You know the kind of day I’m talking about, when the liquid gray of the sky bleeds into the split, clean sidewalks, making a late-morning walk as much about mood as place. The poor or depressed look down at the concrete, ready to find any kind of change, but these Mission Beach streets seem the same to me this moment as they did more than two decades ago, when I lived first on Yarmouth, then on Zanzibar Court. I was in my 20s, having left University of California grad school with no final degree, no steady job, just some books, Salvation Army clothes, well-sharpened cooking knives, and a sticky Olivetti 22 (yes, historians, a manual portable typewriter).
Has anything changed? Most of these cheek-by-jowl beach houses are still littered by the same faded surfboards and drainpipe stains. Always mobile tenants, always moving in or out, always Karen Carpenters brushing long, straight hair and Dennis Wilsons peeling off sandy, sweaty wet suits, in full picture-window view of.. .me. Where’s all this new San Diego money I’ve heard so much about? Back then, I felt that time stood still in Mission Beach, and, surprise, I feel it now.
But I’m sitting at the counter of Starbucks on Grand Avenue and Mission Boulevard, fingering a decaf cap. Spoken or written, decaf cap would have been Martian back then. Readers, there was no Starbucks back then. Outside, the air is slack and dead; inside, within this bright bubble dropped by the Seattle mothership onto an outlandish frontier, it’s the caffeinated, ecocyber ’90s. Yet, the winsome fellow behind the counter lets me know, in all his permanent innocence, that “real work is hard to find in this city” (actor? no, musician) and he’s thinking of moving on. Even though his unprompted lament is accompanied by the hissing and gurgling of steamed low-fat milk, it’s the same old Mission Beach song.
I have come back to San Diego 25 years later to eat, to discover how the eating life of this big city has changed. In 1972 I was, for a short time, restaurant reviewer for the newspaper now in your hands, the then-infant San Diego Reader. Jim Holman, the polite young man who hired me, is still the editor, still polite. I lived in Del Mar, drove to school, and at the time had never even read a restaurant review, much less written any. But I did know that one way to understand my new home, and my place in it was to tell the story of how San Diegans fed ourselves in public. (Ourselves? Although born and raised in New York, I had “become” a San Diegan and entertained no thought of leaving.)
Actually, I wasn’t certain that food was central to urban identity: I just had a feeling it was true, that the best way to a city’s heart is through its stomach. Yet, as California kismet would have it, these few reviews charted my future professional life. Five years later, when I moved back to New York — that’s what happens when you fall in love with a New Yorker — I became a restaurant critic, until last year eating (thousands upon thousands of meals) and writing (hundreds and hundreds of columns) weekly for The Village Voice.
What are my food memories of San Diego? They’re all over the map! A pencil-thin chicken flauta my chum Barry (now in New York, an art dealer) pushed into my hand inside some taco joint on Washington Street, the tortilla crack and blast of fresh, hot oil rushing the ground corn and pecking bird straight into my head. A tuna and avocado sandwich on whole-grain bread, dripping with soy mayo and bean-sprout righteousness, at an experimental, forward-thinking chainlet called Future Foods for a quick dinner before Melvyn and I went to hang out and cruise at the Barbary Coast on Pacific Highway (my friend Melvyn teaches writing at UCSD and SDSU). In an empty, midday dining room, a caesar salad — a recipe supposedly invented in Tijuana—prepared personally and accurately (raw egg, mashed anchovies, hand-ripped romaine, honest shaved Parmesan) by the tall, shiny-headed maitre d’ of the Mission Bay Hilton because he was my friend Ava’s friend (Ava’s in Rochester, New York, raising kids and making art videos). The silly, sugar-crusted sidecar I nursed, teary-eyed, all by my lonesome on Friday night at Anthony’s Fish Grotto in La Jolla.. .oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
These run-on food memories draw a food map of my old San Diego. Of course, my old San Diego needn’t be your old San Diego. In fact, it probably couldn’t be. Chances are you weren’t here then, and even if you had been, my San Diego map claims its own exclusive third dimension, which consists of: the person I was that year, that minute.. .the people who ate with that person.. .the amount of money in that person’s wallet.. .the last page that person read, dance he danced, lips he kissed.
It’s embarrassing, isn’t it, to face such personal vulnerability just by trying to consider a sip of soup? But take it from a seasoned restaurant reviewer: you must be cautious of critics who don’t admit that palates are subject to.. .change. I don’t mean we can’t bluntly and accurately evaluate cooking. Pallid pasta is palwindow-box cilantro, of papaya and avocado drizzled with juice from egg-sized, aromatic local limes.
“And why should that make you sad?” she asks. Then she remembers. Because I am thinking about the people I cooked these breakfasts for who are now dead.
Thinking of Delbert in particular, talented, Dixie-inflected Delbert, who in return treated me to a ham, egg, and grits after-church brunch at his family’s favorite El Cajon eatery. “I looked for the little restaurant but couldn’t find it,” I admit miserably to Eleanor, “can’t even remember its name.” But I do recall the transparent happiness in Del’s plump, flushed, handsome face as he watched the yellow butter drip down the side of the steaming beaten biscuit in front of him, knowing how much I was enjoying it too. Delbert had what every writer prays for: emotional sight. The idea of something like aids, at that time, and especially in that sunny dining room, was simply inconceivable.
“A restaurant like this, with foursomes sitting cafe-style on the sidewalk sipping merlot or micro-brewery pale ale, would have been inconceivable,” I tell my friend Bill, an L.A. restaurant critic who drove down for a few days to plumb the San Diego waters with me. We’ve just ordered black runner-bean soup with wild boar bacon, smoked red New Mexico chiles and lime creme fraiche, plus the rabbit con carne quesadilla with rajas and plantains as our appetizers; and buffalo chorizo enchilada with a smoked chicken enchilada, smoked gouda, cotija, black beans as well as an architectonic construction of a plate-size beet ravioli stacked with butternut squash, roasted pumpkin seeds, smoked chicken, spinach, and goat cheese, with chile-sage butter as our entrees.
Quite a mouthful, no? I’m listing only four dishes, in case it isn’t clear. The whole menu reads like this, in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink syntax of juggled geography and ultra-specific ingredient that the ambitious, surprisingly affordable, and now closed Indigo Grill on India Street termed “New Western Cuisine.” (Apparently it closed with no warning to eaters or writers, reminding me how circumstantial the restaurant business really is.)
Even though San Diego is our country’s southwest comer, “Southwestern Cuisine,” as it’s become known, hit the city late in the game. The term was actually consolidated as a marketable concept in 1983 or ’84, at a conference of chefs and cookbook writers held in a Houston hotel. There was some argument, I remember, as to whether recipe authenticity was given short shrift by mounting mesquite-grilled quail on a bed of Chez Panisse-style mesclun and tossing the result with buttermilk Blanc, but almost everyone agreed that these were regional American flavors and methods whose time had come. Ronald Reagan was sitting tall in his Santa Barbara saddle; chili was about to reclaim its e.
I know this stretch of India Street, I mention to Bill as we negotiate the enormous plates of parti-colored food before us, because it was close to the two gay bars I used to frequent, the dark, dour Club, and the magnetic dance-dive called the Barbary Coast, ultimately straightened out as Dirty Dan’s topless. Oddly, I have no specific memory of manicotti meals at the Little Italy restaurants on India (a few are still there), just vague and bilious disappointment. The bars themselves didn’t serve food, which only partially accounted for the growl in my gut most nights as I drove home at 2:00 a.m., exhausted and usually alone.
Of course, there was that fish restaurant on the corner of India and Washington where in 1976 John and I had our first date: sand dabs, still sweet from the sea, sautéed in butter; dull broccoli; glistening oily rice. I could live with a man who savored his fish like that, I said to myself.. .and now I do. The site presently supports a hangout called Gelato Vero Caffe. No two-f-caffe would have passed muster then — probably no cafe, period. Bill nods, sagely. Few knew what gelato was either. He nods sagely again.
Then we overhear, with a delight available only to jaded restaurant reviewers, two dating couples at the table alongside partaking in a vigorous debate as to whether a genuine creme brûlée should be served hot. The most confident of the discussants, who tells us he’s a construction projects supervisor, thinks food in San Diego has improved “immeasurably.” This creates another row, because his girlfriend is certain that almost everything is better elsewhere. “Where in town should we eat?” I ask them. And that begins another round of assertions and denials. Bill and I look at each other in amazement, but we needn’t be so surprised. After all, why shouldn’t the restaurant revolution of the ’80s — when easy money and youthful kitchen creativity joined to create an efflorescence of American culinary consciousness unmatched in this century — have been fought and won in San Diego too?
The caramelized top of the brûlée should be hot from the salamander, I think, and the silken beige reward underneath should be at room temperature, so that, when your spoon cracks the darkened “ice” and breaks through, there’s a pair of contrasts — hot/cool, hard/soft — that’s a tip of the dessert chef s hat to the table in general and a private nod to your own happy mouth. I keep this to myself.
The night before, Bill and I had strolled the eight blocks that measure the length of the Gaslamp district. He had thought it was just another center-city renovation project and couldn’t fathom my incredulity.
“People, people at night! Trattorias! People eating outside in trattorias under the lights!” I had been beside myself.
“What was it before,” he’d asked me, “the South Bronx?”
Well, sort of. Jack, an artist friend, was one of the first in the city to turn a blasted, creaky pre-Gaslamp loft into an art studio. He ultimately did what artists all over the country have done: break deserted downtown ground for the foundation of a tax base in the form of restaurants and shops. (The ground-breakers are later forced out as rents go up.) That’s how New York’s industrial Soho district was “revived,” and now its summer sidewalks are filled with cafe tables and lizard purses. When I would visit Jack back then, I’d have to park the car cautiously and look left and right as I approached his building so I wouldn’t be mugged; the porn shop across the street was the area’s only safe haven. He had no kitchen, and we had to range far to find a grocery or a sit-down coffee-shop meal.
Where was the place he painted in, I wondered as we sifted through the noisy crowd? Was it Croce’s prosperous bar and restaurant complex that ultimately settled in Jack’s creative space? I can’t be sure; the Gaslamp renovation has lost in decrepit specificity what it’s gained in function. (Jack, who would have wondered at the very idea of a downtown “district,” died some years later of AIDS.)
Even the South Bronx has revived.
That past evening, Bill and I had tried out the newest of the Gaslamp restaurants, a busy, spiffy fishhouse called Blue Point, which claims to serve “Coastal Cuisine.” It was a weird room, as if two entirely different decorators were each responsible for half: plush, elevated, curved banquettes on one side; low Mission-style booth-tables on the other. Service was also, shall we say, dichotomous, our waiter’s “good self’ doing his apologetic best to compensate for the many mistakes his “bad self’ was making at the same time. But the kitchen was of one mind, and it had fallen short. Bill and I both know we can’t review a restaurant on the basis of just one visit and a few plates, what we call an educated first impression, but when an acidic “crawfish ceviche”—coasts, of course, can be everywhere — looked and tasted like ground pencil erasers, and both fish entrees (including the touted salmon) came out sorely overdone, what can you think? Crunchy griddled crab cakes were the decent exception. The menu listed an “Executive Sous Chef,” which was an oxymoronic first for Bill and me.
But around the time I was visiting Jack — I’m telling Bill as we try, unsuccessfully, to distinguish the half-dozen flavors laminated onto Indigo Grill’s baroque beet ravioli — I became a room service waiter at the U.S. Grant Hotel. My boyfriend at the time, who was a clown, got me the job. (“No, Bill, a real clown, with a degree from the Institute of Clownology.”)
The Grant had been around Many of the party scenes in Mack Sennett comedies of the ’20s were shot in the Grant’s terrace ballroom; Hollywood luminaries stopped at the Grant to freshen up on their way down to binges in Baja. The hotel was apparently on its last legs when I was hired by the hangdog, hung-over manager; it supplemented its failing business with earlyest conferences — “you may not enter, leave the food at the door”—and disreputable trial witnesses who had to be kept in rooms under lock and key (and who, when I delivered their grilled cheeses, offered to slip me twenties to find them grass or girls). Room service waiters at the Grant were of two types: older Mexican American men, “career” waiters who held on to their union jobs proudly and stubbornly, and younger gay men, who came and went like clouds. The manager took one look at me and said, softly but severely, that if I were caught in a room with a customer for a longer time than was necessary, I’d be fired on the spot. “Longer than necessary for what?” I wondered.
I hadn’t a clue as to what he meant, until I completed my first week. “I made my real money running ice,” I say to Bill, “because, if they liked the way I looked, they’d flush the ice down the toilet and call me again, three or four times. Five bucks a pop. Once in a while they would lie in wait on the chenille bedspread, naked, bucket in hand.”
Men, women, children, dogs, no one could resist a bright-eyed minion in a tight penguin uniform — which consisted of a white, gold-braided jacket the hotel provided, my own bargain black pants, and cloddish negative-heel Earth Shoes I polished dutifully every working day. One female visitor, a sleek, old-money regular from Mexico City, had me bring up from my basement station, at teatime, a tray holding half an iced, ripe honeydew (“if it isn’t perfectly ripe she’ll be furious,” the staff had told me), a salt shaker, and cut, cheese-clothed lemon. When I entered, she’d be sitting calmly in her suite’s armchair, armored in a lime green or powder pink Chanel suit. I’d place the tray on the table before her, and, gold bangles jiggling, she’d scoop a clot of dripping melon, delicately squeeze on lemon juice, condense the cloying, fuzzy fragrance with a shake of salt, and suck the flesh noiselessly off the spoon into and through her carmine lips. Then she’d swallow, and her dark eyes, previously cool and sober, would quiver and roll back into her head. My job was to stand at attention and watch her until she was done. It took about five minutes, just the time that was necessary.
The always-ripe melon was provided by the coffee-shop kitchen’s Sandwich Lady, a frantic woman so short she could barely see over her chopping counter, so round she looked like the avocados and cantaloupes she cosseted. The Sandwich Lady—from Manila, I think — took pity on her “skinny waiter boys” and wrapped Dagwood-size ham or turkey sandwiches in tinfoil for us to sneak home after our shifts. Unlike the older waiters, we treated our Sandwich Lady with due respect — and, in return, our orders from her sandwich board were filled first. I dreamt about her: she swung her gigantic carving knife with a wild, circus flourish that mesmerized and frightened everybody.
My clown boyfriend had told me that the hotel was hemorrhaging money because neither the snooty Grant Grill chefs — who kept their raw steaks under lock and key — nor the coffee-shop people would skimp on ingredients one iota. Good coffee called for cream, not half-and-half, was their logic. Unfortunately, the rest of the hotel was falling apart. That premium cream spoiled regularly because the case refrigerators were as old as the silent comedies they once held pies for. It was my job to monitor their temperature, and when it went over 40 degrees, I quickly filled a horse syringe from a tank of Freon and injected it, once, twice, three times into the rotting, leaky rubber tubes that fed the compressors, the prolapsed veins of a shivering, used-up junkie. Nothing was dependable. The ancient cage-door service elevator would get stuck if you ran it too fast to the top floor to bring the manager his wine dinner; one night I was trapped there, like a mine canary, for hours after everyone had gone home. Another evening, the desk clerk on his break guided me silently to the derelict basement swimming pool, arid, cracked and cavernous, one corner piled ten feet high with hundreds of dented, tarnished platters and salvers, triple-plated ghosts of room-service past.
“I wonder if that silver’s still there,” Bill, who collects old things, asks me.
“No. They turned the pool into a wine cellar, or so the maitre d’ of the present Grant Grill told me the other night.” I knew that the refurbished hotel and its masculine bar had come into its own again and that the Grill, cleaned up but unlike the rest of the place little changed, was boasting of its chef, Deborah MacDonald Schneider, and her modern lunch and dinner menus. “Sea scallops seared with cayenne and sugar on Chinese black cabbage would have been a mystery to the staff I knew,” I tell Bill.
Nathanael West worked in a hotel when he was a kid, and his real name was Weinstein too. Would he, eyes like knives, had he not been killed in a car wreck not all that far from where we sit, have passed up the opportunity to see how his seedy memories had been rehoused? Never. When I returned to the Grant, I kept looking for a backstage I could recognize, but all vestiges familiar to me had been plastered over and embellished with the standard upscale bouquets. I was trim back then, springy, my hair piled in limp, late-hippie curls. Who is that gray-haired boy in the gilded mirror? Still, the Grant’s an enormous pile, and some of its darker corners must have remained unswept.
“And the Grill food?” Bill knows our business.
Well, weekday dinner was served suavely, in an atmosphere one could call muffled. Fine caesar salad; ordinary veal medallions cloaked in Madeira and cream, slightly mushy rack of lamb served atop a convincing — albeit salty — base of cannellini beans, olive oil, thyme, and garlic to sop with your good bread; and Chilean sea bass, the evening’s victory, utterly winning, cooked to its exact point. Lunch, because it tries to do less, fashionably, may accomplish more (with an $8 fish taco — shades of Rubio’s—and the now ubiquitous lobster club sandwich, but in dilute lobster-salad form). Part of the problem may be the word grill, which, after a decade of elaboration, stubbornly implies a martini and the puckering purity of unencumbered meat, blackened without, bloody within. Anything sauced and sided beyond this leaps to restaurant. And a restaurant, at its best, is merely the form a chef’s ambition takes.
Speaking of bread, I don’t remember any good bread in San Diego, except for the squat French loaves my friend Kit in Del Mar baked (Kit teaches literature in Montreal), or what I could carry back from Tijuana. Now there’s crusty bread-with-identity everywhere.
Bill and I are finishing up, and we agree about our meal even without much discussion. Indigo Grill is charming, easygoing, accessible. Its kitchen is contemporary in aspiration but kept from complete success by a case of “too many”: too many ingredients in each dish, too many twists on each plate. It was the same, I tell Bill, at the originating chefs present workplace, Hillcrest’s friendly though ill-named Kemo Sabe: vast portions; a culinary dictionary of ingredients and methods (“Roasted New Mexico Chile Stuffed Filet over roasted romas & sage with leek twigs, warm gorgonzola and fried pasilla gnocchi”); painterly, if not sculptural, presentation, with an appealing O’Keeffe plate palette. But the food I sampled suffered from a lack of focus, the result of flavors and textures working against, not toward, one another. It’s as if these vigorous San Diego menus are doubling whatever they can, regardless of effect, to make up for lost...
That Bill, what a sense of humor.
A walk on Prospect Street....
In 1970 I bought my round John Lennon silver eyeglass frames here, now a Sunglass Hut. Funny that I’m wearing them now. Vision fades, but glasses last.... That Victoria’s Secret looks like a Victorian train station, all the passengers ready to board and have sex. You know, in spite of complaints of Euro transformation, La Jolla seems to have changed less, in its commercial bones, than any other San Diego neighborhood Money had moved here long ago, never left, and the place just gets its face lifted.... My old Anthony’s Fish Grotto is gone. At the counter, with John Keats as company, I used to order the crab-meat salad, a preparation so close to the snapping source that every now and then I’d crunch a shard of shell; thin, salty, oil-hot french fries; and a Miller in an ice-clouded glass. Rarely has so little given me so much pleasure. Once, when I felt flush and asked for the large portion instead of the small, the waitress, who knew me, winked and whispered that it was the same amount of crab salad, just more lettuce lining a bigger plate. Hmm. M.F.K. Fisher, the extraordinary writer who took eating as seriously as sex or war or friendship, went to girls’ school, and swallowed her first raw oyster, right across the street, 50 years before. She’s the closest thing to a reason I write about food, and she died just a few years ago.... No more hopeful crab salad. And no Keats sings.
Which of these little storefronts was Anne’s La Jolla Antiques? Anne habitually wore a rhinestone NIXON pin but treated Judy and me, her antiwar, I.F. Stone-loving antique-virgins, to generous portions of her quiet expertise. Does Judy (teaches lit at Washington University in St. Louis, happily near where she grew up) still have the agate pendant necklace I bought her for $35, the one Anne retrieved from the estate of Ulysses Grant’s La Jolla granddaughter, the one once warmed by the heaving bosom of Julia Dent Grant, the general’s cross-eyed and resigned First Lady? Yes, Judy told me she does.
Where did Judy and I eat, treasure in hand? In a little Italian quick-lunch on Girard, no longer there, and were we grateful for their vinegar-soaked iceberg salads and burnt frittatas. We had nothing, nothinglike Rimel’s Rotisserie on Torrey Pines Road, with its “natural, grain-fed, hormone-free” mesquite-roasted fowl and meat, luscious chilied pot stickers, chipode black beans. So tasty, so healthful, so smart! Sitting in its treed courtyard, would I have ever gone back to campus to teach cut-rate Hegel to cute, stoned-out surfers, who were oblivious to me and to history, but each forever on the lookout for his or her own personal green flash?
We also ate in the Bratskellar that used to be right over here (“Gothic Atmosphere, a Connoisseur’s Bar”), arranging our Safeway picketing schedules for the United Farm Worker grape boycott over $5.95 knock-wurst and beans. Where have all the Safeways gone? The Bratskellar is George’s at the Cove now, San Diego’s most popular restaurant, at least according to the homogenized and self-validating Zagat Survey. “What,” I hear outsiders saying, “San Diego has its own Zagat? Guess it must be a real city!” Did I hear namesake George tell my striking friend Winifred (now a literary agent), when we had our good dinner there yesterday, that he had been a waiter at the Bratskellar? Could he have been the very one who carded me in front of titanium-haired philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse?
The view is everything at George’s, but nothing is as black as La Jolla Cove on a moonless night. There’s no question that this is a real, a flourishing, restaurant, one whose menu could be proffered with pride anywhere, its modish standards anchored by gestures of wholesome localism —jicama salad, bass from the Sea of Cortez. George’s seamless restaurant reality isn’t easy to achieve; the buttery service, the convincing fish (huachinango, or Mexican snapper, sparkling with its own fluids, infused with pepper and bedded in poached fennel), the soigné feel of the room are all near what they should be. Winifred likes the prospect of fitness and ritz joined at the hip; I wondered later, though, about the evening’s soft, comforting impression — the restaurant as pillow. This is no complaint, not at all, just a wistful longing for edge and surprise, a melancholy result, no doubt, of my puzzling middle age.
I reverse myself and turn toward Girard. Why had I never noticed these old, mustardy tiles framing the window of John’s Waffle Shop? Was I so gluttonous a graduate student, lusting for made-to-order, waffle-ironed waffles and rapidly scrambled eggs, that all my eyes could do was follow my stomach through the door? I make waffles now myself, on a flea market waffle iron, the kind without Teflon, and it isn’t difficult. Yet why are John’s so special? Mine, actually, are better, but I don’t care. I’m not a restaurant.
When this eatery first opened, in 1953,1 was a boy in Brooklyn, on Ocean Avenue, learning about the wide world by watching Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob on a TV screen the size and shape of a salad plate. A few years later, on a somewhat larger plate, I would see the first frozen waffle pop up from the slot of a thinline toaster, and I had to have it. Of course, the only compensation for such doubtful progress is that this restaurant is still here, managing to serve the same crisp, pocked, laborious waffles to the same mix of dowagers with pearl chokers and housekeepers in acrylic cardigans it always had. And serve them to me, no longer quite so trusting a child. John’s menu isn’t small, but who among us would order the machaca burrito, the “Sicilian Spaghetti,” in a waffle shop? I look around, I look back, and all I see is waffles.
There’s a bench outside of John’s, the kind of La Jolla grace note that implies civic benevolence but really means “protected community.” I take a seat. Am I just a little bit tired? Do restaurants get tired? Do their (hot) dogs ache after a long day? How long do active, white-haired restaurants live?
Back in New York I have a post card from the 1930s or ’40s that pictures the airbrushed art deco facade of the San Diego Chicken Pie Shop in Hillcrest. The address side of the card shows the naive, sadistic trademark of two puzzled fowl staring at a sample of the pie shop’s wares, their coffin-to-be. Where’s that shiny landmark now? (There was also one downtown, the first one, at 1330 Fifth Avenue.) It moved six years ago to a featureless eating barn on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. A sad story, I first thought, the restaurant becoming its own retirement home. But at least it’s alive — serving pies with the cheaper mixture of chicken and turkey, to be sure. Yet look at the prices, as if listed on a menu handed to you by a cheerful redhead in a vintage California dream: pie a la carte with roll $2; pie plus potatoes, vegetable, coleslaw $4. (Oh, this dinner also comes bookended with a decent slice of dessert pie: try the banana cream.) The chicken pie is the Pie Shop’s raison d’être: no reason — or is it wise — to order anything else. The crumbly yet flaky crust is a Fannie Farmer demonstration of how our forebears manipulated fat and flour in a daily way; the white sauce an essay delineating the comforting but vanishing border between tame and subtle; the resulting empty plate a short lesson in American history, taught by humble food.
How long can a John’s Waffle, a San Diego Chicken Pie, survive? I lift myself off the bench. I’m never too tired to be hungry.
When I began to review restaurants for the Reader I lived on another Ocean Avenue, just off the foot of 15th Street in Del Mar. I can see it down there, from where I’m standing. There weren’t many restaurants in Del Mar then, although it seemed as if there were enough, because eating out wasn’t quite the thing it is now.
Which is what? One of the reasons I feel more myself at a restaurant table than anywhere else is that eating out hasn't changed, at least for me. Maybe it’s wrong to admit it, but there’s an unbroken line from high-chair to dining chair that follows my wavering profile faithfully. Place me in that seat, at that naperied table, protected from accident. Feed me fairly and smoothly, as others are being fed. Let me see some semblance of the community I live in gather together without citizens cursing or knifing or belittling one another. Where else does sensuous enjoyment seem so inclusive, so unashamed, so necessary? Ideas and assurances are exchanged across the table as zestfully as bites from our entrees. Even when I’m alone, this hospitable sense works through me; somehow, in a restaurant, I know who I am or who I want to be.
Yesterday I called Robert Romaine of the county’s Department of Environmental Health to find out how many restaurants did business in San Diego in 1972. “I don’t have records going back that far,” he said. “But in June 1988 there were about 5700. Now there are almost 6300.” He explained that this includes general sit-down places as well as those that serve ready-to-eat food to go, plus “bars and doughnut shops.” Small restaurants, those with ten or fewer employees, make up about 70 percent of this number, he said, and turnover is about 35 a month, more coming than going.
So I immediately went to the library and found the 1972 San Diego Yellow Pages. My old friends! The Barbecue Pit, and its interloping rival, Love’s Wood Pit Barbecue; the Nordic Inn and its “Delightful Swedish Smorgasbord”; Jimmy Wong’s Golden Dragon and its golden cornstarch sauces; the Aztec Dining Room Numbers 1 and 2, which I thought made the only crisply battered chile relleno in town; the Boll Weevil and its Famous 1/2 lb. Steerburger. Salty tears welled and fell onto the public copier. No Vietnamese food anywhere that I can see or that I remember (when was it we bombed Cambodia?) and only one or two Korean or Japanese venues; kimchee and sushi were waiting in the wings — along with buffalo wings. It’s hard to count exactly, but there are about twice as many restaurant entries in the Yellow Pages this year as in 1972, two times as many places to eat,.while the population has increased only from 715,829 back then to 1,183,102 at last count. San Diego restaurants have grown faster than San Diego people.
Okay, there are more restaurants. But are they different, or, just as important, perceived as different? “There’s a vast improvement compared to a while back,” Julie Lanthier-Bandy told me over the phone. Of course, she’s the executive director of the San Diego Restaurant Association, so she would say something like that. “I see a lot of creativity in culinary concepts going on here,” she added, and she’s right.
Me, I see whole neighborhoods of San Diegans from the Pacific Rim bringing foodstuffs and appetites with them that weren’t here before. I see the University of California campus, an academic Oz looming and spreading, with an unimaginative food court in its blocky student center and glossy, anonymous bistros inhabiting the glass and marble carbuncles of the symbiotic Golden Triangle nearby. I see a book called Healthy Dining in San Diego that lists 84 healthful places to dine; when I reviewed the meatless Prophet restaurant on University Avenue in 1973,1 had not one tofu yardstick to hold it up against. I see a manic lesbian chef from L.A. (and her stoical nongay partner) teaching us to mince corn fungus on the TV Food Network. I see a Trader Joe’s, the great bargain treat-market from Southern California, debuting in a previously unimaginable Hillcrest mall. (New Yorkers would kill— some literally — for a Trader Joe’s, take my word for it.)
When I left my Reader job, I was replaced by the reviewer presently at the paper, Eleanor Widmer, who at the time taught literature at UCSD. After a genuinely bizarre review dinner — not her fault! — at which she was kind enough to include me.
I asked Eleanor what changes she perceived during her long tenure, beyond the obvious increase in restaurant variety and enterprise. “It’s absolutely more exciting because the level of achievement is greater,” she told me. “There’s much more sophisticated dining and ambiance.”
“And have the city’s eaters changed in consequence?”
“I don’t want to take credit for it,” she said, smiling, “but when I came here I had to explain every kind of ethnic food, what to order, and how to eat....”
She grinned, and continued: “It’s still difficult for San Diegans to eat Vietnamese.”
“Why is that?”
“Possibly because they associate it with the war.”
The major specific change, Widmer explained, is the move, among visitors, to fish: “Tourists don’t associate L.A. with seafood, they associate seafood with San Diego because it’s a harbor. When I started, tourists wanted Mexican. No more.”
Yes, San Diego fish is flying. Way back then I could find pounded and fried abalone sandwiches for $2.95 (!) and, at the high end, sauced halibut fillets at Anthony’s Star of the Sea, but little that showcased the “beach-ness” of this town that possesses some of the most resplendent stretches of strand on the planet.
Now, here in Del Mar, I can take an elevator from the bowels of a multilevel car park, snake past the gauze and glitter shops, wait 20 minutes, and be seated at a table that stands directly on the grave of my old Big Bear Supermarket I’m dining at Pacifica Del Mar, a “Rim-seafood trend-setter” as Zagat says, another of its popular crown jewels. I won’t belabor Pacifica’s food: the fish is certainly fresh, and the kitchen’s ministrations are usually accurately described. But here I sit, looking toward the wide, promising ocean, past the long-gone 15th Street bar where Dick and I (Dick’s now a socially responsible downtown lawyer) shot summer pool with short, boozy cowboys from the Del Mar track. They were always amazed that two skinny long-hairs could win their fivers and make them stand for a pitcher to boot, a pitcher of the bar’s speh-she-al-ih-tay: watery draft cut with tomato juice, a libation the color of mud puddle that plopped when poured into your mug.
When we ate, we ate at home, or at Bully’s for a burger, or at Carnegie A440, a new and cool pizza parlor on Carmel Valley Road whose weekend pizza chef developed into a premier photography theorist and conceptualist. Allan tossed a serious pepperoni. Once in a while I would drive east and pick up the most beautiful tiny ivory eggplants and dollhouse squash from a farm stand and steam or sauté them for fellow members of the Radical Coalition, our antiwar-antiracist-profeminist-gay-liberationist group. Who knew that I was an early chance customer of Chino Ranch, beating Alice and Wolfgang to the baby-vegetable punch?
It’s peculiar how few of these eating memories are really about food. They’re more about the mists and scents that surround the food, the sensual “firsts” that younger, hungrier mouths and minds suck up. Zel’s Liquors was right outside here, “here” really just a cracked asphalt parking lot bordered by a cramped food store and a few unassuming shops. So what if Jimmy Durante or Desi Arnaz bought their Alka-Seltzer “here”? So what if Del Mar was “here”? All things change, enlarge, remodel. Nothing commercial dies: it’s just replaced. But will I ever again experience, and can I ever hilly explain, the day I plunked down $22 for a bottle of wine “here,” at Zel’s? I think it was a Cos d’Es-tournel recommended by Zel himself, maybe a — yes, a 1961.
This was to be a gift to my friends George and Kit (Kit’s the baker/professor, George a professor and novelist) for taking care of me after an accident. To celebrate the occasion, George went to Big Bear for fat green asparagus and Knudsen sweet butter; Kit had that morning pulled out of the oven one of her noteworthy “sunken” French loaves. And at three o’clock on a breezy summer afternoon, not the usual time for appetite, we uncorked the Bordeaux. George poured. I had never seen a color like that: it darkened...no, it lightened.. .no, it was a deep tone that didn’t have any surface to sit on, so it spun and hid, like a blushing dancer, behind the curtains of the glass. I must have nosed it, but I don’t recall. What I do remember was the first sip: a touch of coolness, then a smack in the head by a thrilling intensity of strange, layered, transmuted fruit. The alien ruby spirit expanded and flexed, pulling itself with an inevitable grip into my mouth and deep down my throat. It just took over and made me part of itself.
This was my first good wine. Here.
And, as I found out many years later, it was not yet mature.
CODA: BALBOA PARK
No one eats the fatty things of this earth with greater relish than Meredith. God gave goose livers just for her. Lucky, her many friends say, that she’s a food critic, another dear colleague from Los Angeles who drove down to visit and eat with me. We’re perusing the earnest, extensive wine list at Laurel, a successful restaurant on Laurel Street, and Meredith raises her eyes from the card and exclaims that this is possibly the most well-designed, urbane, pleasing eating space she has ever sat in.
I’m truly surprised: “Ever, even in Paris?” Meredith knows Paris.
I look around, and must agree. You walk into Laurel and walk down and in the process are made flatteringly conscious of your entrance. Laurel’s dining arena is simultaneously theatrical and private, urging you to view and be viewed by almost everyone else, yet allowing an easy retreat to the mediated intimacy of your table. I mentally rub my eyes. Please don’t take offense, but part of me cannot believe that I’m in San Diego. Actually, we’re quite near a part of Balboa Park that was once well-known as a gay cruising spot. Grass stains on Levi’s. I wonder if it still is.
Meredith and I are waiting for our waiter, have been doing so for some time. (“That’s why they call them waiters,” both our fathers used to say.) It seems he’s having real trouble uncorking a bottle at another table, and he’s flustered, agitated, taking forever. Meredith and I have eaten many professional meals together: we sigh.
It is only one dinner, but the ragged service thwarts our meal. And the food doesn’t live up to the promise of the room. We know we may have chosen less successful dishes by accident. On the other hand, why should a restaurant include any “less successful” dishes on its menu at all? (We really don’t understand why one of the kitchen’s specialties, Provencal chicken baked in a clay pot, is so watery and bitter from its herb. An appetizer of zucchini blossoms stuffed with mild brandade in a charred-tomato vinaigrette is much better.)
We eat, drink, talk, laugh. We shrug our shoulders and pay. This is the way it goes.
Yet I am certain that in the future one reserved young man (or woman, of course), taken to Laurel by fond parents, or on a date, will look at these unfamiliar squash blossoms on the plate, lift one to his lips, taste it, and something like a door will open up.
He’ll take a walk afterward, maybe by himself, through the darkening, spectacular park. He’ll hear the wind rattle the leaves, smell that faintly rotting, cleansing trace of eucalyptus he associates naturally with this city and with nowhere else. Then, stopping, facing everything in the world before him, he’ll smile.