There’s also a difference in the drinks. No sodas, just weird bottles of tea, like Kombucha 2000. “It’s fermented tea, from the kombucha mushroom,” says Alice. “Really great for energy and antioxidants.”
It should be, at $4.35 each bottle.
But this is a friendly little place, with a small, two-umbrella patio, cream-and-chocolate-colored walls inside, decorated with bamboo and rattan and tiki carvings and Chinese fans. A string of Buddhist-style flags gives the Chinese characters for love, happiness, peace, wisdom, tranquility, courage. There’s definitely a feeling of camaraderie — “We, the few, the proud” — which gets everybody talking. Vegans explain things to their reticent carnivore mates, as though teaching a kid. It’s not hard to learn, with two dozen “burgers” and hot “dogs” to try. No reason this little refuge can’t become a delicious center for dialog between our two cultures. Open 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Monday–Thursday; 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday; noon–10:00 p.m., Saturday; noon–9:00 p.m., Sunday.
Hillcrest / North Park / Kensington
4055 Adams Avenue, Kensington
This “neighborhood restaurant” in an upscale neighborhood is airy, handsome, rather noisy, and done up in woodsy Craftsman style. In good weather, the front patio offers quiet and people-watching. The menu is very “green” (local and organic when possible) and changes seasonally according to the zesty inspirations of the chef, alpha-griller Hanis Cavin, whose fine rapport with his kitchen staff assures consistently well-executed dishes of California cuisine with Asian touches. Recent price reductions and affordable wines put the tab at moderate. – Naomi Wise
3940 Fourth Avenue #110, Hillcrest
Tucked downstairs (with nearby elevator) is your Arabian knight, aka witty, hospitable chef-owner Moumen Nouri, presiding over this no-frills Moroccan bistro (with pretty fabric art), where he treats everyone like an honored dinner-party guest. Western-style table seating meets authentic North African cuisine, with its wealth of savory spices in dishes like B’stilla (filo-topped chicken pie), merguez (lamb-beef sausage), and lamb shank tagine, stewed with honey, fruit, and almonds (plus the requisite kebabs). Vegan heaven, with grazes and a rich entrée. Affordable wines. Grazing inexpensive, otherwise moderate. – Naomi Wise
2302 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights
The decor is frankly dumpy but comical, with multilingual graffiti scribbled by diners all over the walls and rather antic Slavic service to match. But the Georgian food is a revelation of complex, sometimes spicy flavors, including knockout, meaty, herb-strewn borscht (nothing like the bottled version), superb house-smoked fresh-caught fish and meats, richly exotic stews. It’s a joyous voyage of discovery. Moderate. – Naomi Wise
2204 Fern Street, South Park
Come in here at dusk, and you can’t help wondering: Is this a bar, a burger joint, or a preschool playground? Kids play in a giant sandpit, dogs race around trees, moms hold wineglasses at plank tables, guys group around the inside-outside bar chewing burgers and downing beers. Station is a uniquely family- and cool-cat-friendly place built on the site of the old triangular Snippy’s Tavern (the old — like, 1880 — trolley tracks once sliced through this block). Burgers are excellent. Can’t miss with the vegetarian spicy black-bean burger plus sweet-potato-and-garlic fries. Prices: $6–$10. – Ed Bedford
2877 University Avenue, North Park
Talk about continuity: the same family has been running this eatery since Grandfather arrived from Canton at the age of 27, setting up business in 1931. Since then, pretty much nothing has changed. Auntie Anna and Auntie Maria still bring your food out on three-tier stainless-steel serving trolleys, along with the free pot of black tea and drinking bowls. The prices have stayed low, too. Order chop suey, just because it’s the traditional Chinese-American (but not Chinese) dish of meat and veggies on rice. Decor is part of the experience: circle-glass swing doors, big cushioned red booths, mother-of-pearl pictures of misty Ming palaces, red-tasseled black hanging lanterns with translucent pictures of songbirds, huge painted fans — five feet across — on the walls, the shouts in Chinese from the kitchen. Prices: $5–$13. – Ed Bedford
Yes, it’s a Florida-based chain, but the pizzas are all organic, and they claim everything in the place is green. Corn-based drinking straws, tabletops made from wood from a demolished chicken barn in Northern California, renewable bamboo floors and walls, countertop of recycled bottles. Even the beer, Mate-Veza, is organic and “naturally caffeinated from yerba mate.” Best deal: Happy-hour personal pizzas. Add sweet Italian sausage for flavor. – Ed Bedford
Beaches: Coronado / OB / PB
Top Pick Naomi Wise
4000 Coronado Bay Road, Coronado
In this lovely room with panoramic views of the bay and the downtown skyline, some of the picked-today organic herbs and veggies are grown right on the grounds of the Loews Coronado; the rest come from nearby farms. The menu changes with the seasons, of course, and the cooking style is imaginative, cliché-free French-California. The chef is the prodigiously talented Patrick Ponsaty (one of our top-ten chefs, as he was ten years ago when he cooked at El Bizcocho).
Most appetizers are gossamer light, showcasing those great vegetables and often paired with delicate seafoods like Dungeness crab or earthy mushrooms like morels. If you’re very good, you may even luck into the occasional special of Ponsaty’s layering of velvety poached foie gras with eel (yes, eel, an amazing combination that won a major chef contest award in Europe). In fact, order any special that’s offered to you — the regular menu is fine, but in the specials, chef Patrick can break loose from the limited palates of hotel guests and business parties and really get cooking!
After several renovations, the look of the dining room is airy, casual, and Mediterranean. It’s quiet (unless a large party is seated in the bar area), with the tables and banquettes well spaced, and every table has a water view. The venue remains one of the most comfortable and romantic restaurants in this area. Better yet, you need not dress up fancy, nor bring a heavy platinum card — it’s a bit of a splurge (most entrées in the $20s) but a relatively lightweight splurge (not the least bit exorbitant). No vegetarian entrées, but this veggie-endowed kitchen can accommodate most dietary restrictions (except maybe kosher or hallal) upon request. Validated parking at hotel porte cochere.