Every July, we name the best restaurants we’ve eaten in over the last 12 months. Before talking about the winners of the 2013 Silver Fork Awards, let’s look at trends we’ve noticed in the dining scene.
Pizza is the new sushi.
For almost five years, every other new restaurant seemed to be a sushi place. But all that’s changed, as pizza parlors pop up on the landscape like wild arugula. Each place says it is different; so far as we can tell, that seems to be true. What’s more, patrons are as passionate about their pizza favorites as they are about their beloved sports teams.
Beer is the new water.
San Diegans show an unquenching thirst for craft beer. It’s the new norm that bars and restaurants have 20 beers you’ve never heard of on tap. Millennials routinely discuss barrel aging, hoppiness, style and finish with the same ease and awareness as a certified sommelier talks about wine.
“Local and sustainable” is the mantra of the moment.
Food writers, restaurateurs and a dedicated public preach the foodie dogma of eating local and healthy.
Menus are matchy matchy.
Whether it’s collusion, economics or happenstance, the similarity among menus at restaurants serving New American foods is startling. The typical lineup includes short ribs, grilled salmon, diver scallops, New York steak and roast chicken. There’s only minor variation in treatment from place to place.
Pigs are on the slide.
However much we’ve embraced pig parts in recent times, our affection for pork is on the decline. Sure we still love Babe and Wilbur and Porky, but San Diego’s (and much of the nation’s) once-fanatical interest in piggy things is no longer so adamant.
Restaurant hopes spring eternal.
And thank goodness for that. The frequency of restaurant closings is enough to make the faint of heart feeble, yet the optimism of restaurateurs remains strong. The Cohn Restaurant Group is a standout for its persistence in attempting to meet the market in novel ways, like siting the upscale Vintana above a Lexus dealership. And always on the cusp of what’s new is quirky restaurateur Arsalan Tafazoli, the wunderkind who most recently brought us Soda and Swine/Polite Provisions.
This Year's Menu
Chef Katherine Humphus does double duty running BO-beau in Ocean Beach and 100 Wines in Hillcrest. This newest addition to the Cohn Restaurant Group is downhome, substantial and terrifically tasty.
Hotel del Coronado’s fine dining room is sumptuous and clubby on the inside. And should you dine outside, it feels as if you’ve simply won the lottery. But in or out, what’s on the plate is not just singular; it’s consistently superb.
Amaya La Jolla
In a setting that’s almost a caricature of how the Medicis may have dined, lunch and dinner are surprisingly informal and richly creative.
Big Front Door
This contemporary deli offers creative artisan sandwiches and fabulous sides like sesame noodles and black bean salad. Chicken, pork and salmon are roasted and/or smoked in-house. It’s like a bit of Brooklyn in University Heights.
Though intentionally designed to look like a woody and vibrant public house, Craftsman Tavern is home to some of North County’s most graceful food. Owner/Chef Wade Hageman has his roots in fine dining and proves it nightly.
Though D Bar has a primary focus on dessert, it’s the dining that wins the day. Lunch and dinner fare is hearty and unusual and always feels like an indulgence. The fabled pizza salad sandwich is a must-have.
Eclipse Chocolate Bar & Bistro
Known initially for its chocolate creations, Eclipse now offers weekend brunches and serves soups and sandwiches daily. But its most fabulous conceptions are monthly small-plate dinners. Hands down, events like Aporkalypse are the most inspired eating adventures in San Diego.
Take a trip to Encinitas to discover why dedicated carnivores wait patiently in line for vegan and vegetarian cooking. Native Foods puts equal emphasis on flavor and eye appeal, thereby dispelling the notion that vegetarian means only sprouts and greens.
Casual and worldly, this fine dining venue at Rancho Valencia Resort brings both extraordinary and visionary skills to what might otherwise be merely country club cooking.
And classics still prevail:
Previous Silver Fork winners still worth their “metal” include Addison at The Grand Del Mar, Pizzeria Bruno, Carnitas’ Snack Shack, George’s Modern, Nine-Ten, Saltbox, Sushi Ota, Table 926, Tender Greens and Underbelly. We’d like to renew their earlier Silver Forks with a hallmark that says “Still Valid in 2013.”
By Stephen Silverman
Photography by Martin Mann
Silver Fork Awards: By Stephen Silverman
31st Annual Silver Fork Awards
Our crafty critic names his top restaurant picks, and delivers justice with his observations of local trends
WE WATCHED THE AVENGERS DOMINATE the summer box office. And July is the month that brings San Diego the superhero dominated Comic-Con. So this year, we chose superchefs — all from restaurants that have never won before — to be bearers of the mighty Silver Fork. Also included here: A list of former Silver Fork winners that continue to wow. These best restaurant picks are mostly about food. The restaurant experience is a combination of food, setting, service and value. But the food is first, and it has to be really good to garner a Silver Fork.
First, though, observations from the last 12 months of eating out:
WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
Among the most oft-repeated words of the last year were “farm-to-table,” “sustainable,” “organic,” “fresh,” “free-range,” “local,” “green” and variations thereof. There’s been an increasing emphasis on “gluten-free” and “vegan,” to say nothing of the continuing rein of “comfort food” and the adjective “real,” as in mashed potatoes and lemonade. Few foods are “fried” anymore, just “sautéed.”
One of the first local proponents of the under-$20 menu was Cucina Urbana. Its pricing policy hit San Diego like a kiss to the taste buds and wallet. Then, we started to see local menus mimic the under-$20 concept. No more. Menu prices have been rising so rapidly we didn’t even get to experience a price creep phase. Dinner entrées in the $25-$35 range are now commonplace.
The chef Brian Malarkey/entrepreneur James Brenan restaurant spree has been like Reality TV. They had a concept, went at it like gangbusters and made slips and corrections. Malarkey was once in the kitchen fulltime at Searsucker. He left to concentrate on the openings of Burlap, Gingham, Gabardine and most recently, Herringbone. That Malarkey was no longer in the kitchen was telling, and quality declined at Searsucker and Burlap. But Chad White was installed as chef when Gabardine opened, and other retrofit have been made at all the Malarkey/Brenan enterprises. As Martha Stewart used to say, “It’s a good thing.”
The most-clever restaurateur in San Diego is Arsalun Tafazoli. He’s behind Neighborhood, Noble Experiment, Craft & Commerce and Underbelly — all of which are edgy, pioneering and successful eating and drinking establishments. The guy has a great eye for design, insists on quality in both food and setting, and turns out food that ranges from merely good to simply sensational.
Years ago, chocolate cake with bits of bacon at the Riviera Supper Club was intriguing and new. Today it’s here piggy, there piggy, everywhere piggy-piggy. Difficult as it is to believe, bacon does not actually go with everything. Let’s stop before there’s a serious outbreak of swine fatigue.
Restaurants and food businesses regularly shutter; two closings bear mention. The Sausage King occupied a spot in Mission Hills for 40 years. It was a dead ringer for a 1940s noir movie set. Extraordinary sausages were made in-house. When owner/sausage-maker Fred Spenner passed away, the shop closed for good … El Bizcocho at the Rancho Bernardo Inn shuts down in August. Its impressive run started in the 1960s, and it was often lauded as the best in the county. It’s been just over a decade since servers got informal (a shift from tuxedos to suits), and gentlemen patrons were no longer required to wear coats and ties. The once-elegant room has been looking a little weary. Plans call for a $2 million remodel, with a new concept and name.
The 2012 Silver Fork Award Winners
BLUEPRINT CAFÉ, Barrio Logan
CARNITAS’ SNACK SHACK, North Park
DAVONTI ENOTECA, Little Italy
EDDIE V’S PRIME SEAFOOD, La Jolla
FLAVOR DEL MAR, Del Mar
FLYING PIG PUB & KITCHEN, Oceanside
MISION 19, Tijuana
SALTBOX DINING AND DRINKING, Downtown
SOLACE AND THE MOONLIGHT LOUNGE, Encinitas
SUBLIME ALEHOUSE, San Marcos
TABLE 926, Pacific Beach
THE SHORES, La Jolla
UNDERBELLY, Little Italy
NEWLY-MINTED SILVER FORK WINNERS
These restaurants, all getting their first Fork, represent where San Diego is and it is going. They reinforce the notion we’re in good hands.
Blueprint Café — Flying well below the radar, this breakfast/lunch/happy-hour spot in Barrio Logan offers generous and high-quality new American cuisine. It’s where foodies gather for great soups, impressive hamburgers and ingenious daily specials. It’s also where the influence of owner/chef Gayle Covner can be experienced throughout.
Carnitas’ Snack Shack — OK, it’s a little ultra-casual from the outside, but order at the window and go around to the back patio where the food will be brought to you. The carnitas torta represents heaven-on-a-bun. The fries, while not the crispiest in town, still rank among the best. Half the menu changes every day, so there are always new marvels to digest.
Davanti Enoteca — One of the newest kids on one of the hottest restaurant blocks in San Diego, Davanti is reviving the notion that there’s good and genuinely inventive Italian food in Little Italy. Try the truffle egg toast with fontina and the Ligurian-style baked focaccia, for sure.
Eddie V’s — Waltzing into La Jolla’s vacant Chart House location, Eddie V’s underwent a top-notch remodel and created a splashy coastal eatery with expense-account looks and exceptional food. The upstairs dining room, with or without the clear vinyl walls, is a dead ringer for an exotic James Bond movie set.
Flavor — A certain sector of the Del Mar population lusts after good-looking, hip and bodacious restaurants with great views and inventive food. With Flavor, the longing is satisfied as much by the coastal views as by a menu that offers grilled Hamachi and duck confit.
Flying Pig — Oh, that each of us had a pig like this in our neighborhood. This lusty and luscious ultra-casual eatery feels like a roadhouse but serves food that’s soothing, inspired and ceaselessly satiating. From mac-n-cheese to molasses-braised pork belly with collards, it’s a terrific gustatory experience.
Hodad’s Downtown — Though Hodad’s in Ocean Beach has been around for decades, this new downtown outpost has a personality all its own. The menu is pretty much limited to hamburgers, fries, and onion rings — all of which are worth waiting for in the frequently long and inevitably colorful line.
Mision 19 — Charting new territory for Baja cuisine, this groundbreaking restaurant in Tijuana provides an original take on ethnic gastronomy, regionally available foods and elegant sensibilities. Chef Javier Plascencia is considered the new wunderkind who’s going to entice San Diegans across the border once again.
Saltbox — Tucked away on the second floor of downtown’s Palomar Hotel, Saltbox executive chef Simon Dolinky does classic and quirky food with great skill. His sensibility is playful, but don’t be fooled by the lobster corn dogs or the chicharrones; Dolinky takes food very seriously, easily proven by the oxtail jam and lamb tamales.
Solace and the Moonlight Lounge — Restless owner/chef Matt Gordon of North Park’s remarkable Urban Solace can’t help but reinvent himself, this time in Encinitas, with new food and a stylish, beachy setting that’s very much in the vein of comfort. The upstairs lounge offers not only food, but both beer and wine on tap.
Sublime Ale House — It’s all about oozy, family-oriented, beer-centric, über-comforting, generously portioned, nothing-fancy, theoretically regular food that’s unusually good. There are almost 50 beers on tap and the signature Sublime Pizza combines chicken, mushrooms, bacon, cheddar cheese, truffle oil and enough béchamel sauce to double the weight of the dish.
Table 926 — Local boy and inventive chef Matt Richmond creates culinary excitement in the back of a Pacific Beach parking lot. His new restaurant erupts with wonderful fare characterized by imaginative cooking, quality ingredients and notable value. The menu changes based on what’s fresh and seasonal, but the braised lamb shoulder ragu is almost always available. Get it served over faro for a delicious pairing.
The Shores — Chef Amy DiBiase took over this venerable hotel breakfast/lunch/dinner room and transformed it from a place with a great view to a dining destination. The simplicity and directness of the cooking is remarkable because what’s highlighted is the taste of the basic ingredient and not the seasonings, sauces or other embellishments.
Underbelly — When an inspired mind is at work, Underbelly is the result. It’s tiny, contemporary, ramen-based and blissful. An emphasis on quality is evident in every dish and every bit of décor. Try the seven-radish salad with the tuna crostini, followed by the charred spicy kimchee ramen with an add-on of beef brisket.
[1-page for this list; 1-2 photos—maybe the Katherine Humphus (BO-beau) fork shot from last year]
Hed= (STILL-STERLING) SILVER FORKS
Here are some of San Diego’s best and most enduring and endearing restaurants…
Addison — Set in the Grand Del Mar Resort, it’s the best restaurant in San Diego, period. For finesse, attention to detail and sheer elegance, Addison remains unsurpassed. Chef William Bradley continues maturing and continues his personal quest for dining room perfection.
BO-beau —The Cohn Restaurant Group, known for ingenious décor and market insight, hit the sweet spot with this cozy bistro featuring the remarkable talents of chef Katherine Humphus. After more than a year, folks still rave about her Brussels sprouts.
Extraordinary Desserts — Karen Krasne built an empire based on her ravishing-looking and extraordinary-tasting desserts. Now those glorious delights, along with food and wine, are available at her Little Italy restaurant. It’s downtown’s most distinctive pleasure dome.
George’s California Modern — The combined intelligence of restaurateur George Hauer and chef Trey Foshee produce magic. Foshee’s sensitivity to ingredients and profound inquisitiveness coaxes grace and flavor from even the most humble morsel.
JSix — Hotel restaurant (Solamar) that it may be, JSix has grown radiant under the direction of chef Christian Graves. His careful and affectionate handling of produce and poultry and seafood and meats is exceptional.
Marine Room — Chefs Bernard Guillas and Ron Oliver take a magnificent beachfront setting and compete by providing virtuoso food groupings, emphatic flavors and dramatic good looks. The thrashing surf beyond the windows is matched splash-for-splash by every course at dinner.
Nine-Ten — What’s consistently remarkable about Nine-Ten is the singular talent of chef Jason Knibb. Here’s a man who understands food, clientele, presentation and the art of surprise. Not only is his “Mercy-of-the-Chef” tasting menu consistently delicious, he makes the most labor-intensive dishes appear unfussy.
Pizzeria Bruno Napoletano — There’s neither slick nor shtick here, just some of the best artisanal pizza in town. Everything is homemade, and the crust, somewhere between thick and thin, is addictive. Don’t go looking for high décor; just expect low-tech, astonishing pizza.
Sushi Ota — In San Diego, there’s only one Maker, Decider and Arbiter of classic and extremely fresh sushi. That would be Ota-san, the strong-willed owner and operator of Sushi Ota, the man literally behind the sushi bar and the one to whom diners willingly say “omakase,” which means I’ll leave it to you.
Tender Greens — It’s cafeteria style and part of a chain, but neither circumstance keeps Tender Greens from serving distinguished and maybe even noble food: it’s startlingly delicious, righteously handled and beautifully prepared.
30th Annual Silver Fork Awards
Our restaurant critic shines a light on 19 notable eateries...
It's been a year with an extraordinary number of restaurants opening and some significant closings. Despite the economy, optimism rules the heart of chefs and restaurateurs, and that grants San Diegans a remarkable abundance of choice.
Let's take stock. In the last year or so, Roseville shut down. So did Bondi and Bing Crosby's, Sante and Shanghai City. Trattoria Acqua closed its doors after 17 years in La Jolla and Busalacchi's shuttered the spot it occupied for decades on Fifth Avenue. Little more than a month ago, however, a new Busalacchi's opened a block north of the old site.
The Cohn Restaurant Group had a busy year, morphing Thee Bungalow into Bo-beau, Mr. Tiki Mai Tai Lounge into Analog Burger Bar, and KimoSabe into a food truck with the improbable name Chop Soo-ey. Jeff Rossman closed Terra after 13 years in Hillcrest and moved east of the College area with a brand new concept. The Cosmopolitan Hotel Restaurant, site of the former Casa di Bandini in Old Town, had a splashy opening with chef Amy DiBiasi running the kitchen, and an equally splashy dissolution when the chef and the restaurant's owner parted ways.
There were a number of popular places that cloned themselves and set up shop in other neighborhoods. The creative forces behind the wonderful and successful Neighborhood, in downtown's East Village, spread their charm to Little Italy and opened Craft & Commerce, the bar/restaurant that's a roaring success with perhaps the most roaring noise level of any eatery in town. Tiny Café 21 on Adams Avenue opened a branch in the Gaslamp, and Bar Basic, a standout in the East Village, opened URBN Coal Fired Pizza in North Park.
Speaking of North Park, it and the surrounding area have turned into a play-ground dense with restaurants. Joining popular places like Urban Solace, The Linkery, Rancho's, Jayne's Gastropub, Sea Rocket Bistro, Alexander's, Cantina Mayahuel, Ritual and Blind Lady are newcomers like El Take It Easy, Il Postino and The Smoking Goat.
Chefs typically move around so much it's worth acknowledging those who've stayed put. For more than a decade Bernard Guillas has been at the Marine Room, Jason Knibb at Nine-Ten, Trey Foshee at George's at the Cove, and Martin Woesle at Mille Fleurs. Among spotlight-seeking chefs, Brian Malarkey from Searsucker was a real contender for the title of Most Visible Chef in Town but, truly, nobody has the energy, ability and perseverance to be everywhere at once like Guillas.
One of the great advantages of San Diego dining is our wealth of unique locally based restaurants. They're places where chefs and restaurateurs are fulfilling dreams (and occasional fantasies). If you're a regular, they really do know your name. As a community, though, we still have an undeniable affection for chain restaurants. Typically, chains pay higher rents, regularly survey diner preferences and can be run with military efficiency. While they may lack individuality and a sense of community, they typically have their act together and serve food that tastes precisely the same each time you visit.
San Diego is a magnet for chains, so it's not surprising that Panera will occupy the space in Uptown Center vacated by Terra, Donovan's moved into Bondi's former spot in the Gaslamp Quarter, and Five Guys Burgers and Smashburger all moved into town on the burger bandwagon.
Along with hamburgers, there are other obvious food trends that emerged or reinforced themselves over the last year. Food that's local, in season, sustainable, farm-to-table, organic, grown-in-a-window box, hand-watered and/or grass fed is all the rage. Mobile food trucks proliferate. Salt, too, is having its day in the sun. Not only do restaurants tout red, smoked, hand-harvested, Himalayan, Hawaiian or other fancy salts, Flavor in Del Mar offers several salts-of-the-day.
San Diego is as food-fashion conscious as any major American city and our options for dining are just as broad. That means it's a challenge picking a handful of places that afforded great meals over the last year. Still, a standout is a standout — and have we got standouts!
The 2011 Silver Fork Award Winners
Best New Restaurants
25 Forty Bistro & Bakehouse
The Smoking Goat
Best Special Occasion
Japanese/Sushi: Sushi Ota
Thai: Amarin Thai
Indian: Surati Farsan
Jimmy's Famous American Tavern
Pizzeria Bruno Napoletano
Best Neighborhood Restaurant