There are many places I might enjoy a nice night out, and only one of them provides its most crucial component: good company. Which could be anybody. Probably the nicest night out I’ve had this year involved catching up over rich chocolate cake with my niece. But if I’m getting together with friends, or a date, there’s no question we’re getting dinner. If we’re celebrating something, let’s spend a couple hours sharing terrific food and drinks, maybe try something new. And if we’re celebrating a lottery win, I know exactly where to go. But first, let’s drop a bit of cash to attend the city’s most absurdly fun dinner party.
The cow half of this pop-up supper club refers to its five-course headliner: a 50-day dry-aged ribeye roast. The bear? That would be the chef, dressed in a goofy bear costume. Don’t ask why, just follow its absurdity to discover a uniquely memorable night out. Cow by Bear sets a single table for a maximum of 14 each Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, summoning ticketed guests to an impermanent location kept secret til the last moment. The quality of cooking and fine South American wine pairings almost justify the meal’s $195 price tag. But what really makes the experience worthwhile is the rare chance to dine with a dozen strangers enjoying conversations that get less predictable with each course. Before night’s end, you’ll find yourself posing with the bear for a souvenir photo, and I bet there’s a smile on your face.
2210 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Everybody’s got their favorite special occasion restaurant and, since opening two years ago, Herb & Wood has been mine. Its spacious, Cape Cod-inspired dining room and patio combo was designed for comfortable, leisurely meals, rather than rushed, turnaround seating. The depth and breadth of its menu demands communal exploration of small plates featuring fresh pâtés, smoked fish, seasonal vegetables, and desserts. And its wood firing kitchen lives up to restaurant’s name, applying deft use of smoke and seasoning to optimize the potential of delectable ingredients. If you’re going to spend 40 dollars on a whole roasted fish, it should be Herb & Wood’s branzino, wrapped in speck and served with an olive-chili tapenade. A worthy grilled alternative to steak is tender, marbled cut of acorn-fed Iberico pork, known as the “secreto.” I may need to schedule a few extra special occasions this year.
232 South Coast Highway, Oceanside
We can’t pretend San Diego has been forever clamoring for a great Indonesian restaurant, but Dija Mara’s opening last fall made it clear we’ve been missing out. Executive chef Ryan Costanza has worked with Michelin-starred and James Beard award-winning chefs, and his polished talents, combined with the unfamiliar-to-us flavor profiles of the Malay Archipelago, make Oceanside a must-visit for the food-devoted. The eatery’s casual vibe belies a dedication to slow cooking: a chunky house peanut sauce softens over 9 hours to nutty-spicy perfection; the pork belly cooks for 24; and the Sumatran-spiced short rib rendang ($18) gets a full, 48-hour treatment. Throughout the menu, dishes balance the likes of ginger, galangal, turmeric, chilies, and lemongrass, but a great place to start is the signature nasi goreng ($15): fried coconut rice with chicken confit, bay shrimp, pork belly, and fermented hot sauce (the sriracha-like sambal), topped by a fried egg.
1424 Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, Ocean Beach
Operated by three granddaughters of Dan Coulon, the chef behind once-revered Ocean Beach restaurant, The Belgian Lion, this tiny eatery sitting at the northern tip of Sunset Cliffs maintains a beachy, laid-back charm, even through weekend dinner service. But the cozy setting, approachable wine list, and French-inspired cuisine of chef Anne-Marie Coulon make Little Lion the natural successor to dearly-departed East Village bistro, Café Chloe. It’s the ideal choice for an off-the-cuff, romantic night out, requiring little fanfare, special attire, or planning ahead. Helping the cause is a rotating menu featuring a number of quality vegan options, supported by seasonal produce furnished by a family farm. Daily seafood entrees likewise hinge on seasonality, and may range from pan roasted local catch to traditional moules frites. My favorite from the summer menu would be the savory duck confit ($25), paired with brightly flavored peaches and cherries.
7777 University Avenue, La Mesa
San Diego’s loaded with upscale steakhouses providing decadent dining for the well-heeled carnivore. Riviera Supper Club is not one of them. Though its leather booths and stylish mid-century décor don’t necessarily live up to fine dining expectations, they offer too much atmosphere to let the place feel casual. And while finer steakhouses may offer excellent service to support charging $50-80 for a prime steak, Riviera offers choice cuts for a mere $12-38. Part of the savings has to do with the hooded grill at the center of Riviera’s dining room, where patrons get to season and grill their own steaks. Part of the result is a social dining room buzzing with the chatter of creative and blue collar East County residents here for the $24 bone-in ribeye, plus the classic strong cocktails and live music served from the Riviera’s resident bar, dubbed The Turquoise Room.
5200 Grand Del Mar Court, Del Mar
When a certain class of diner views San Diego, all they see is the Addison. The Grand Del Mar resort eatery has repeatedly earned five stars, five diamonds, and its chef William Bradley four nominations as a James Beard best chef. Credit the impeccable service: there’s enough space between its white linened tables to allow passage of an army of waitstaff. Credit the wine program, routinely counted among the best on the west coast, with well over 3000 well-chosen bottles. Most of all, credit the French-contemporary cuisine. Bradley’s kitchen runs with world-class efficiency, its execution flawless, and though not the dominion of instagram foodies, The Addison’s presentation proves artistic as any plating in Southern California. At $110 per person, the four-course prix fixe menu runs at special occasion prices even without wine pairing and tip. The $250 chef’s tasting menu? Consider that 50th birthday or 25th anniversary special.
1430 Union Street, Little Italy
It almost doesn’t matter where you begin your nice night out, nor who it’s with, as long as you wind up at Extraordinary Desserts. In the ten years I’ve been visiting this Little Italy location (there’s another at 2929 5th Avenue, Bankers Hill), I have yet to find a time there isn’t a line of sweet-loving souls waiting to access the lux pattisserie. I don’t begrudge anyone the wait: one simply cannot rush the difficult dessert choices waiting within: a long glass counter shows off dozens of opulent treats, from adorable petit fours to generous slices of elegant multi-layer cakes, typically costing between $6 and $14. Deciding on salted caramel butterscotch pecan, truffle framboise, or triple chocolate mousse demands patience and rumination. Enjoy the time spent, be it with a romantic partner, parent, child, sibling, niece, friend, or elected official. It’s easy to bond with anyone over something so sweet.