You would expect a place on the coast to be full of seafood restaurants, and downtown San Diego does not disappoint. Specialist seafood places abound in San Diego, and here are some of my favorite ones. Relarively speaking, San Diego restaurants are very good but usually never rise to the level of incredible. The focus of most seafood places in San Diego is to get freshly caught fish from various parts of the world - this from hawaii, that from Spain - and serve it simply grilled with butter-lemon sauce - which is all very nice but makes it difficult to distinguish restaurant A from B. The menus look similar, and they probably get their fish from the same suppliers too. Also, the skill is really with the fish supplier, not with the chef. Understanding, therefore, that all these places have the SGLB (simply grilled butter lemon) thing down pat, I'm going to write about what stood out.
The most highly rated seafood place in San Diego, according to most reviews, is the Star of the Sea. It starts of with a huge advantage - being directly on the edge of the pier almost every seat has a dramatic view of the San Diego harbor, ehnanced by lots of glass and cleveryly muted lighting that prevents reflections. I wasn't going to eat the view, however, so I sat at the bar and chatted up a very sociable bartender who ran me through the very short menu. The starter was a roasted beet salad with goat cheese which, even of it lacked any trace of fish, I extremely highly recommend (is a recommendation allowed to be "extreme"?). The wild alaskan salmon held centre stage on the main course but was of the SGLB school. The bartender wanted me to try diver scallops too, which apparently comes from a single-boat, mom-n-pop operation in Maine but that was left to another day that has not yet come. The dessert-less total was $70, with a scotch thrown in.
Much more dramatic in presentation and preparation was Candelas in downtown. This is noveau Mexican rather than seafood, but the focus is adequately on fish for it to feature here - and they are far enough outside the SGLB school to be worthy of mention. The huge bartender, tatoo and piercings and all, had an incredible ability to describe the food but finally we settled on the rice-stuffed squid and the cheese-stuffed halibut. The first thing that came out was jalapeno bread rolls with some incredible flavored butter - and yes, there's fish involved - the butter had anchovies and enough other stuff that our bartender was able to expound it's virtues for a full minute. And boy did it live up to it's promise; one can live on the butter alone. The squid bellies soon followed, stuffed with rice and layered with a chipotle sauce; generously proportioned and interesting. The halibut entree was fish layered with cheese not unlike a lasagna, and baked to an incredible thin brown crust crust with a teasingly flavorful creamy sauce. All in all, quite a satisfactory meal at just under $50 - and the bar area of Candela is incredibly funky.
Another seafood place just around the corner is Oceanaire, complete with raw fish on ice, unrelated quotes from James Joyce on the walls and a long, long bar where I sat and chatted up two women. One of them was in love with the bartender which, luckily, meant that I got better than average service in addition to all kinds of gossip. The menu is, of course, heavily focused on SGLB seafood. I had the scallops the first day - very nice but somewhat too simple for a $30 price tag. The second time around though, I had cippolino, which is the cheapest thing on the menu at $19 (who said the place was cheap), but incredibly, life-changingly good. We're not just talking about the fish bits being good - they are and there are plenty of them, but every last drop of the tomato broth was quite worthy of the utter fool I made of myself slurping for. There's apparently nothing complicated about the dish, but somehow even the smallest bit of moisture left on the plate seemed sinful wastage.
One place that's alternately praised and reviled by various critics is Osetra, in the heart of the Gaslamp quarter. Some critics love it, some deride it as grossly overpriced. I...love it. I went both times at lunch (which may explain why overpriced did not hit me) but the baked oysters with roe was one of the best things I've ever seen done to an oyster.
I don't have a review for Blue Point Coastal - I had lamb chops there. They were excellent, but I haven't found a way to link lambs to the sea. There are many other places - Aqua Blu, Chive, McCormick&Schmick are three that come to mind immediately - that provide very nice seafood but firmly of the SGLB school. Chive has life-changing shortribs, but that like the lamb chops are for somewhere else.