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?

7 thoughts on “The U-T and San Diego Dining

  1. Interesting article. I’m really enjoying some of the newer restaurants in San Diego. What is important to me is that I get good friendly service, food that tastes great and isnt too fussy and that it is sourced locally and is humane wherever possible. It seems to me that the choices have vastly improved in that area recently with places like alchemy, starlite lounge, tender greens and many others.

    I’m not into fussy service but I do like to be looked after.

    It does depress me a little to see one after another burger joint open. I hope they reach critical mass and topple over soon.

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  2. Bruni was in San Diego? I read a lot of blogs, work full time in a popular restaurant, and heard NOTHING. WHERE was this info posted? How are we San Diegans supposed to be in the know? Am I missing something?

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  3. Bruni was in town last Sept., the link to his evening at UCSD Revelle Forum is now on his name in the story. Unfortunately, the interviewer didn’t ask interesting questions.

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  4. First, let me say that I really appreciate and enjoy your blog. I check often to learn about new restaurant openings, and try to visit them as soon as I can. You are providing a terrific service, and I love your enthusiasm for restaurants.

    I have to disagree, though, with the overall impression left by Peter Rowe (and with what you’re adding on). Yes – Jason Neroni left after 7 mos. (I’m not all that surprised; I thought his food was terrific but the service at Blanca – especially their assumptions that you couldn’t appreciate his food and knew nothing about his biography so you needed long lectures from barely trained waiters – was no fun). And it’s also true that we’ve lost people like Michael Stebner along the way….

    However, I agree with Jenny (and with what you so often show): San Diego has become – and still is – an extremely exciting food town. Maybe in the area of fine dining, the most famous establishments are stodgy and boring, and people who try to do something edgy don’t always succeed. However, at lower price categories (including ethnic and simpler farm-to-table places), there are tons of exciting places. I have tried for the last year to not eat at the same place twice (except for some places that became cravable like Jai, Tender Greens and Alchemy), and have had a pretty exciting year. (And I’ve lived in a lot of great food cities). While noting that we aren’t like those other cities, we still are extraordinarily lucky to have a wide variety of talented chefs who do great farm-to-table; great ethnic food (from so many parts of the world, South Asia to Somalian); so many different regional Mexican cuisines; etc. I appreciate your efforts to keep people honest and help people learn about new restaurants – I just mind less if the server introduces him or herself as long as I have an outstanding meal – and it happens amazingly often as long as I have been careful about where I’m going!

    (Oh – and yes, I knew Frank Bruni was coming to town. But I knew he was talking about his own memoir, and I’d rather save my leisure time for eating out instead of hearing about how he became a critic….I’m not sure we are less of a food town because fewer people were interested in a book talk. Now if we had a panel of local chefs or critics talking, that would be much more interesting. Oh wait, I think you’re speaking somewhere today with Matt Gordon! :))

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  5. “who populate Yelp and Chowhound–many with price and quantity their only markers. ”

    Have you visited Chowhound? At all? Might want to drop by sometime before comparing Chowhound to Yelp. Each has it’s poor contributors, but they are very different environments.

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  6. I would have to agree with you. Way too much mediocre food and service. Its pretty sad that a city the size of San Diego can not support top-notch chefs the way other big cities do. There are some excellent ethnic restaurants that do adventurous food, without Americanizing it.
    Two of my top favorites are Ba Ren Szechuan in the Clairemont Area.
    The other is Sab-E-Lee, Issan (northeastern)Thai. The reviewer for the Reader compares every restaurant she eats in with restaurants she’s eaten in in SF and NY. Not a fair comparison

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  7. Hi Buzz,
    Although no longer on the restaurant beat, I wanted to make one thing clear: local restaurateurs may comp reviewers “all the time,” but they don’t comp UT critics. We are required to pay our own way.
    This doesn’t mean that our opinions are infallible. But it does mean they haven’t been bought.

    Reply

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