Can there, Will there ever be World-Class Dining in San Diego?

Posted on September 21, 2012

The sunshine brings people from all around the world to San Diego.  Yet, San Diego does not have a reputation as a city for world-class dining.  Sure, the Food Network showcases our taco shops and diners, but not our formal dining establishments.  I am a native of San Diego and I am always shocked when I hear, “Wow, you’re a native! I don’t meet too many of you.”  Being raised here I know a lot of locals.  That being said, it goes to show that there are also many transplants here.

San Diego draws people from all over the world for the perfect weather.  The city is clean and inviting for college students, young professionals and families.  There is a strong gay community here.  Being so close to Mexico, the Latin community is large and we can hear Spanish everywhere.  There are urban neighborhoods and affluent neighborhoods.  Although San Diego is a conservative city, the counter-culture is also very present.  What makes San Diego unique is that, although there is such diversity in the demographics, it is so spread out.  The outcome is a city in which everyone lives so far apart and these differences might never come together. A resident from the affluent neighborhood of Rancho Santa Fé  might never interact with a Mexican unless they are cleaning their house.

I lived in San Francisco for 10 years.  San Diego has similar demographics as San Francisco.  The average age of its inhabitants in San Diego is 33 and in San Francisco 38. The household median income in San Francisco is $70,000 and San Diego it is $60,000. The population of San Francisco is 800,000 but everyone lives within a 7 mile radius.  In San Diego it is 1,300,000 within a 50 mile radius.  You can see the break down of the races is similar.  The greatest difference is that San Diego has younger people, which equals lower incomes, however; are their tastes that different?  What is the answer to the question I posed in the title, “Could there, will there ever be World-Class dining in San Diego?”

El Bulli in San Sebastián Spain, was one of the greatest restaurants in the world.  If you wanted reservations, you would need to call a year ahead of time.  The menu was a long drawn out experience including some of the world’s most sought after wines.  The service, impeccable.  El Bulli was located in a city very similar to San Diego.  It lies along the coast and its harbors are filled with yachts of the richest people in the world.

I posed this question, “Will there ever be world-class dining in San Diego?” on twitter to some of the most influential chefs, sommeliers and restaurant owners.  I received a mixed response.  Many had their doubts.  Others were optimistic and felt that the possibility was there.  I guess my next question would be, what hinders San Diego from becoming a food town like San Francisco, Chicago or San Sebastián?

Is it the lack of restaurant owners’ with foresight?  Is it a lack of talent among the chefs that work here?  Is it that the diners are not ready for that sort of dining experience?  What is the root of the problem?

When I first moved back to San Diego I asked, “where would be a good site for a restaurant?”  Everyone said the Gaslamp district or Hillcrest.  I never believed that.  My intuition was North Park.  I went to grade school there and grew up on 36th street.  From what I remember back then, the area was not the greatest.  However, it was centrally located and had a neighborhood feel with its own thriving community.  It reminded me of the Mission district in San Francisco.  When I left San Francisco, I had finished opening three famous restaurants in the heart of the Mission.  Everyone’s thoughts were, “Why are you opening a restaurant in the Mission?”  By the time I left San Francisco, the Mission had become the restaurant hot spot.

So upon arrival back home in 2004, North Park only made sense to me.  Gentrification was imminent and this up and coming community was going to need a culinary culture.  I was right.  Wine bars, cafes and restaurants line the streets between University and Upas street.  Not even close to an El Buli, but at least there are restaurants that have moved away from the usual “Italian”, “Mexican” and “Family” cuisine that we find everywhere else.

I look at the Gaslamp and see restaurants struggling to make it.  If there is a convention, they are busy. Without a convention it dies out.  During the Padre games it gets even worse.  People crowd the streets before and after the game, but parking is atrocious and nobody is dining.  In Hillcrest, there are small restaurants everywhere.  These are opening and closing every year. The only successful restaurants are bars that create a party atmosphere.  It’s about drinking and partying.  The food culture is not a priority in Hillcrest.

There is a very small list of good restaurants, including Mr A’s, Market, Island Prime, Nine Ten, Searsucker, Pamplemousse and a string of gastro pubs such as  the Smoking Goat, Whisk and Ladle, the Farmhouse and Jayne’s Gastropub.  I know there are more, however; one of these are even close to an El Buli.  They are what they are. The food is good and they are providing a good dining experience.

In my opinion, the restaurants that are on the brink of even coming close to world-class cuisine are the Sky Room and the Addison.  Both offer tasting menus in which the chef shares an experience in the five senses of the tongue.  The dishes are well thought out and the wines are specifically picked to enhance the food.  My only concern is that they are in hotels.  This tells me that these restaurants are not for San Diegans, but for our visitors.  Are these restaurants in hotels because otherwise they would not survive?

What I envision one day, a restaurant with the caliber of the Addison in an urban part of San Diego.  This restaurant would be for San Diegans.  To dine there, one would have plan ahead and actively seek it out.  It is not in a location that warrants walking traffic, so diners would not come across it from merely walking to the game.  The restaurant would be in an industrial part of town and the only glowing light is that of the valet sign outside the restaurant.  Reservations are highly recommended well in advanced.  The food and drink menu would be unique, so much so that it gets national attention.  Without praise from national publications, it will never receive international acclaim.  Once I see an establishment such as this appear on the scene, then I will know that world-class dining in San Diego is attainable.  Do you think we can ever get there?

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pat

    Very interesting Maurice. Just a guess, but I think the difference in density may be part of it. While income may be similar, fine dining is also expensive dining, and, as you noted, our wealth is more distributed. A truly world class restaurant would need to be coastal and north of downtown. La JollA, Del Mar, RSF.

    • Maurice

      You are right, there is a difference in income. However, I don’t believe that world-class dining has to be expensive. Look at the Slanted Door, A-16 or Delfina in San Francisco, they are not expensive. However, they do get national recognition as being a step above the rest.

      Incomes in San Diego are rising, and there has been a boom in the restaurant business over the past 5 years. Remember the days when dining meant either eating Chinese food or going to Mister A’s, two extremes. Today we have a rise of gastro pubs, wine bars and ethnic restaurants. The potential is definitely there.

      I am so hopeful that when people think of dining, San Diego becomes an obvious choice. We are not there yet, but on our way. I know we will be there when there is a successful restaurant, not in Rancho Santa fe, not in La Jolla, but somewhere on the other side of the train tracks. The day I see a successful restaurant in such a location, I will know that yes, San Diego has world-class dining. This means that people have become real diners and their curiosity for great food will take them anywhere.

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