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?

UPDATE:  Here is the second installment from The Times with more hints for a restaurant.  Note that the blogger is opening a restaurant.  Buzz believes there are numerous positive tips for all involved in the restaurant arena–servers, management, and even customers.

So San Diego’s diners, how well do our restaurants hold up to the blogger’s thoughts?  And perhaps San Diego’s restaurateurs might create their own list for customers!   Consider also, that the first installment topped the most e-mailed list for days at the paper which would make one wonder if they care more about food on the east coast than we do in “Sand” City as a commenter noted below.  Chime in here, you all can’t be out surfing!

Just read a terrific little piece in The New York Times about what restaurants should and shouldn’t do. It’s a list that ought to resonate with diners as well as management and servers in San Diego–a town that wants the food savvy world to take note of their up and coming chefs.  But even good chefs can’t help a restaurant if the management doesn’t understand why most diners want to experience a meal with well-trained servers in a pleasant, congenial atmosphere be it a hole- in- the- wall or fine dining establishment.

As Buzz noted many times, good service isn’t about a server telling me his or her name (you aren’t going to be my new BFF).  Nor is it proper for servers to clear a table, when, as happened to me while eating with three friends, all that was left on the table was my unfinished plate (even the glasses disappeared).  After that who would want to finish a perfectly good pasta dish? And, yes, I mentioned it to the owner who knows better.

When it comes to service, San Diego’s pervasive “mañana”- “let’s go surfing” attitude could be one reason Frank Bruni (former restaurant critic of The Times) commented, during a recent appearance here, that San Diego isn’t known as a food town.

So what do you think?  Let’s hear from you.

It appears that some San Diego restaurateurs think of Restaurant Week as an easy way to fill seats without having to give good service or present a menu that showcases the regular menu.  And many customers are grumbling about the added 20 percent “service charge” or tip, especially at the $40 dinners.  Diners beware that a $40 dinner does not include tax and tip or beverages, so, at the bare minimum, your tab will be roughly $50 before you’ve sipped even a soda. With that tab, you might want to consider dining off the regular menu, if that is available.

Restaurants that put that 20 percent tip on the bill with service that doesn’t match, do themselves a huge disservice to diners. Why?  Because many people use this week as a time to try a new place, but if they feel they’ve been ripped off because of so-so service or an unispired menu, they won’t return, ever.

Let’s hear from you about your experiences during this week and what do you think of the three-tiered pricing?  New York, (where this idea began in the 1990’s) now has more than 250 restaurants at a fixed $35 dinner, plus tax and tip.  Would this be a better idea for San Diego’s Restaurant Week?

Recently, Buzz returned from three days in Napa attending Taste3, a conference at Copia that melds food, wine and art in deliciously unusual ways. Imagine a tour of three local artists studios, including glass designer Gordon Huether, painter Gail Chase-Bien and ceramic sculptor Renata Allen led by the legendary Margrit Mondavi that included lunch at Yountville’s Redd. Everything–and everyone, including the 12 lucky participants– from the art to the food made a terrific segue to the next two days.

This gathering was the third year of Taste3. Started by the bright and ingenious minds behind TED including the creative comedian Tom Rielly, this conference brings together cutting edge thinking presented by experts in their respective fields. Taste 3 tempts, teases and teaches…and is worth every minute of the experience.

In two jam-packed days, 32 speakers, four to a session, each talking about 18 minutes, covered such topics as “Seeds”, “Urban” and “Source”. In”Action/Reaction” I learned about climate change and its impact on viticulture and wine production from Greg Jones, who teaches geography Southern Oregon University. Earlier in “Source” Ben Roche, Moto‘s pastry chef, thrilled the audience as he showed how he designs “technically innovative” desserts that use nitrogen gas, helium and more to create “explosive” and delicious confections. Darra Goldstein in “Worldview” spoke of her trip to Israel and the West Bank and how food, including falafel, can be used as a bridge to quell Arab and Israeli conflict. Also in that session, Bruce Gutlove explained how he directs a Japanese winery (worked by developmentally disabled to produce wine served at the recent G-8 Summit).

Breaks featured chocolates from Tcho and Scharffen Berger, Equator Estate Coffees & Teas and even shoes from Tom’s. Winery dinners and a lovely party and concert at Mondavi winery finished out the symposium’s evenings.

Service. There’s a lot of Buzz about it lately from local diners out for a for a business or pleasure meal.  In these tight economic times when customers think twice about where to spend their dining dollars, San Diego restaurants–new and old–need to be ever more vigilant about service.  Mind you, service begins the moment you enter a restaurant, how you’re treated–from the hostess and servers to the bartender, busser and manager–good service will keep customers, even if there’s an off night in the kitchen.  One word about bad service spreads faster than many good words about food. 

A word of caution here.  Bad service stories are not something Buzz fact checks; it’s not about he said, she said. The customer needs to let the restaurant know when there is a problem, right then and there.  Depending on the issue, a manager or owner can right a wrong, and how the restaurant handles the situation at that moment further defines service.  What did they do to make it okay for the customer who–without some sort of positive acknowledgement such as a comped dessert or drink…something…anything– will go out and tell ten pals never to patronize the place again.

A few examples: A reader sent a note to complain about Zenbu, a La Jolla mainstay for fresh sushi, a Buzz favorite and a place that doesn’t take reservations.  The customer revealed that a new hostess and the manager continuously gave their party of six the wrong wait time for their table–told 35 minutes, waited nearly 2 hours.  Why not leave?  Well, the party believed the hostess who kept saying they’d be seated any minute.  When finally seated, they waited more than an hour for food, even though other tables seated after them were served.  Management offered no comps to appease but did add 18% gratuity to the check.  Not the way to treat customers, no matter how busy your restaurant may be.

Red Marlin, a recent arrival to the Mission Bay area, caught the ire of another local who wanted to bring in a bottle of wine.   The comment by Carlo posted in Solare and Red Marlin explains the situation, and how management missed the cue from a customer looking to buy a bottle from the list and still bring his own for a special evening.  

On the positive side, Buzz popped in for the first time to Urban Solace. I sat at the bar while most diners were on the patio enjoying the warm day.  The bartender/server helped me decide my order–no on the fabulously rich the mac and cheese and yes on the light, flavorful salad of grilled ahi pieces, diced cucumber, red pepper and avocado, innovatively served with not a leaf of lettuce–a balance of texture and flavor in a mouthful.  Sure the bar wasn’t busy, but many times that can lead to poor service when staff does chores or just stands around. Even the hostess, though not perched at the door, had it right. Every time the door opened, she was front and center to greet guests.  Good food coupled with good service makes a winner.  

Buzz would like to hear your stories:  Service–good and bad–and what the restaurant did to be sure you would return. 

A recent story in The Wall Street Journal addressed in depth the popularity of tasting menus paired with wines.  The paper’s wine writers, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher dined anonymously at four of New York’s top restaurants (Le Bernardin, Jean George, Per Se and Daniel) to report on tasting menus and their pairings with wine.  The results were startling.  Not only did the writers have day-0ld, sometimes uninspired and pre-chosen pairings, the cost was over the top at $280 for two at Le Bernardin (separate from the the $180 per person for the food tasting menu).  Per Se and Daniel came out the best of the bunch, for service, wines and food pairings. While San Diego isn’t quite as pricey, tasting menus can be found at some of our top restaurants.  How good are they?

What do you think about tasting menus?  Are they worth ordering or are they passé ?  Do you order the wines suggested or do you order by the glass or bottle?  Does the service feel rushed because you’re ordering a set menu? Well, Buzz would like to hear from you.  Let’s see how San Diego’s chefs and sommeliers show their stuff. 

It’s a sad day for San Diego’s home cooks and restaurant-goers when The San Diego Union-Tribune’s  Wednesday food section loses two well-known food writers (Maria Hunt and Maureen Clancy) and turns the section into a measly two and a half to three pages of print. 

Is this what a city and county of 2.9 million people deserve?  No wonder restaurants struggle to gain national recognition when the city’s only mainstream paper chooses to diminish the importance of food and those who grow, buy, cook and serve it.  Like the rest of the paper, this section will muddle along with wire stories and little, if any, pertinent local news.  The paper sees the future of food and news online rather than in print. No one wins with this shortsighted thinking.  What’s your opinion?

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? 

Commentary by Buzz Editor, Marcie Rothman 

Frequently I am asked what the “best” restaurant is for this or that.  And while “best” may be debatable, I was flabbergasted to learn that In-N-Out won the 2007 Gold Medallion award for Best Hamburger. A fast-food burger wins in a town with a nationally touted burger joint? While I’ve got nothing against a good fast-food burger, I do wonder about the yearly awards–who gives them, gets them and what they mean to San Diego’s food scene.

The San Diego Chapter of the California Restaurant Association gathered for its 23rd annual dinner May 9–an evening when local members bestow Gold Medallions on each other. This big deal industry-only event pays tribute to nominees and winners for Best Breakfast, Best Pacific Rim, Best Hamburger, among others. To be nominated, a restaurant must be a member of the association–non-members are non-grata—and, as such, many of the very “best” large and small restaurants go unnoticed for Gold Medallions.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about the restaurants per se, but is about the incestuous good ol’ boy-and-girl coterie of board members that has run the chapter for seemingly eons. The voting membership includes vendors, restaurants and others who pay the membership fee.  The chefs, restaurateurs and managers I spoke with consider the awards, unfortunately, as a joke.  Why?  Because these awards do not reflect the true “best” of San Diego–how can they when membership is requisite for award nomination and voting includes all members (including vendors who supply favored nominees) rather than restaurants only?

Some background:  The Sacramento based California Restaurant Association (CRA) is a group with roughly 22,000 members.  The purpose of the 100 year-old association is to be the “definitive voice of the California foodservice industry and to protect and promote its success.”  This is accomplished through education, lobbying, and community involvement. Among the nine main regional chapters, each with a board of directors and each with its own member activities, Los Angeles has 7,000 members with a 20-member board while San Diego counts 1,200 members and a board of 56 members.

Presently, San Diego is one of the few chapters that lavish so many awards on its members.  Over the years San Diego’s categories have grown — from 19 in 2003, to 36 in 2005  to the current 44, not including restaurateur or chef of the year. Many of this year’s nearly 140 nominees appear yearly and are board members as is the case with the Best Breakfast nominees. In 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007, nominees were Cafe 222, Crest Cafe, and Hash House a Go-Go.  An amazing feat for these three well-known eateries, considering this town has good breakfast venues in practically every neighborhood.

Categories are added to keep many of the same nominees in the game each year, albeit in a slightly different area. Best Hamburger is a good example of the shifting category syndrome.  Best Hamburger category was added in 2006. In prior years Best Fast Food or Best Quick Service Restaurant were the rightful categories for In-N-Out Burgers, Jack in the Box and Anthony’s Fishette.  In 2006 and 2007, In-N-Out moved and won for Best Hamburger against nominees that are not usually thought of as fast-food establishments:  Ruby’s Diner and Boll Weevil Restaurants, Fatburger, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Ruby’s Diner.

San Diego strives to be a big league player but the publicity around these purely insider awards negatively influences the credibility and awareness of San Diego’s restaurant scene, both locally and nationally. When foodies arrive for the 33rd Winter Fancy Food Show next January 13 to 15, some may wonder how serious a food culture we have when they read that a fast- food burger is the best in town.  Such an accolade affects how the entire region is perceived (for more than just burgers) considering many people will have attended shows in food meccas such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

The line between editorial content and paid advertising is so vague in San Diego that many of us are unaware that restaurants can pay for the privilege of a favorable mention on many well-known websites as well as in print. How many readers noticed the nine-page paid advertising supplement in the June 14th Night & Day section of the Union Tribune listing those Gold Medallion winners?

So, is a fast-food burger really the Best Hamburger in San Diego? When well-respected, nationally-known food and restaurant writers Jane and Michael Stern wrote a about Hodad’s in Ocean Beach for Gourmet magazine (June, 2004), who would have known from that year’s local CRA awards? No one, even though the Sterns, best known for their Roadfood books, website, columns and well-honed palate, put the restaurant on their national top 10 list for hamburgers in the country. Hodad’s (not a CRA member) remains on that list after Sterns second visit last year.

While some may say there’s really nothing wrong with any of this, I believe the public deserves better when it comes to learning what is “best”. For San Diego to be taken seriously as a restaurant city, we need unbiased, anonymous and critical restaurant reviews from food savvy writers who can educate and explain what constitutes good and great food and service.  We need clear disclosure when advertising guarantees positive reviews on sites and in print.  And we need awards that recognize more than just a few favored players. Future commentary will address the people’s choice and other local awards.

Finally, why not consider an association of restaurants only, working together to recognize the “best” that San Diego offers?  

Commentary by Lynne Christopher :

Me thinks the editor does protest too much. The issue with SD Magazine has nothing to do with fact checking. It doesn’t matter. The issue is all about the perception by the people who read the magazine. No major publication, in any major food city around the country, would get away with what SD Magazine did.  The connection between the writer of the story, Ron Donoho, and his Hotel Del publicist wife, is widely known around town. And don’t the magazine editors ever meet to go over covers, reviews, etc. before publication?

This is just another example of why San Diego will never be a food city; the good old boys simply won’t let go. We need honest food critics who are able to write the truth without worrying about advertising dollars to the magazine. We need restaurant writers who don’t own or have investments in major restaurants in town. Terryl Gavre rings a bell. We need restaurant critics who pay for their own meals when they review and don’t accept or count on free meals. If we ever get there, maybe the city will improve.

And as for the fancy food show coming in 2008: Restaurants in town whose reputation is based on local reviewers, better take a long, hard look at what you are doing.  Why? Because the people who come to this show are very knowledgeable and sophisticated diners who are not afraid to tell restaurants exactly how they feel whether it’s good, bad or ugly.