789 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
The menu calls Quality Social “a bar with food.” It’d be more accurate to say “a serious casual eating place with a bar.” You could call the menu “pub grub,” but that’d be like calling foie gras terrine “chopped liver.” It’s mainly “blue collar” food uplifted to exigent standards of ingredient-quality and craftsmanship. Had I known how serious the food would be, I’d have waited a few months and come back with a party of six to really wring it out. But the management’s faux-cavalier attitude fooled me: I thought a quick scout with a buddy would do it. It won’t, and I’ll be back, and meanwhile, people looking for good food at relaxed prices in a relaxed atmosphere will get the word that they can find some tasty eats here in this most unlikely setting.
The chef, Jared Van Camp, calls it a “next-generation dive bar.” (Sorry, I’ve sampled enough dive bars to say this ain’t one.) It occupies the cavernous 9000-square-foot space at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and F Street, previous home to Exy (the lame self-hating Greek restaurant/disco) and before that a nice Nevada-based steakhouse. No exterior signage identifies it; the signs say only “Food” over an X formed by a crossed knife and fork. Currently, the website is one big “help wanted” ad, but the chef responded to an early Chowhound post with “We have an irreverent list of rules about no name-dropping, no tribal tattoos, no douchebags, no star-f#*&ing, no Ed Hardy, no fist-pumping, no disco, no Affliction, no ironic mustaches, no wtf/lol/omg, no shiny shirts.” The menu also bears crossed circles indicating “No Bottle Service” and “No Disco.” Like, “If you’re looking for Stingaree, head south right this minute!” Given the food and the ’tude, it sounds as if it belongs more in North Park than the Gaslamp.
There are two large rooms. At my visit, the right-hand room was dark, illuminated only by a bar against the back wall. The cozier (but still huge) room to the left has a large wraparound bar in the middle, the main source of lighting. Raised black leatherette booths on a low platform line the north wall. That Sunday evening, the barstools were well populated by couples in their 20s or 30s, a hopeful sign for a Social future in this difficult location. “I can’t believe it — no flat-screen TVs!” said my buddy Sam. “Even little sushi bars have them now!” My joy at this discovery was unbounded. Nothing ruins a date or a good conversation like TV, even muted — all male eyes are mesmerized, more interested in the stupid sports scores than in possibly “scoring.” The sound level’s pretty loud, though, even though the music wasn’t awful. Seemed to be mainly what Sam called “bad British boys making noise” and dipped into several decades (nearly all post-’60s).
We began with a quartet of raw oysters farm-raised in Carlsbad, perfectly shucked but very salty. I liked the complex sweet-tart house cocktail sauce, which was not much like the conventional ketchupy version. Bacon-wrapped dates (not commercial bacon but house-cured pork belly), stuffed with blue cheese and minced walnuts, are a total treat, rivaling the paragons at Whisknladle. Deviled eggs are truly devilish, dyed red with hot smoked paprika. And “boquerones” prove a manly man’s version of the classic Spanish tapa, substituting local sardines for anchovies and curing them in a fiercely acidic mixture so they taste like strong bottled herring.
The house-made charcuterie assortment was the initial attraction for me — because I love pâtés and smoked or cured meats, am awed by the effort it takes to make them, and, especially, because these various meats are the basis of most of the house sandwiches. With a choice of 12, I slanted toward the French selections because (unlike the Italian ones) I know how they’re made and how they should taste. The pork pâté de campagne (country-style) is classic in fat-to-lean texture, wrapped in thin slices of belly-pork and served atop lightly toasted baguettes thinly spread with butter and coarse mustard. It has chunks of cornichon pickles cooked into it (in France, these are served on the side), along with green peppercorns. The soft, fatty chicken-liver mousse resembled the one I ate recently at Blanca, but for a major technical slipup: livers for mousse are ideally sautéed to a dark rosy pink before they’re puréed. Although the interior of the mousse was the proper pink, some of the livers must have been overcooked brown, leaving a faintly bitter, liverish flavor and a gritty texture, calling for a push through an ultra-fine sieve. The potted rillettes were also the texture of mousse (rather than the classic chopped-up meat or poultry). They consisted of shredded mystery-meat (pork? duck?) thoroughly embraced by duck fat.
On the Italian side, I couldn’t resist trying the whipped lardo (“Italian butter,” the menu calls it) spread on toasted baguette croutons — my first chance to fully experience this trendy favorite in quantity enough to learn what it actually tastes like. It tastes utterly delicious — but it’s got to be the fattiest fat in the known world. It fills you up in two bites. And later in the night, you crave more. It tastes like…a distilled essence of pork, sweet and friendly, sly and meaty, like no other meat.
As for Finnochiona (more typically spelled with a single n in the first syllable), it’s a salami flavored with fennel seeds. Served in large, thin rounds, it’s fatty, salty, slightly lacy. To my tastes, it really wants an accompaniment of a rich, assertive cheese such as fontina or provolone — or perhaps one of the California goudas on the cheese list. (It must be terrific in the Italian sub sandwich here.) The charcuterie comes with grilled bread and house-made sweet bread-and-butter pickles. We also ordered a “pot of market pickles,” which included carrots, beets, green tomatoes, each with a different cure. This seems like an apt-enough moment to mention that each table receives an assortment of a half-dozen house-made condiments poured into empty gourmet beer bottles — coarse mustard, barbecue sauce, ketchup, et al. Can’t say I’d know when to use them, since most items seem pretty well condimented in advance.
Had to try a side dish of macaroni and cheese made with stilton blue, cheddar, and gruyère, topped with buttered breadcrumbs. I love mac ’n’ cheese and keep seeking a great restaurant version, always encountering disappointments. The blue cheese raised my hopes, the dish itself dashed them — buttery and mild, with gruyère up front and the stronger cheeses suppressed. The pasta is a thick, hearty type (e.g., penne or ziti) and could handle more bite from strong cheese.
For our grand finale, Sam and I shared a wonderful Portuguese Fisherman’s Stew that blended hunks of salt cod with shrimp, mussels, Carlsbad clams (which, like the Carlsbad oysters, are very salty), piquillo peppers, and minced chistorra sausage, all in a lively, thin tomato-based broth, topped with a slab of bread coated with boldly garlicky aioli. We were both pleased by the lightness of the tomato presence and especially by the tenderness of all the seafood.
“I wish I had enough appetite left to try the charred octopus,” said Sam, “seeing that the kitchen’s good with seafood.” “Or the Belgian mussels in ale,” I added. But we also wanted the local asparagus salad with “45-minute egg,” an indication of slow-poaching sous-vide. And we’d love to try the duck wings in harissa (Moroccan spice paste) with cucumber-mint raita.
The hamburgers are made from semi-free-range, near-local Brandt beef (from Brawley), and “ground daily” is the signal that the meat is probably safe to order pretty rare, indicating no weird, germy ankle-trimmings from Brazil, Bolivia, et al. The “our way” version, dressed with that delicious aioli, includes cheddar, house-made bacon, and a fried egg, plus the usual veggies, As for the hotdogs, they’re made from scratch! Served “our way,” they’re topped Chicago style with pickle relish, onions, tomatoes, and sport peppers.
Among the sandwiches, the BLT is made with pork-belly confit, arugula, fried green tomatoes, and aioli. The reuben has house-made pastrami. The Italian sub has a house-cured salumi mixture plus provolone, et al. Even the grilled cheese sounds like grown-up bliss, with Sonoma Cheese Company cheddar on a brioche with a creamy tomato soup “back.”
There’s also an exciting selection of artisan California cheeses. Only problem: cheeses go best with wines. (Okay, some go with beers or ales.) I’ve read that somewhere in the realms of darkness here, there are wine vaults — but they’re apparently still largely empty. When we asked for a wine list, our waitress dashed to the bar and came back with a handwritten list of four California reds by the glass (including a pink zin), none of which Sam or I had ever heard of. I stuck with weak $10 margaritas, Sam experimented with various artisan beers. I presume that wines are on their way. (I’d also like to suggest that the creative-but-lean cocktail choices expand a bit into tropic trendy-land, e.g., caipirinhas, hurricanes, mojitos, maybe even something silly, like a “Blue Hawaii,” which is easy to make and not all that frou-frou. Being a “dive bar” doesn’t mean your cocktail list has to echo some godforsaken joint in Lubbock, Texas, circa 1975. I’ve already done enough Jack back in real dive bars before it was safe to order Chardonnay west of Chicago or east of California. I want fun drinks now, and I don’t wear no damn shiny shirts since a long, long time ago.)
In sum: difficult location, good place. Wish they’d taken over South Park Grille instead; that’d be more apropos for the menu and the attitude. “Serious casual food” is an oxymoron, but that’s precisely what’s happening here. As I said earlier, this was just a scout — Sam and I both want to come back and dive into the burgers, dogs, and sandwiches — but so far we like it lots.
789 Sixth Avenue (corner of F Street), 619-501-7675, qualitysocial.com.
HOURS: Weekdays 5:00 p.m.–2:00 a.m.; Friday–Saturday 11:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m.; Sundays 11:00 a.m.–midnight.
PRICES: “Bar snacks,” $2–$5; house-made charcuterie, $4 ($15/plate of five); artisanal cheeses, $3–$4 ($15/plate of four); starters and light entrées, $6–$15; hotdogs, burgers, sandwiches, $6–$13; sides, $5–$6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Creative, artisanal “pub grub” with mainly local seafood and vegetables, house-made ingredients. Long list of beers and booze, but pitiful choice of wines at present.
PICK HITS: Stuffed dates; pâté de campagne; Fisherman’s Stew. Good bets: Most of the menu, including local asparagus salad; duck wings; Brandt beef burger “our way” with egg, cheddar, aioli; Chicago-style “our way” house-made hotdog; sandwiches with house-cured meats (e.g., reuben, Italian sub).
NEED TO KNOW: This review is a “scout” rather than a full work-up; many dishes yet untasted. Exterior signs on restaurant say only “Food X.” Hip metrosexual ambience. Loud music (rock of ages, though mainly recent), dim lighting except at bar, no TVs, no bottle service, no disco, no “shiny shirts,” gobsmacked footballers, women named after booze varieties stronger than sherry, or women named Kardashian. Mainly carnivorous, a few lacto-vegetarian selections.