biggest attractions. It's also huge, so by the time you're ready to say goodbye to the elephants, pandas, and polar bears, you'll be ravenous. While there are several on-site restaurants and eateries, they're predictably disappointing, so if you want great eats to be part of your visit, it's best to plan ahead. To lend a hand, here are some of my favorite spots for pre- and post-zoo eating.
Coffee & Tea
There is a decent coffee cart outside the House of Hospitality within Balboa Park, but if you want to visit a place with neighborhood cred and a great atmosphere, head to Café Bassam in Bankers Hill. Antiques, paintings, and curiosities adorn the space, and the drinks are all prepared with care. I'm always torn between a chai latte and a mocha. The cookies (baked fresh, daily) are also excellent.
Want something more exciting? Café Barbera's "Fantasy in Coffee" menu is packed with artful espresso drinks capped with chilled foam milk and swirled with syrup. The Roma, with cinnamon syrup and chocolate sauce, is particularly delicious.
Breakfast and Brunch
If you want to get an early start on the day, Snooze opens at 6:30 a.m. Monday to Friday, and 7 a.m. on weekends. There's a broad selection of egg dishes on the menu, ranging from huevos rancheros to several versions of eggs benedict, along with mega-sweet pancakes. I tend to stick with the "light as a feather" section, opting for the Snooze Continental (housemade granola with yogurt and agave nectar, toast, and a bruléed grapefruit) more often than not, but a more substantial meal isn't a bad idea before a long day of walking.
100 Wines has a solid brunch menu, served Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The osso buco eggs benedict with tabasco hollandaise is pretty epic, and the apple butter pancakes with tart cherry preserves are a worthy choice if you like a sweet start. Speaking of which, it's never a bad idea to get a cinnamon roll, packed up to go. After trekking through the zoo, you'll want to dig into something decadent.
Giant portions is what The Tractor Room is all about. Go here for roasted chicken, elk sausage, or wild boar hash, served with cornbread or a biscuit. There's also lunch-leaning fare like burgers, BLTs, and fried chicken sandwiches. Brunch is served on weekends, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The best way to eat a cheap lunch during a visit to the zoo is to plan ahead and pack a picnic. There's a Whole Foods and Trader Joe's within a mile, or pick up some bagels and cream cheese at Big City Bagel, located in the same shopping center as Joe's. A baker's dozen and two tubs of cream cheese is $15.49.
Carnitas' Snack Shack is a bit further away, but it's well worth the short drive to score some of the city's best eats. I'm a big fan of the burger and steak sandwich at this pork-centric restaurant, but hear the off-menu BLT (which swaps pork belly crisped on the griddle for the ham) is off-the-charts. Don't worry, there's still bacon on it...lots of bacon.
Hit up Project Pie for made-to-order thin crust pizzas topped with whatever you desire. The "Chipotle-style" pizza chain also has a handful of salads and dessert pies like Nutella and banana. There's onsite parking—a real rarity in Hillcrest—but it's a small lot, so consider yourself lucky if you can snag a spot.
Cucina Urbana is one of the closest restaurants to the zoo, located an easy 20-minute walk past the museums and over the Cabrillo Bridge. The comprehensive menu includes a great selection of sandwiches, salads, fresh pasta, and pizza, all which change seasonally. I've never had a bad dish, but after a long day at the zoo, a pizza really hits the spot (and the portion size tends to be larger than many of the pasta dishes). If you want something more, start with the fried squash blossoms.
Finding parking near Local Habit can be tricky, but it's worth the hassle to score a paper-thin pie, available on regular, whole wheat, or gluten-free crust. I like the Quattro Formaggio, which comes topped with four varieties of Spring Hill Cheese: goat cheddar, Jack, aged Gouda, and mozzarella. Bonus: there are great brews on tap.
The housemade tater tots at R-Gang are awesome, especially the jalapeño, cheddar, and cream cheese stuffed-popper tots, served with cilantro-chive crème fraiche for dipping. You can snag an order for $4 during happy hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday-Friday, or 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays). Other winners on the happy hour menu include the monkey bread and candy-sweet cocktails. If you're looking for a full-sized meal, I'd go with the smoked Gouda mac and cheese.
The Prado is a fine choice for lunch or dinner, and its location within the park, a 10-minute walk from the zoo, is a major bonus. The back patio, set among tropical gardens, is gorgeous, but with lunch entrées averaging around $16, you'll pay for the privilege of sitting there. A better bet is to visit during happy hour (4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday-Friday), when you can score an assortment of bites for $4-$5, and drinks for $4.50. The crispy shoestring potatoes and a mule would make a great post-zoo, pre-dinner snack.
Rooftop restaurant Mister A's has great city views and a surprisingly affordable happy hour menu, with $7 bites and drinks from $3 (domestic brews) to $10 (specialty and "skinny" cocktails). Happy hour starts at 2:30 p.m., and wraps up at 6:30 p.m., Sunday-Friday. If you're tromping around the zoo in a pair of shorts and sandals, you'll need to do a quick-change. Jeans are ok, but this is one of few spots in San Diego where beach attire and baseball caps aren't going to fly.
The chocolate cake at D-Bar is pretty much perfect. Sure, it's a little steep at $10 a slice, but you get a pint-sized shake (vanilla, chocolate, or raspberry) to go along with it. As a special splurge, it's worth it.
For cute, frosting-laden cupcakes, Babycakes is a good bet. There are two locations nearby, but the closest is an easy 10-minute walk, along Morley Field Drive. I find the lemon bavarian to be the most balanced, but the signature cupcake, marble cake with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chips, is pretty tasty as well.
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