John Brandi 9 p.m., Sept. 17
One quick trip to the mall later...
Hey, San Diego. I just want you to know I appreciate you.
A while back I ate at, of all places, the Outback Steakhouse. Judge me not. There was a gift certificate involved and a certain amount of curiosity. I hadn't eaten at one of the popular "casual dining" chains in a while. The last time it happened (also for the sake of not wasting a gift certificate) was a trip to the Mission Gorge Chillis, which was a terrible meal but had merits similar to the trip to Outback. Sometimes, it's very valuable to step outside the bubble and gain a little perspective.
I could go into detail about the sheer badness of my dinner at the Outback Steakhouse. I could start with how the host sat me at a dirty table, follow with the way my server dumped plates onto the table with an artful mix of scorn and carelessness, and finish with the calculated mediocrity of the food.
But what would be the point in that? Of course it sucked. That was no surprise. The piece of cognitive dissonance, the teachable moment, came from elsewhere.
The initial shock was in how easy it is to step outside the confines of the local scene. Four steps into the mall and, as my friend put it, “I might as well have been in Wiconsin.” Or Florida, or Los Angeles, or anywhere that there’s an Outback. For people who spend their time cruising around some of our colorful neighborhoods, it’s easy to forget that Hillcrest or North Park end. Sounds a little goofy, but it’s true. Despite the fact that I spend many of my days exploring and thinking about the diverse restaurant community in San Diego, I often take it for granted.
True, our scene has its ups and downs. But at least it’s a distinct culture, shaped by the people who live here and somehow representative of those same people in a socially meaningful way. It’s valuable to appreciate the ways the restaurants in San Diego share commonalities--local flavors, if you will--that make the scene uniquely ours.
At its best, our food culture ties together the unbelievable climate, the proximity of a radically different country, surfers, hipsters, hippies, hop sniffers, and everything else that’s going on in town.
Even the bad stuff, like the fact that San Diego’s table servers are almost universally inept, softens a little when I consider the background culture. Our waitstaff may be overpaid and incompetent, but at least they’re consistent and failing in the same, uniquely San Diegan way.
This was initially going to be a pensive inquiry into bourgeois attitudes at local restaurants (I know, right?), but it turned into an admiration and I think that says something. That trip to the mall for an inferior steak polished the cloudy goggles of jaded familiarity that threaten to make me see the world with curmudgeonly eyes. I guess a little reality check is a good thing.
1640 Camino Del Rio North