Where’s the Best Place to Eat at San Diego Safari Park?

Surprise! There’s a sit-down restaurant at Safari Park with appetizing food, full bar & amazing views. But it may not be the best choice for kids, breakfast, vegans, or eating nearby before or after your visit. So which one’s best for you?

The best restaurant in San Diego Safari Park is The Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook. They’ve got a wide menu of appetizers, sandwiches, and salads. Prices are moderate at $15 – $20 for lunch per person with full table service and bar. Entrees are big enough to share. And the view is outstanding!

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Where's the best places to eat in San Diego Safari Park?

Read on for more of what to expect from The Watering Hole. But good as it is, it can’t be the best choice for everyone. So I’ve also collected info on the other eateries within San Diego Safari Park and nearby.

(Going to San Diego Zoo too? Here’s an article that I wrote on where to find the best food at the Zoo.)

IMPORTANT: All of the park’s restaurants can close early or may never open depending upon how many people are attending that day. Call 760-747-8702 on the morning of your visit to make sure that your eatery choice will be open for you.

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Why the Watering Hole is the Best Place to Eat at Safari Park

The View is Spectacular at the Watering Hole

This restaurant has some of the most spectacular scenery in San Diego. There are 180-degree views overlooking Safari Park’s African Plains enclosure. No fence blocks your sightlines to rhinos, giraffes, wildebeest, many different types of antelope, and the Cape buffalo bachelor herd. Want to see more animals while you’re dining? Go to Africa.

Our waiter pointed out the Thompson’s gazelles. He called them “Cheetos” because they’re the cheetah’s favorite snack in the wild. 

There are no elephants out there. According to the FDA, the Safari Park needs to maintain a certain percentage of shade trees for the animals. The elephants would knock that percentage down to zero within a week. That’s why they are confined to Elephant Valley.

Delicious food at The Watering Hole in San Diego Safari Park. Beef and Cheddar, open-faced tuna sandwich, chips, mac-n-cheese.

Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook Food is Unexpectedly Good, but Pricey

You’ll have a much better meal at the Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook than you’d expect at a major tourist attraction. It’s tasty, solid, adult fare, and definitely not fast food. There’s a full bar. The staff is attentive and friendly. But it is not cheap. Like everything else at Safari Park, any profits go towards animal conservation and care. Consider the extra cost as a way to make the planet a better place.

My favorite thing at the Watering Hole is the house-fried potato chips (aka “crisps” to my friends across the pond). They’re hot, thin, crispy, and oh so crunchy. And the portion is big enough to make a rhino happy. Ok, that was just a slight exaggeration to emphasize that the serving is large. This side dish makes any of the sandwiches served here special.

Watering Hole Insider’s Tip:

This restaurant is popular. To avoid a long wait, make reservations on Open Table especially on weekends.

The Watering Hole opens at 11:00 AM:

Here’s a shortlist of dishes that I copied from their menu (see their latest posted menu here). This list WILL CHANGE so don’t howl at me like a gibbon if you don’t see your favorite on the menu when you go to eat there:

  • Nachos – tortilla chips with chili, lime, salt seasonings, chipotle queso, nopales salsa, cotija cheese, black beans, corn, peppers, cilantro. Messy but good. Chicke option
  • Burrata and merinaded olives
  • Rhino-sized Pretzel with Pub Mustard and Bacon Beer Cheese Dip
  • Upscale sandwiches: pulled pork, beef and cheddar, open faced tuna. Served with fresh-made potato chips.
  • Salads: Roasted Fall Vegetable Salad, Caesar, wedge salad
  • Vegan: Beyond Sausage Sandwich – peppers, onions, marinated tomatoes, spicy pepperoncinis on an Italian roll
  • Kids meal – Mac ‘N’ Cheese or turkey sandwich, crackers, carrots, beverage
  • Desserts – Flourless Chocolate Torte, Sugar-crusted Brulee Cheesecake.

Ask your waiter for vegan and gluten-free options.

Rhino-sized pretzel with bacon beer cheese dip at The Watering Hole in San Diego Safari Park.
Their rhino-sized pretzel really is BIG. It’s also soft and tasty with the bacon beer cheese dip and pub mustard.

The Watering Hole has a full bar. The Baobab Tree Bar (see the photos below in the building and decor section) has a good selection of local craft beers, some on draft & wine.

Check out the special cocktails made just for that location. They had a Serengeti Sunset with coconut rum, orange juice, pineapple, and grenadine that looked tasty. But if you’re going to watch rhinos from your table, you might want one of their Charging Rhino drinks (California citrus vodka, lemon juice, simple syrup, and kiwi puree) instead.

The Watering Hole’s medium priced…for San Diego

Expect to spend between $15 – 20 for lunch per person for entrees unless you’re going to split them. And most of the plates are big enough for two. It will cost more if you order wine, craft beer, or cocktails.

It’s uncrowded, but accessible

It’s midway through the park and away from the heaviest crowds. It’s relatively easy for people with mobility issues to get to. Take an ADA bus from the Ranger Base (at map marker #2). The bus will let you off by Lion Camp. There’s a slight downhill and then a mild incline up to The Watering Hole.

There’s full table service

The servers are friendly and knowledgeable about the food, drinks and animals outside. All seating is under a breezy open-air pavilion. The covered patio construction provides plenty of shade. In the heat of summer there are water misters and fans to keep you cool.  

It’s kid-friendly

The grassy area in front of the restaurant between the covered eating area and the animal exhibit will keep your small critters corralled. They can run around like crazy without driving you there. 

The building and decor are exotically beautiful

The building was designed by Hubble and Hubble, an architectural company established by San Diego artist James Hubble and his son. They specialize in green structures that honor the earth and use natural, local materials whenever possible. 

The Watering Hole at San Diego Safari Park exterior and interior details. The Baobab Tree Bar is on the left side of the image.

The architectural style is modeled on traditional Cameroon African mud brick thatched huts. The (few) walls look as if they were hand formed with the occasional hand print embedded in the rough surface. 

Belly up to the Baobab Tree Bar for a beer. The building’s designers modeled it on some real trees in Africa and Australia with hollow insides that are used as meeting places.

If you look up once you’re inside the Watering Hole you’ll see polished timbers holding up a steeply pitched wood. There’s a “thatch” roof outside. It’s not really straw or reeds. No one at Safari Park is crazy enough to make roofs with dried grass in Escondido. That would be like building a roof with unlit matchsticks.

There are gender-neutral bathrooms. There’s also a large family bathroom for changing babies.

Summary-Why The Watering Hole’s the Best Food at Safari Park

The food at The Watering Hole is definitely the best at Safari Park, but it’s not 5 stars outstanding. However, you aren’t paying top dollar either. Service can be slow, but it’s always friendly. Kids may be noisily running everywhere. But there’s usually enough room to allow you to pick a seat away from the noisier groups. 

But most people that go to The Watering Hole to eat would go back again. There’s something magical about sharing a meal with rhinos…

NOTE: The Watering Hole is popular for weddings and corporate events so definitely check to see if it will be open when you get there. Make your reservations on Open Table.

The Best Places to Eat Breakfast in Safari Park

Thorntree Terrace Restaurant at Safari Park. Eat breakfast burritos and watch the binturongs
Stop and smell the burritos and binturongs at Safari Park’s Thorntree Terrace.

Thorntree Terrace

People eat at Thorntree Terrace because it is close to the park entrance with plenty of shaded seating around the restaurant. They have a limited selection of breakfast, lunch, and family-sized selections. Check out their menu here.

A variety of burgers with fries is served all day. The selection includes variations on cheese, bacon, and even a vegan one.

Breakfast’s served until 10:30 AM. You’ll find breakfast burritos, bowls with English muffins. Bob & I split a breakfast burrito and country potatoes. We were full afterward and we’re both tall people.

Thorntree Terrace lunch entrees are served starting at 11:00 AM. They have a decent Mandarin Orange Chicken salad and rice bowls. There’s also a family meal special with two rice bowls, drinks, and two kid’s meals.

INSIDERS TIP: Do you smell buttered popcorn while eating on the patio in the back of Thorntree Terrace? Don’t look around for a snack cart, look up and search for binturongs. They’re gray, arboreal omnivores with prehensile tails whose urine contains 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, the chemical compound that gives popcorn its aroma. They’re nicknamed ‘bearcats’. Find a table at the back of the restaurant and watch the sisters bask in the sunny treetops. Most visitors to Safari Park don’t even know these girls are there and miss out on a fun experience.

Safari Coffee Outpost

San Diego Safari Park's Safari Coffee Outpost. Say hi to Max the salmon-crested cockatoo.

You can buy espresso drinks, nitro coffee, mini donuts, and snacks here. Sometimes the public is allowed inside up to this point before the official park opening.

And if you happen to succumb to the temptation of coffee and sweets, great! Remember that when you buy at Safari Park you’re a ‘hero for wildlife.’ So toss the diet out the window. Buy two of everything!

Sit at the tables behind the Outpost and say hi to Max the Salmon-crested Cockatoo. He loves it when people talk to him. His squawks sound like he’s laughing with you.

The Best Places to Have Lunch in Safari Park

If you’re arriving around lunchtime

  • Thorntree Terrace. Close to the park entrance at Safari Base Camp. Lunch menu: Rice bowls, salads, wraps, burgers, salads, and a selection of local craft beers, some on draft. 
  • Congo Kitchen. My second choice at the Base Camp. They often have an outdoor grill cooking up some tasty street tacos and nachos. 
  • Barking Deer Pizza & Beer. The name says it all. They serve a variety of hand-tossed Napoliano style pizza. But there’s no seating. Find a table behind Thorntree Terrace and watch the coati as you devour your pie.

If you’re halfway through Safari Park try these eateries

Choose The Watering Hole if you’re looking for the best experience. It’s a bit of a trek to get there, but the food is the best at the park and the ambiance can’t be beaten. 

San Diego Safari Park's Mombasa Cooker restaurant entrance. BBQ, burgers, salads, kids meals, corn dog, craft beers.

What can you eat at Mombasa Cooker? Grilled or breaded chicken tenders with 4 different types of sauce with fries or tots. Two adults can make a meal out of the 5-piece plate. You can also find hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and salads at this location. Their menu is shown here.

San Diego Safari Park's Okavango Outpost restaurant. Exterior, interior and artwork for sale.

Why do people eat at Okavango Outpost? Panini, wraps, chicken strips, salads, nachos, kids’ meals, and local craft beers (see their menu here). If you like the artwork, masks & baskets hanging on the walls, buy them! Check for price tags or ask the counter workers.

My favorite here is the Kilimanjaro Rotisserie Club sandwich. It’s served on a croissant and stuffed with chicken, bacon, and swiss cheese. There’s also a side of garlicky aioli.

Plant-based eaters, there’s something here for you too. Ask for the Artisan Salad to be made vegan style, which is without the usual feta cheese.

There’s some inside seating in this restaurant. But try the outdoor patio seats because they overlook the African Loop lagoon. In the spring and early summer, the trees are loaded with nesting white egrets. Some trees have so many nests that they look snow-covered from a distance. The egrets are local freeloaders who’ve come to hatch their young by the good fishing grounds provided by the park. 

Alcoholic drinks at Okavango Outpost at San Diego Safari Park

Drinks at Okavango Outpost. Are you an adventurous beer lover? Try the mega-sized beer float with chocolate sauce decadently spread over ice cream and whipped cream floating in a hearty dark ale. 

Coffee drinks!  For those who want the ice cream float without the booze, try the coffee float instead. It’s a rich and chilly caffeine buzz that’s big enough for two, but you probably won’t want to share.

For something a little different, try the Chimango drink. It’s mango sorbet, chamoy sauce, lime juice, and chili powder. Slightly spicy and altogether delicious on a hot day. Chimango is definitely a San Diego thing.

3 Best Places at Safari Park to Eat with Kids

These 3 Safari park restaurants and food stands have adjacent playgrounds. You can sit down and leisurely enjoy your meal while watching your little critters burn off calories.

Mawazo Kitchen – The best thing about Mawazo Kitchen is that it overlooks the Mawazo Woods Discovery Area (or Jungle Gym) playground. Feed the kiddos a Kids Meal or a burger then send them off to play. You can keep an eye on them while you’re sitting in the shade, eating a relaxed meal, and sipping a cold beverage or craft beer.

Entrees include various south of the border dishes, tacos, quesadillas, loaded salads, and a decent vegan black bean burger. Here’s their menu. The title says Samburu Terrace, which is what this restaurant used to be called. Location: At map marker #8.

Kibo Cones and Snacks – Grab some hot dogs, soft-serve ice cream, churros, and snacks for the kids. Then head over to the nearby Oasis Deli for sandwiches, salads, coffee, beer, and wine for the grown-ups. There’s limited indoor seating at Oasis Deli (menu) and lots of comfy outdoor patio furniture where the adults can watch the kids eat and play pirate on the Amani Likoni. It’s a play structure built in the shape of an ancient Egyptian barge. Location: Close to map marker #6.

Savanna Cool Zone – let the kiddos get wet here while you relax!

Lion Camp Slush and Snacks – Choose this one if the weather is beastly hot. It’s right next to the Savanna Cool Zone where the kids (and maybe you also) can play among the animal statue water fountains. The Cool Zone surface is soft, squishy, and wet so children can play safely. The menu is limited to hot dogs and salty snacks like pretzels and popcorn. Cold drinks like build-your-own slushies, carbonated beverages, and beer make this a favorite stop for those who need a break from the heat. Location: Close to map marker #14.

Eating Cheap (on a Budget) at Safari Park

Can you bring food into Safari Park?

YES! If you’re on a budget you can bring your own food and beverages into San Diego Safari Park. Carry them in backpacks, purses, or in your child’s stroller or wagon. No coolers, straws, glass bottles, or alcohol allowed. 

All Safari Park food venues will gladly refill your water bottles for free.

5 Tips to save if you can’t bring your own food

Safari Park cheap fountain drink refills
  1. Buy a Fountain Beverage or Iced Tea at any of the food stations and keep the cup & straw all day. Refills are about $2. 
  2. Congo Kitchen and Lion Camp Slush and Snacks have hot dogs and a decent pretzel. They’re cheaper than most options in the park and the kids will love them.
  3. Look for the Family Meal deals. They are usually meant for 4 people and include 2 kids meals.
  4. Share plates. Most entree, wraps and salad plates at Safari Park can feed two. 
  5. Drink a couple of cups of water before your meal. It will fill you up and help you stay hydrated in the Escondido heat.

Best Outdoor Dining at Safari Park

Landscape views

The best views at Safari park restaurants are at The Watering Hole and the Rift Sand Bar.

San Diego Safari Park's Rift Sand Bar with a great view

The Rift Sand Bar is a small snack shop located at the top of the elevators that take you down to Africa Woods and Lion Camp. There are a few shaded tables. The menu is limited to basic snacks, some sandwich wraps, and wine & spirits. But the high elevation view of most of the Park and the San Pasqual Valley is drool-worthy. 

Water views

Safari Park's Mombasa Lagoon eating areas. Oil pastel effect filter on photo.
Eat next to the water under the shaded patios at Mombasa Lagoon

The best places to eat with a water view in Safari Park are behind Mombasa Cooker and Kibo Cones and Snacks. Order your food and walk around to the sunny tables in the back.

Want shade? There are also plenty of tables inside the Mombasa Pavilion. Most of the time you can get a spot overlooking the lagoon and the island where a pair of shoebill storks live.

San Diego Safari Park Mombasa Lagoon sign with a black-crowned night heron perched on it.
A local black-crowned night heron perched on the Mombasa Lagoon sign

The water in Mombasa Lagoon is teeming with birds from the African ducks and geese to the freeloading local coots, mallards, and egrets. 

Do They Serve Alcohol at Safari Park?

All of these dining venues at San Diego Zoo Safari Park serve draft/craft beers:

  • Thorntree Terrace 
  • Barking Deer Pizza & Beer
  • Congo Kitchen 
  • Mombasa Cooker
  • Oasis Deli
  • Macan Market
  • Sheared Sheep
  • Watering Hole at Kajamii Overlook (full bar)
  • Raptor’s Nest (also wine & spirits)
  • Mawazo Kitchen
  • Rift Sand Bar
  • Lion Camp Slush & Snacks
  • Okavango Outpost

There’s Gluten-free and Vegan Food at San Diego Safari Park

7 restaurants offer both vegan and gluten-free menu choices at Safari Park. They are scattered throughout the park. Since they also serve other food, these are good choices for everyone in your group.

  • Thorntree Terrace
  • Mombasa Cooker
  • Oasis Deli
  • Sheared Sheep
  • Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook
  • Mawazo Kitchen
  • Okavango Outpost

Valentines Day Dinner at Safari Park

Have a wildly romantic time at the annual Valentine’s Day Dinner at San Diego Safari Park. This exotic couples’ dinner usually takes place under the vaulted faux thatched roof of Hunte Nairobi Pavilion. Turn left at map marker #2.

You can expect a visit from one of the animal ambassadors (sometimes a cheetah), a no-host bar, and a four-course gourmet meal prepared by the Safari Park Chef. 

Check-in usually begins shortly after 5 PM. Expect to pay around $120 per couple. This event always sells out. Starting in mid-January check online at the Safari Park Dining Events page or call 619-718-3000 for information. 

Best Restaurants Near San Diego Safari Park

Fast food nearby

The closest fast-food restaurants are located in the Westfield North County Mall.

  • Burger King
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill
  • Potato Corner (various styles of fries, chicken tenders & wings)

Cross Highway 15 and turn right into the Plaza del Lago Center and you’ll find:

  • Subway
  • McDonalds
  • Chito’s Taco Shop
  • Rock on Pizza

Best breakfast place close to Safari Park

Broken Yolk Cafe in Westfield Mall – The mall is right off Highway 15, so it’s very convenient. And parking is easy.

I’ll eat their Golden State Benedict anytime I can get it. It has the usual poached eggs and hollandaise sauce. But they add tomato, avocado (this IS San Diego, after all…), applewood smoked bacon and a zippy sriracha drizzle. Bob likes their chicken fried steak breakfast.

Nearby restaurants with great lunches

Personally, I’d go into Safari Park and order lunch at The Watering Hole, Okavango Outpost, or Thorntree Terrace and consider the little extra expense my gift to wildlife worldwide. But if you’re hungry before you get to the park or want something very different afterward try these:

Burger Bench – Unhinge your jaw-thick burgers with fresh local ingredients. You can upgrade to Impossible, Halal, or grass-fed Wagyu beef patties. Slurp down creatively flavored hand-made milkshakes. You must try the truffle fries or tots.

Chan Dara Thai Café – Large tasty portions for a reasonable price tucked away in an anonymous strip mall. Lunch specials for under $10. Try the See-Eyew Noodles, Phad Thai,  and their yellow curry. 

The unusual Angel Wings are worth a try. They’re chicken wings without the bones, stuffed with crab meat, ground chicken, and noodles. They’re deep-fried and served with cucumbers in a sweet plum sauce.

Careful with the spices at this restaurant. Level 4 is jalapeno, which is too much for me. 

Best Restaurants for Dinner near Safari Park

Cordiano Winery a restaurant close to San Diego Safari Park. Great views, pizza and wine.

Cordiano Winery – It’s a smidgen less than 2 miles as the crow flies from Safari Park. 9.5 miles on twisty country roads if you don’t have wings and have to get there by car. But the views, the pizza ($16-18), and wines are worth the drive. 

The rest of the entrees are also generously proportioned. Pasta plates are $13-14 each. They’ve also got appetizers and desserts. Unfortunately, they’re only open Thursday thru Sunday. 

Vintana Wine + Dine – It’s a bit expensive but perfect for a special night out. You enter through a Lexus dealership and go to an elevator which deposits you in the restaurant’s bar. There are great views both from the inside and out on the patio. 

But the food’s the real star. Delicious from appetizers to dessert. Try the Brie Wheel. Steak & lobster cooked just right. The key lime tarts are just tart enough. And they make popovers! It’s taken me years to get mine to pop consistently, and doing it hundreds of times every night? Respect! 

Go See Wolves and Eat Pie in Julian

Go visit the Julian Pie Company in Julian, CA. The drive is beautiful. And it’s not just the pies that are delightful. There are about a dozen little eateries packed into three short blocks. If you can’t find good food there, you aren’t hungry. Then visit the California Wolf Center in Julian, CA (read my article HERE). You’ll see gray wolves and the very endangered Mexican gray wolf up close.

Closing Thoughts

Never worry about finding something that you’ll enjoy eating at Safari Park. There are plenty of options for everyone. Click on the following page link if you’re wondering what to see and do at Safari Park when you’re not eating. Bon Appétit San Diego Safari Park style!

Nancy Ulrich

I'm nuts...about animals, polymer clay, mixed media art & husband Bob. Happily planted in San Diego among good friends, family that I would have chosen if given the choice and optimism for a bountiful future for us all.

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