History and a Side Salad

Wet Stone Wine Bar and Cafe

1927 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill

Boy, this is straight out of The Jungle Book. A ginormous fig tree spreads over me. I have to tilt my head back to look for the giant snake Kaa, just in case he’s wrapped around one of those massive branches up there. A sign in front of the tree says, “Florence Hotel Moreton Bay Fig Tree, 1877.” That makes it 131 years old. Wow.

But “Florence Hotel”? Turns out it used to occupy this entire block at Fourth and Grape, starting in 1884, the hotel a great old dame every bit as grand as the Hotel del Coronado and four years older. But the Florence was razed in the 1940s, and ever since, this has been a lousy parking lot. For 60 years!

So I’m heading back down Fourth toward town when I spot a fancy art nouveau gateway and, beyond, a sign. “Wet Stone, Wine Bar and Café.” Ooh. Looks nice. Too nice. But who knows? Maybe they have some lunch deals. I step inside to a — oh, yeah — “wet” polished concrete (“stone”) floor, pale green walls, long high tables, tall chairs, and alcoves, some with tables, others with couches. Main thing that sticks out is a big painting with three Thai dancers. And then, huh: The massive ceiling beam across the middle has holes bored in it, with wine bottles stuck neck-deep into them. A couple of big-leaf philodendron plants add a troppo touch. It’s late for lunch, but there are still a few people chomping into paninis. (Or is it panini? Like, one panino, many panini? But if we do that, is it one piano, many piani? Think I’ll stick with the s.) Whatever, laid-back Brazilian music fills the room.

I go down to the counter at the back. The gal there, Veronica, says, yes, ten bucks can fill me, as long as I don’t order wine. I head for a high window seat and check out the lunch menu. It’s pretty simple. They have $4.50 soups, $6 paninis, $7 salads. Not bad. I kinda like the idea of a salad. The Stonefruit has baby greens, fruit like peaches and plums, Danish bleu cheese, and roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) with a toasted coriander-seed vinaigrette. The mango salad also sounds hard to resist. Baby mixed greens with mango, Bartlett pears, goat cheese, and caramelized walnuts in a red-wine vinaigrette. Very classy. There’s also a Caprese, basically tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella.

No meat, though. So maybe a panini. ’Specially when Veronica says you get a small salad with the paninis anyway.

The first one sounds good. Turkey, French Brie, and Danish bleu. But this photographer at the next table’s munching something that also looks good, the shiitake mushroom with Gruyère and spinach — plus they do a ham prosciutto panini with mozzarella, chicken panini with Dutch Gouda, and a roast beef with Muenster and onion. I order a cawfee ($2.25), then decide on the turkey.

It comes on a square black Japanese-looking plate. It’s warm, crispy, and deep-flavor delicious. Juicy turkey, mild Brie, strong bleu. Bread’s great. Light, crisp, toasty shell. And a nice spiky pile of green arugula with cranberries and fried pumpkin seeds.

“A Torontes from Argentina would be a perfect wine with that,” says Veronica, when I ask. Sigh. But, big consolation, the coffee comes in a French press. That’s one yummy cawfee. And you feel kinda cool, slow-plunging the filter and decanting a touch more. Except the Mr. Smooth act doesn’t work that great ’cause they only give you a cardboard cup to drink it from.

This is when a guy comes in laden with bags of produce and groceries. Christian, the owner. “This part of town is full of history,” he says. “This is an 1896 building. See the concrete floor? We left all the markings from the different walls and counters people have had in here over the past century.”

He got ideas from wine bars he saw in, wow, Italy and Croatia and when he was down in Florianopolis in Brazil last year. The guy has quite a résumé. “I worked in L.A. for 16 years,” he says. “I started catering for a lot of the Hollywood crowd, Kevin Spacey, Elijah Wood, Adrien Brody, Kate Hudson. Then I got my own ‘green’ TV cooking show. NBC. I’d start each episode in a farmers’ market and bring it all back to my apartment in Santa Monica and tape the actual cooking there. It was a kick.”

Then he decided to come back home to San Diego. “I really feel I was meant to do this,” he says.

I notice that food on the evening menu is called bocaditos — small bites. Hummus, quesadillas, and meat-and-cheese plates go from $7–$13. Not bad if you can resist the wines. I have to ask: best deal for cheapos like me? “Come lunchtimes or during happy hour [5:00–7:00 p.m., Wednesday–Friday, and Sunday],” Christian says. “We do happy hour flatbreads [small pizzas] for $6, and I concoct a mean sangria filled with, like, peaches and plums and other fruit. That’s $5.”

Hmm. I go back to finishing off my panini. Look out the window, across Fourth to that empty block, to the lonely fig and the sky. I imagine the Florence Hotel in its heyday, with its sweeping driveway and carriages and elegant Victorian ladies, and an electric rail car that ran down Fourth, even back in the 1880s. Why can’t they rebuild it? Land’s clear. Note to self: Call that hotel developer guy, Manchester. “Hi, Doug. Ed. Want you in on the ground floor on this.…”

The Place: Wet Stone Wine Bar and Café, 1927 Fourth Avenue (between Fir and Grape), 619-255-2856

Type of Food: American

Prices: lunch items, e.g. Stonefruit Salad, with peaches, plums, Danish bleu cheese, roasted pumpkin seeds, $7; mango salad (baby greens with mango, Bartlett pears, goat cheese, caramelized walnuts, $7; turkey panini with French Brie, Danish bleu, $6; shiitake mushroom panini with Gruyère, spinach, $6; chicken panini with Dutch Gouda, $6; roast beef panini with Muenster, onion, $6; evening bocaditos — “small bites” — include meat-and-cheese plate (chorizo, sopressata, prosciutto, cheeses), $9 or $13; hummus with dates, olive variety, mint, pita, $8; quesadilla de guayaba, $7

Hours: lunch, 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m., Tuesday–Friday; evening, 5:00–10:00 p.m., Wednesday–Sunday; closed Mondays

Buses: 3, 120

Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and Fir (3, northbound); Fifth and Elm (120, northbound); Fourth and Fir (3, southbound); Fourth and Date (120 southbound)

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This place sounds great! But is the food really classifiable as "American"?

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