The Marine Room has done what many places should consider:  They’ve dropped the $25 corkage fee to zero. That’s right,  zero.  There is a two-bottle maximum per table…and this isn’t just a holiday stunt.  For those who own wines they’d like to drink with dinner, not always at home, this no corkage policy is a plus for Marine Room diners.   

The La Jolla-based Burger Lounge opened its second location in Kensington with a third in the works downtown.  The Lounge features four burgers including turkey and natural beef, along with hand-cut fries.  Buzz thinks they do a damned good job with the burger concept–fresh and straightforward food.

If you want excess in a very grand manner, check out The Grand Del Mar Hotel, the nearly $3 million project from Doug Manchester. Everything at the resort is huge, gilded and lives up to its grand name.  Compared to other luxury hotels in the area, however, this one is over-the-top in amenities and service.  For example, there’s a 21,000 square foot spa, with treatment rooms that for some would be the size of a bedroom. Don’t take this as a complaint…just an observation.  Foodwise, Buzz loves that Jesse Rodriguez, the  sommelier at the property’s stand alone dinner restaurant Addison, now directs the wine program for the entire resort.  Charles Stuart, after many years at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, is the director of catering, Mark Steenge is the new general manager of Addison and Jason McLeod, most recently from the Four Seasons Resort in the Bahamas, is the executive chef of Amaya the hotel’s main restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Here diners may find the Mediterranean-inspired menu more accessible than the very upscale and formal Addison with its somewhat pretentious choices from Chef William Bradley.

Executive chef Timothy Au joins general manager and top sommelier Lisa Redwine at Molly’s Restaurant and Wine Bar at the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina.  Au arrived from a two year stint at the five-star Mayflower Inn and Spa in Washington, Connecticut.  He’s also cooked with many celebrated California chefs including Bradley Ogden and Jeremiah Tower.  Haven’t tried it yet.

Downtown’s Salad Style owners Mary Jo Testa and Scott Thomas have opened Enoteca Style in Little Italy.  At the moment it’s sandwiches, waiting for their contractor to get the wine bar finished….1445 India St., between Ash and Beech. 619-546-7138.

Nobu opened at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp.  Haven’t checked it out.

Buzz did a quick roundabout of a couple of two new downtown restaurants that are worth a look.  Mind you both are barely a week old, but are a welcome alternative to the overdone pasta palaces and the Cohn’s collection of overpriced themed eateries.

In the space that was LG’s Steakhouse, at the corner of F Street and Sixth Avenue, George Katakalidis owner of Daphne’s Greek Cafe restaurants, created EXY, Chic Greek .  If you look closely, you will note that the E could be the Greek letter sigma…so call it sexy (and clever).  There is a large comfortable bar area that faces F Street (and Ivy Hotel).   The dining room features a well-priced Greek inspired menu with most entrees including braised lamb shank and a pan roasted whole fish in the mid $20 range.  The appetizers we tasted at the VIP opening party included grilled lamb chops and flat bread with grilled chicken and Greek cheese, and they were terrfic (and are on the appetizer menu.  When the dining room closes, the bar becomes a place for music and late night snacks from the bar menu.

Jade Theater is at the corner of Seventh Avenue and C Street, facing the trolley tracks.  There is valet parking for $15.  When I peeked in, there were two private parties in the bar area…if you love a noisy bar, this is your place.  The restaurant features small bites (Tease Me),  starters (Taste Me) and main courses (Eat Me).  Taste Me dishes range from $4 to $9-for yellowtail tataki with sake vinaigrette or crab kimchi with fried shiso leaf.  Asian fritto misto is $13 in the Taste Me column and a black bean ribeye with tempura vegetables is $39 under the Eat Me list.  Buzz didn’t have a chance to eat upstairs in the dining room, which is wonderfully simple in Asian decor and though open to the bar below, there are some areas that are quiet.  A server said that coming in early, before 7:30 or so, you’ll find it quieter.  

Point Loma will soon have a comfortable place to eat, meet and greet when Roseville opens by the end of the year.  Look for owner George Riffle (he opened Blanca and Quarter Kitchen and was the general manager at the original Laurel Restaurant and Bar) to pick a well-known local chef for the 95-seat restaurant.  Buzz will keep you up to the minute on further details.

Well-known sommelier Ted Glennon recently left his position at the first rate Arterra to launch and direct a new concept at the Hotel Del Coronado Eno is due to quietly open towards the end of December.  Expect about 60 wines by the glass and a 500-bottle cellar that covers a wide variety of places and prices. The finest cheeses, charcouterie and chocolate will complement the wines that Glennon plans to serve in a casual, yet sophisticated, venue.  Buzz  figures that Eno will be a big hit with locals and guests, whether  novices or experts in the world of wine.  Why?  Because Glennon’s a wine wiz who shares with grace and wit his encyclopedic knowledge that includes a penchant for top-notch service–a combo Buzz experienced many times at Arterra.  Expect an update from Buzz in the near future. 

Buzz heard from a number of sources that the Union-Tribune’s restaurant critic, Maria Hunt, is moving on to pursue other projects.  Buzz called and emailed Hunt for clarification and information, with no response as yet. 

Steve and Gabriela Dow decided to find a way to get involved with the community as well as meet new friends.  Their company, Friends with Class, offers fun classes in everything from wine tasting and working at home (taught by Steve) to taking toddler snapshots and raising money for charity and nonprofits.  They have gift certificates available to make the holiday giving easier.

Another way to meet like-minded souls is through wine tasting.  Rob Barnett took his passion for wine and turned it into an online and community oriented business when he created The tagline “where wine lovers connect” conveys his idea for a social network of wine loving souls in their home cities and around the country so they can meet online via forums and in person for tastings.  The online store has wines from smaller producers not usually found in traditional wine stores. Designed to become national phenomenon, Barnett has some good people on his staff including Dustin Jones who is the sommelier at La Valencia.  Check out the site and join as the membership is free.

The thought that Arterra could become a steakhouse–a rumor reported October 17 by Maria Hunt in the Union Tribune–is just not true.   Changes in the kitchen, yes, as Jason Maitland takes the helm as chef de cuisine–he has been with the restaurant from opening day.  The menu focus continues with local, seasonal ingredients.  New additions include butternut squash tortellonis with bitter greens, sage froth and walnut brown butter and an appetizer of forest mushrooms and brie strudel while the famed short ribs remain on the menu. 

December 1, executive chef Ciaran Duffy arrives from Charleston, South Carolina’s Tristan .  He will oversee catering and room service among other things.  Along with General Manager Tom Mastricola, wine director Ted Glennon and Jason, they will further refine the art of creating top notch food to go with spot-on service–an art barely mastered by a handful of San Diego’s fine dining restaurants.  All of November, they will offer many wines at half price including some selections from Ramey, Talley and Jarvis.

San Diego is about to host the 2008 Winter Fancy Food Show  this January 13 to 15 at the Convention Center.  This worldwide show features everything from beverages and baked goods to soups and salad dressings along with candy, cheese and coffee–nearly 100,000 specialty food items.  Attendees from specialty food, wine, gift and department stores, supermarkets, restaurants, mail-order and other related businesses, walk the three day show to sample and buy products. 

Buzz wonders where these 20,000 to 30,000 vendors and attendees will spend their restaurant dollars as the show usually occurs in San Francisco or New York City–places known for great eating.  Let’s be clear:  right now, San Diego does not have great eating.  Sure, there are lots of restaurants with fair to good food and service but for the most part, not near the caliber of the other show cities. 

If attendees pull out their Zagat for 2007  they’ll find a handful of places rated no higher than 27 out of 30–far fewer than other cities.  They’ll spend nearly $50 per person (or more) , they will need a taxi or car to get to, among others,  WineSellar & BrasseriePamplemousse Grille, Arterra and El Bizcocho  and will they know the chefs are gone from the latter two? They may find a way to La Jolla for the Marine RoomTapenade or George’s at the Cove.  Close to the Convention Center, they’ll find Ruth Chris Steak House and Rama . Or they’ve heard about others such as Parallel 33,  Modus Supper Club (no working link), but do they know the chef/partners of both have moved on or that  Laurel Restaurant & Bar got a new owner, chef and decor a few years back?  What is clear from reading comments on Zagat, and from the Zagat’s themselves–service is subpar across the country–and San Diego is no exception. 

The recent months have seen chefs who garnered good or great local and national raves–Gavin Kaysen of El Bizcocho (one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2007),  Riko Bartelomo of Asia-Vous, Jason Shaeffer of 1500 Ocean, and the most recent, Brian Pekarcik of Arterra– ditching San Diego for New York, Hawaii, Colorado and Pennsylvania, respectively.  They move on for various reasons, but underlying anything personal is the lack of support from the local press who, for the most part, don’t really educate the readers to what makes a great restaurant–be it the hole in the wall or the jazzy newcomer.  Nor does the local chapter of the California Restaurant Association further an atmosphere of greatness either as Buzz noted in July.  Of course, cities like New York and San Francisco have public transportation and are not spread out in the manner of southern California and that does make a bit of a difference.  How far and long are you willing to drive for a meal–at any price– especially if you want to have a drink or two?

So, where in San Diego would you send these food savvy souls to eat?  Besides the usual collection of downtown hotel and convention eateries (and themed Cohn restaurants on nearly every corner)  tell Buzz where you think the show goers ought to spend their restaurant dollars–be it upscale or down–do you have a favorite you think should get some notice? 

About December 1, the back tower lobby space of The Westin San Diego at Columbia and C Streets opens as Esquires where judges, attorneys, jurors and the rest of us can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner.  San Diego native Frank Terzoli, aka Frankie the Bull, who has cooked around the world, is the guy with the concept of a diner/deli for breakfast and lunch and chop house for dinner.  Look for the bar to be a great gathering place for the downtown community. 

In the same area, Jonathan Pflueger’s Currant American Brasserie opened in the recently redone Sofia Hotel (formerly Pickwick) with a menu of fresh seasonal food, American style,  for lunch and dinner.  Don’t be put off by the restaurant’s immediate neighbor–the Greyhound bus station–the area is also home to a Peet’s coffee and the court house.  Buzz hasn’t had a chance to scope it out–have you?

Hillcrest is jumping these days as Zubin Desai, former general manager and sommelier at Blanca in Solana Beach, moves into the former Russo’s to open his restaurant, The Better Half that will feature American/French bistro fare to pair with half bottle wines. Expect a mid November opening. In the same block, Seasons 142 moved into the space that formerly housed Brazil on the Hill.

The popular Arrivederci will open a second location on 30thStreet in North Park just north of University Avenue and next door to coffee roaster and coffee house, Caffe Calabria, Buzz’s favorite place for a proper one ounce pull of espresso.  A block south on 30th is Heaven Sent Desserts, and Urban Solace that opened for lunch and dinner with a menu of contemporary American comfort food served in a neighborhood setting.  Another place Buzz has yet to experience.

Buzz and a pal scoped out the new Pearl Hotel and its restaurant on Rosecrans in Point Loma.  Quite the urban, slightly retro chic place…tiny but fun.  The bar and restaurant blend into one and face the pool…around which are the 23 guest rooms.  The restaurant/lounge will seat about 35–a small venue, but with an interesting wine list and food at reasonable prices, look for it to be a good place to meet for breakfast or lunch…dinner if you want more of a scene.  There’s some fun seating just off the main lobby.  1410 Rosecrans, 619-226-6100.

The former site of LG’s Steakhouseat F and Sixth Avenue will soon have a new upscale concept from George Katakalidis who started the popular casual chain, Daphne’s Greek Café.  Look for EXY Chic Greek Restaurant and Lounge to open mid November.

There’s an ambitious project under way for Victor Jimenez, previously of Tower 23’s JRDN restaurant in Pacific Beach.  Jimenez’s new restaurant is called Cowboy Star in the East Village, on Tenth Avenue.  But it’s a long way off for this themed steak house as Buzz recently drove by the site and found construction has barely begun on the building renovation.  

Del Mar’s latest addition to the hotel scene is The Grand Del Mar slated to open in October.  Heading up the culinary team for the hotel will be Jason McLeod as executive chef and executive pastry chef Thierry Delourmeaux.  McLeod come from years with various Four Seasons Resorts and is a Canadian native, while European trained Delourmeaux brings experience from stints at The Beverly Hilton and The Ritz Carlton hotels.  The over-the-top, stand alone Addison (the property’s fine dining restaurant) continues with William Bradley as executive chef.

Jerome Astolfi takes his front-of-the house magic as general manager to Del Mar’s popular Market Restaurant + Bar.  He’ll work with owner/chef Carl Schroeder and partner Terryl Gavre (owner of the popular downtown breakfast/lunch place, Cafe 222).  Astolfi’s prior stints were Jack’s La Jolla and the recently closed Delirios.

1500 Ocean at the Hotel del Coronado has a new chef, Brian Sinnott, who jumped from the acclaimed Molly’s at the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina.  No immediate menu changes are expected.  General manager Claude Rennerand sommelier Amanda Murray round out the new team.

Zanzibar Café, the well-known Pacific Beach coffee house and casual eatery opened its second location downtown on G Street, a few blocks away from the popular Cafe Chloe.

The acclaimed Blanca in Solana Beach has a new General Manager. Corby Hagen steps in with experience from as far away as Tyson’s Corner, Chicago and Carmel.  He brings expensive wine knowledge as a certified sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers.  

Looks like the Union-Tribune’s restaurant critic Maria Hunt is on the hunt…not for a meal, but for a mate:  Her picture appears as “the most eligible bachelorette” in Forbes Magazine’s recent issue for best cities for singles (San Diego ranks 7th).  She shares the page with “most eligible bachelor” real estate developer Fredric J. Maas, Chair of Centre City Development Corp. 

Buzz wishes her well, but wonders how that will keep her “anonymity” when she’s reviewing restaurants for the newspaper. Actually, we wonder if there is anonymity with any of this city’s restaurant reviewers.  Feel free to sound off on this one.

Bankers Hill has blossomed into a neat little neighborhood area for eating and drinking.  The newest arrival, barely a few week’s old and a welcome addition is Avenue 5 Restaurant & Bar on Fifth between Nutmeg and Olive. The comfortable, classy and contemporary room with simple black and white photos of the restaurant, white table linen, wood floor and an open ceiling opens to the street via a large picture window with a view of the nearby church.  A Buzz pal remarked when we walked in, “Look, a bar where adults are drinking wine and the bar chairs have backs.”  Translated,  that means there’s jazz playing in the background and the room doesn’t pulsate from music so loud you go hoarse talking. 

Food is well presented with entrees  priced in the mid $20’s. A visit with an out of town pal brought small house-made mushroom ravioli (note the tiny champagne grapes in the sauce that add texture and a subtle flavor), a light ahi tuna salad with micro greens,  a perfectly medium rare  Australian rack of lamb of  four ribs split between us with bit of deconstructed ratatouille.  Rather than the usual fine dice of eggplant, onion, zucchini cooked long and slow, chef-owner Colin MacLaggan slices and cuts the vegetables into small pieces, then lightly sautes them so each bite stays distinct, be it a piece of fennel, a sliver of carrot or a slice of zucchini or eggplant, yet all meld together to complement the lamb. 

MacLaggan appreciates classic cooking as he trained at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in London and then worked for the well-known Conran Group.  Closer to home his stints included Arterra, Mille Fleurs, Bertrand’s at Mister A’s, among others.  He likes his plates composed, mostly with three main ingredients–as in the ahi salad:  pieces of ahi, arranged with the micro greens, not overdressed, on bed of thinly sliced green heirloom tomatoes.  Here you’ll not find towers, layers or dishes cluttered with so many flavors and ingredients that the food makes no sense in flavor or presentation.

Buzz has only perched on the comfortable bar chairs to drink and eat, served by bartender Curtis who was busy making mojitos his way–without the soda water. There is a small flat screen tv above the bar that on one visit had a Chargers game on, thankfully without the sound.  For some it could be distracting, especially if staff is focused on the game, rather than the diners. On the other hand, the tv lends itself to the casual, neighborhood feel of the restaurant.  General Manager Nicolais Carbonne watches over the 70-seat room a trained eye from his days at Pasquale and Tapenade.  2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill, 619-542-0394.  Closed Monday, lunch from 11:30am; dinner from 5:30pm.

Down the street, at the corner of Fourth & Ivy is Modus, a hip bar, lounge and restaurant.  Owners  Scotty and Ariana Johnson opened the place in April, 2006.  As with many new ventures, the restaurant has gone through some adjustments that recently culminated with the starting chef, Nathan Coulon, moving on.  (Buzz hears that he’s currently on the line at Ivy Hotel’s Quarter Kitchen.)

The menu has expanded with former sous chef Mike Liotta at the helm.  Small plates that focus on interesting French olives, cheese and charcuterie, salads, white bass gravlax, tempura and prime steak tartare, and entrees of pork osso bucco, Modus burger and black mussels are but a few of the choices now available.  Best of all, the prices stray no higher than $24 for rack of lamb.  On a recent Friday night visit, the bar was hopping with couples enjoying the many original cocktails created by Ariana that use fresh, seasonal organic juices with names such as Foreplay (Wokka Saki, organic strawberries, champagne and sugar, served tall) or Yellow and Green (Skyy Vodka or Miller’s Gin, basil, lemon and tonic, served tall).  2202 Fourth Ave., 619-236-8516, Closed Monday, dinner from 5pm.

Newcomers for morning coffee, a quick sandwich or glass of wine:  try Curio Caffe at Fifth and Laurel and just up the street, Cafe Bassam at Fifth and Redwood where you can support your neighborhood coffeehouse, rather than the ubiquitous Starbucks.  Curio Caffe features Illy coffee and changing art exhibits while Bassam, relocated from downtown, has coffees, teas, smokes and one morning warm just out-of-the-oven croissants and other pastries.  Both will soon have a beer and wine license and both serve light fare. Curio Caffe, (619) 696-8699, Cafe Bassam, (619) 557-0173.

At the corner of Fifth and Laurel you’ll find the well-established Gemelli Italian GrillLaurel Restaurant & Bar and Bertrand at Mr. A’s  and newcomer Curio Caffe.