BOW WOW, YOU SAY? Every Saturday, canines cavorting at Little Italy’s upscale Mercato spark a spontaneous illiteracy that seems to be the market’s unofficial featured special. The throngs of chic, avant-garde types who patrol Date Street ogling sustainable chickens, status-conscious Brussels sprouts and organic kumquat vendors blithely turn blind eyes to signs — boldly posted at every intersection — advising that California law forbids dogs within 20 feet of food stalls. Shoppers accompanied by multitudes of mostly polite pooches evidently lose the ability to read on Saturday mornings, which does not disquiet this compulsive scratcher of floppy ears.
WHAT’S IN A NAME? Flavor and fun when it happens to be Spike Africa. The 20th century American master mariner known as “President of the Pacific Ocean” enjoyed Cutty Sark Scotch and saltwater taffy, as well as sailing and, on occasion, acting. Named in his honor, Spike Africa’s Fresh Fish Grill & Bar recently opened at Fourth and Broadway, a formerly unfortunate corner that now occupies the spotlight. Lively (and a tad too brightly lighted), Spike Africa’s puts its best foot forward in a semi-private back room equipped with comfortable booths. Chef Paul Rinaudo’s menu is frankly impressive — from light, velvet-textured clam chowder (an eternal SoCal favorite that infernally resembles library paste at many eateries) to remarkably refreshing ceviche; gigantic grilled artichokes with pungent aioli; and the admirable Port Townsend Seafood Simmer, a delicious aggregation of shell and fin fish. The crisp, pan-roasted barramundi evidently charms all who eat it.
SHOULD AN UNFORTUNATE REMARK land you in the doghouse, seek shelter at Sally and Henry’s Dog House Bar & Grill on the southern edge of Hillcrest. Cozy, clubby and typical of San Diego neighborhood joints, it invites pets to “come sit and stay a while” on the back patio. It also offers weekday lunch and inventive, all-day drink specials that progress from Monday’s $1 brisket sliders and $3 Black Cherry Rum Kazis (your guess bests mine) to payday’s relatively extravagant Sandwich Cubano ($6.50) and $3 banana cream pie shots, which may be good. … Formal dining is decidedly on the run in some of the city’s entertainment districts. Opposite the under-construction Horton Plaza Park, The Commons Bar offers 12 kinds of Buffalo wings and the coyly named Ron Burgundog, a foot-long, all-beef pup served on a toasted bun. ... Bunz (pictured above), Jeff Rossman’s contemporary diner in Mission Valley, is basically a burger redoubt that takes a long view of short-order cuisine. A quintet of hot dogs served on wide buns arrives so loaded with garnishes that they argue with fitting in most mouths. Masterful onion rings, we note. ... Patrons of the new ArcLight La Jolla at University Towne Center may agree that it presents itself as the Ritz-Carlton of cinemas. In the cafe, items like Sausage Baguette (chicken-apple sausage with watermelon barbecue sauce) replace typical American frankfurters. Posh indeed.
“MAY I PLACE ANOTHER BRIOCHE in the oven?” cooed a server, prompting the response, “If it gives you pleasure,” which impishly disguised the belief that a dozen of Addison’s tender, buttery brioches would be none too many. In an era eager to permanently wrench “special” away from “occasion,” there is no other way to describe the admittedly costly but absolutely unforgettable dinners at The Grand Del Mar’s elegant, freestanding restaurant. Founding chef William Bradley calmly produces Carte Blanche menus of many courses, each composed of extravagant ingredients that manage to tease his considerable imagination. The details rival Michelin two- and three-star restaurants in Paris (Meurice at Le Meurice comes to mind), like a little plate of St. Pierre (John Dory) with leeks, caviar and vermouth and a chic calotte (skullcap) of Wagyu beef with puréed potatoes and a gratin of cremini mushrooms. Like the many other courses, the whole of each rapturously outweighs the sum of the parts. If a peanut butter terrine with cocoa nib tuile cookies and Port ice cream sounds off the tracks, it’s a departure to a divinely delicious destination.
QUICK, WHAT’S THE NAME of San Diego’s most popular restaurant? If Las Cuatro Milpas didn’t spill instantly from your lips, you haven’t recently walked past this ineffable outpost of Mexican home cooking in Barrio Logan. On a clear day, the noon hour line appears to stretch to the horizon; but what’s most amazing is that everyone in it seems so patient. It’s unlikely that Las Cuatro Milpas’ popularity with parole officers will disquiet any of this column’s readers, while the muy autentico cooking might delight most of them.
DISH: By David Nelson • Photography by Martin Mann