Matthew Lickona 11:49 p.m., Dec. 10
So, I awake to an otherwise awesome Saturday, fire up the ol' email, and click open a message from one of our finest local chefs. What I see horrifies me; one of my favorite spots in San Diego is closing its doors...TODAY! My first selfish thought is, "great, not even enough time to change my plans to head over and get one more bite of some of the best, most current, tasty and beautifully-plated dishes in the entire city." After emailing the chef for deets about the closing, my sadness and wonderings become more wide-ranging, conjuring up questions I have no answers for.
Why did Red Velvet Wine Bar fail? Where will the chef end up next? Why can't places like this featuring immensely talented toques and food that's a cut above what we typically can find in SD never seem to last long in my hometown?
I don't have the answers to these questions, but I've always had an abundance of opinions. I don't proclaim to know everything and welcome your take on this latest tragedy (the cuisine and the esoteric wine list at Red Velvet was killer, something every food writer in SD agreed on...let me tell you, that NEVER happens and drives home the truth of it all), but here are my general thoughts.
Why did Red Velvet Wine Bar fail? Probably because the business model wasn't set up to succeed. Everything about the restaurant seemed too good to be true...except the prices. Having one of Chef Luke Johnson's exquisitely unique weekly-changing tasting menus was an expensive proposition at over $100, even if most tasting menus at upscale spots in town are around $100 (without wine) and Red Velvet's came with seven wines or seven BOTTLES of beer. Johnson's food was extremely labor-intensive (especially considering he worked in a cracker box of a kitchen) and all dished up a la minute. For a space that seated about 20, where the main draw was having a glass or two of vino, making enough money nightly to afford such a good chef, such high-end ingredients and justify all of Johnson's toiling, was a pie-in-the-sky notion. In fact, the whole concept - a smallish room where guests order as the whim hits them and then have a dish prepared on the spot then delivered and explained by the chef, while a dream for a diner, simply isn't feasible or sustainable. Red Velvet always came across as somebody's lofty, unrealistic vision brought to life as more of can-I-do-this deal than a should-I-do-this decision that had been scrutinized for profitability and long-term success. I always felt I was getting in on something that wouldn't be around forever and, as much as I love being right, I hate that I was in this case.
Where will the chef end up next? I have no idea, but can only hope it's somewhere in San Diego. Anything edible this guy touches turns to gold and any venue that employs him will be lucky to get him. Even in a more structured environment, he's sure to excel and make food people will be lucky to get their mouths around. He is a master of attaining proper balance and texture and plating food that looks like artwork you almost feel guilty about tearing to pieces with your utensils, despite the incredible pay-off that comes as a result. With any luck, Chef Johnson will let me know about his next steps and, hopefully, they won't beat a path out of town, for that would be the biggest food travesty to befall SD in a long time.
Why can't places like this featuring talented toques and food that's a cut above what we typically can find in SD never seem to last long in my much beloved hometown?
Well, on top of unrealistic business planning and execution, I fear that, even with the strides we've made as a dining city, our palates aren't ready to want, much less demand cuisinally-heightened fare and places that specialize in it like Red Velvet. I'll concede the point that Red Velvet didn't do much to get their name out there (although, they did employ a PR agency and got press as a result, they were still a best-kept secret type place on a side-street off of Little Italy's main drag), but in top-tier dining cities, foodies do the leg-work to find the next big thing or, after learning of it, venture out and give it a shot. That's not our mindset in laid back San Diego. Please know that I am not blaming anybody out there...but after decades spent living and loving America's Finest city, I know the make-up of our citizens and the impact our relaxed culture and environs have had in shaping it. Even I admit to being a bit lazy now and then and I live, eat, breathe and fantasize about food for goodness sake. We're just not very motivated as a population on the whole.
I'm confident we will evolve into one of America's Top 10 food metropolises. Actually, given the fact that most would be hard-pressed to name a more dining-dense burg beyond NYC, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Napa or Seattle, I'm willing to toss down the gauntlet and say we vie for one of those two remaining spots. It's just nobody outside SD knows how good we've gotten because when tourists come through, they're either from one of the eight aforementioned cities and have a chip on their shoulder, or come from someplace lamer than SD and proceed to flock to familiar chains and Gaslamp mass-apeal tourist traps without getting even a glimpse of what we have to offer.
But I believe and, despite this setback, continue to root for my native county with the fervor of a cheerleader raging with the manic energy buzz provided at the height of a massive sugar high. We WILL get there and I'll be that guy with knife and fork in-hand, gobbling up everything in site with a Kool-Aid Man smile. Don't lose faith SD foodies...it's gonna happen and, with any luck, Chef Johnson will continue to be a key contributor to our dining evolution.