Best Bets for Super Dining : A Game Plan for Choosing Winning Restaurants in San Diego

San Diego restaurateurs have been salivating over the prospect of Super Bowl week for months, and visitors can expect to find red carpets rolled out all over town. Many of the best restaurants are downtown, and thanks to this neighborhood's relative compactness, hotel guests will find all of them within convenient walking distance.

Best bets to try in San Diego are seafood and Mexican specialties, although downtown boasts plenty of classic French and Italian fare, and fine steaks for those who wouldn't leave Denver without one. For those visitors who want to savor San Diego's equivalent of Georgetown and Cherry Hills, several of the better establishments in posh, seaside La Jolla also are mentioned.

Cost estimates given are exclusive of tax, tip and drinks. The term "inexpensive" designates a meal costing less than $10; "moderate," $10 to $20, and "expensive," $20 or more. Reservations will be difficult to get at many places, but all will try to be as accommodating as possible. Late diners may find the best selection of tables. Group reservations at many of these restaurants will be impossible at this late date, but in any case, it is always wise to call ahead.

The Anthony's group of restaurants offers some of downtown's best waterfront dining. All feature an ocean-spanning selection of beautifully fresh seafood. Anthony's Harborside (1355A N. Harbor Drive; moderate) offers an excellent selection of items, many prepared quite simply; keep an eye out for the swordfish, and, if available, the local fish called corvina. Meals include a trip to an elaborate salad bar. The casual, family-style Anthony's Fish Grotto (1360 N. Harbor Drive; inexpensive) makes a specialty of broiled fish, shellfish salads and deep-fried seafoods. The chowder is reliable, the portions generous.

A few blocks south on the waterfront is Seaport Village (861 W. Harbor Drive), a popular tourist stop that features a couple of good restaurants and an almost endless selection of inexpensive, fast-food shops; these last are clustered together in a small, aromatic compound. For formal dining, though, the choice is between Papagayo (moderate) and the Harbor House (moderate), which are under the same management and which both make a specialty of seafood.

At Papagayo, the emphasis is Latin, and fresh fin and shellfish are treated to a variety of subtle and spicy south-of-the-border treatments. The view of the water is attractive, the atmosphere lively. Harbor House takes a much more straightforward, all-American view of creatures hoisted from the briny deep; the specialty is fish broiled over glowing mesquite, which imparts a special, savory tang to such local favorites as yellowtail tuna and swordfish. Locally caught Pacific lobster is currently in season, and both restaurants do a fine job with these juicy, succulent crustaceans.

The best place to get a taste of the new Southwestern cuisine, which tempers traditional Mexican flavors with updated, California cuisine principles, is at Pacifica Grill (1202 Kettner Blvd.; moderate). This trendy, attractive restaurant occupies spacious quarters in an elegantly restored warehouse, and serves such unusual dishes as canarditas , or succulent, slowly cooked morsels of duck that guests dress with any of a dozen spicy garnishes and wrap in tortillas. This restaurant also features imaginative appetizers and excellent pastas, and has a winning way with fresh, top-quality seafoods.

Another of downtown's best restaurants is on the floor above Pacifica Grill. The menu at Rainwater's (1202 Kettner Blvd.; expensive) will remind Washingtonians of the Palm--prime aged steaks, veal and pork chops, prime rib and other fine meats all are served in cuts sized sufficiently to sate the hungriest Redskin. Rainwater's also features excellent fish, live Maine lobsters, good vegetable side dishes and a delicious black bean soup.

Anyone who can't bear the thought of returning home without tasting a burrito, enchilada or tostada will find a full selection of these and other typical California-Mexican dishes at Alfonso's (135 Broadway; inexpensive). This new branch of a long-popular La Jolla eatery has become a downtown favorite, and is especially liked for its carne asada burritos, which enclose thin strips of grilled, marinated steak. Rice and beans abound here, and by all means give the guacamole a try.

Being Seen at Dobson's

Crowded, noisy and boisterous at lunch, and more serene at dinner, Dobson's (956 Broadway Circle; expensive) is very much the place to be seen. One of the city's most fashionable restaurants, it daily prints a menu that centers on careful, flavorful French treatments of the finest-quality meats and seafoods. The mussel bisque, baked under a coverlet of puff pastry, is a standing favorite. With the style and atmosphere of an old-fashioned men's grill, Dobson's emphasizes hearty foods served in more than generous portions.

Horton Plaza, the architecturally extravagant shopping center in the heart of downtown, devotes much of its top level to food. Much of it is offered by fast-food purveyors who hawk everything from sushi to gigantic cinnamon rolls; one good bet would be the submarine sandwiches assembled on fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread at the Boudin bakery.

For serious diners, Horton Plaza houses the best Chinese restaurant in the county. For starters, Panda Inn (506 Horton Plaza; moderate) offers excellent steamed dumplings, a spicy, Szechuan seafood fettuccine and a first-rate, Chinese-style seafood chowder. The entree lists run to great length, but pay close attention to such specialties as Panda beef; the hot and pungent chicken; the whole, braised fish; the Szechuan eggplant, and the stir-fried green beans.

Although it may look a touch seedy to the uninitiated, Kansas City Barbecue (610 W. Market St.; inexpensive) is a great favorite with local businessmen, who treasure its no-nonsense, down-home meats and sausages cooked to a savory perfection and spiced with a steamy barbecue sauce. There's no fooling around here--sandwiches are served on white bread, and are so moist that eating them with knife and fork makes the most sense. This small eatery, by the way, was the site of several sequences in the popular 1986 film "Top Gun."

Another casual, no-nonsense place favored for its hearty fare is the Athens Market (109 W. F St.; inexpensive), which dishes up traditional Greek meals with an almost unbelieveably generous hand. The homemade, orange-flavored loganiko sausage is excellent, as are such traditional favorites as moussaka, pastitsio and roast lamb.

In the heart of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, Croce's (802 5th Ave.; moderate) features an eclectic blend of pastas and home-style foods drawn from several cuisines. Among outstanding dishes are the Jewish-Russian-style braised beef brisket, the blintzes, and several smoked-fish preparations. Jazz in the neighboring jazz bar is an added attraction at night, and the place is decorated with memorabilia of singer Jim Croce. His widow, Ingrid, is the proprietor.

The city's tallest building, the Meridian, shelters one of the finest Italian restaurants at its base. Salvatore's (750 Front St.; expensive) produces such visual artworks as the Caterina di Medici salad, a seafood pasta baked in a fish-shaped package of tin foil (when pierced, it releases a delicious aroma), and a gorgeous swordfish garnished to look like a pineapple. Everything here is as good as it looks, which is to say that it is very good indeed.

Some of the city's best dining is to be found just 15 minutes from downtown in the elegant seaside neighborhood of La Jolla. What may be San Diego's finest eatery, Gustaf Anders (2128 Avenida de la Playa; expensive) offers austerely elegant contemporary cuisine in its formal dining rooms and a fine selection of elegant appetizers, soups and sandwiches in its less formal bar. The bar, in fact, is a good place in which to inspect the La Jolla life style while eating well at half the price charged in the dining room.

Tables at several of La Jolla's pricier, view-endowed restaurants will be hard to come by this week, but good bets for those who want a glimpse of beautiful La Jolla Cove while dining on typical San Diego fare are the neighboring El Crab Catcher (moderate) and La Playa Grill (inexpensive). Under the same management, they share the lower level of the Coast Walk center (1298 Prospect St.). El Crab Catcher specializes in seafood, sometimes with a Mexican accent, but more commonly served in a rewardingly straightforward manner. The mood is casual. La Playa Grill also features a casual atmosphere and makes a specialty of familiar Mexican dishes, as well as simple seafood specialties popularized by tourist restaurants in Mexican resort towns. The margaritas are among San Diego's best.

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