The recent Union-Tribune front-page story by Peter Rowe features a good insight about the sad state of San Diego’s fine dining food scene. It’s worth the read along with the eight comments and three letters to the editor including one from a guy who writes about restaurant management and service.
Buzz would add to Rowe’s story the elements of restaurant management and service (far too casual and rarely spot on), local media that rarely critically evaluates a restaurant and the many wannabe inexperienced “reviewers” who populate Yelp and Chowhound–many with price and quantity their only markers. As a result, diners miss understanding the finesse a chef needs to execute something more than a burger or what elements make truly fine service–and mediocrity becomes the given. Some of this may also be an issue of age and demographics, as baby boomers seem more interested in trying new foods as this article notes.
Service, in many cases, tends to be better at our ethnic restaurants where rarely a server announces his name A savvy diner (or an out of town food critic) with knowledge of superior service would likely cringe if the server introduced himself to the table with a “hi, my name is…” as continuously happens in San Diego. Even at a recent dinner at 1500 Ocean (a Buzz fav) that featured a high understanding of quality service and top-notch food, that one seemingly trivial and irritating announcement came from our server.
Sure we live in a casual spot, but that doesn’t mean the service needs to be on a first name basis. The month-old Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern, a casual, comfortable and bustling dockside eatery comes with good tavern food and a five-star management team (Royal Hawaiian, Ritz-Carlton). Service is attentive and in the five times Buzz visited, the server never mentioned his name. You can ask if you choose to know.
Then there are the awards Rowe doesn’t mention. San Diego’s idea of restaurant awards centers on two mainstays: San Diego Magazine’s yearly mentions with the critics and people’s choice awards…some hit the mark, though others are nothing more than a popularity contest.
Consider also the hilarious Gold Medallions given by and for members of the San Diego Chapter of the California Restaurant Association. A restaurant must be a member to even think about being nominated—and the same ones are nominated year after year. There’s nothing wrong with handing out insider awards such as “best hamburger” winner In-N-Out one year, though the next year the category changed and they won for “best fast casual”. It’s ok to be part of a club, just don’t advertise it to the world so that diners believe these restaurants are the best in the county. Buzz wrote about this in 2007 and not much changed in 2008 or 2009. The 26th Annual awards dinner will be held June 1.
Nor does it help that the few talented chefs mentioned in Rowe’s piece get very little, if any, local critical reviews. Good reviewing helps the dining public gain knowledge of food and service. That barely 100 people showed up to hear Frank Bruni (the ex-food critic for the New York Times) seems to indicate how so many care so little about how San Diego is seen (or not, as is the case) as a national player in the restaurant scene.
Some chefs, such as executive chef Bernard Guillas at The Marine Room, write a book, Flying Pans: Two Chefs, One World and then do their own PR for the restaurant as well as the book. Guillas just returned from New York events where he launched the book at a dinner for top dining and hospitality editors at the renowned Café Boulud (where ex-San Diego chef Gavin heads the kitchen). Most restaurants in San Diego do not have public relations firms (or a budget for such) to consistently pitch national media. The standout is, as Rowe mentions, Addison where the chef was among twenty semi-finalists for the Beard Awards this year–due in great part to the hard work of a good PR firm that enlightens the national restaurant media.
Ask any public relations person in this town how many meals they comp to reviewers, and most will say they comp all the time. If not comped, then the reviewer may let the restaurant know they will be in, allowing the restaurant to put its best food and service forward—not necessarily the same for the general public. (Full disclosure: Buzz always pays for meals and expects the same service as the rest of the restaurant). Steve Silverman, a longtime San Diego reviewer, believes “locals who moan that we’re not like New York should get over it and embrace the restaurants we do have.” Others say our food fits the laid back culture of the city and we ought not worry about national media recognizing our chefs. What do you think?