1454 Camino del Mar, Del Mar
When the time came for Randy Gruber to name his first restaurant, a corner eatery on Del Mar's main drag, he chose Americana because "the name rolls off your tongue and it works well for a sort-of breakfast, lunch, and dinner place that's not too formal, not too casual." He might have chosen it for any number of other reasons, beginning with its origins as the dream of a man who, American-style, wanted to do just a little better than his father. "My dad owns a chain of luncheonette coffee shops in New York. He taught me the business. But I wanted more wine, a finer dining experience. So I would open my dad's restaurant at four in the morning, work a long day, then go to the French Culinary Institute in New York at night."
Gruber managed one of his father's shops. When the lease expired, he scouted locations for a restaurant of his own in the city but never found anything. He spent a summer cooking at Estia, "this funky coffee shop in Amagansett that put down tablecloths at night and did more of a bistro thing. The chef had his own organic garden that he would pull produce out of and use as specials." After that, it was back to managing in NYC, first at a diner, then at one of chef/restaurateur Matthew Kenney's restaurants.
In 1988, Gruber met his bride-to-be and followed her to Boston, where she had a medical fellowship. "I was lucky enough to get a position at Biba, one of the city's foodie destinations. I was the rounds cook; I gave everybody their day off. I did sauté, I did grill, I did pantry. They had a wood-fired pizza oven and a huge pastry department. I probably needed to have all these different job experiences to do my own restaurant."
A year later, the couple moved to San Diego, and after an arduous search, Gruber found his location: the Del Mar branch of Terryl Gavre's Café 222. She sold him the space, and gradually, he redecorated to fit his restaurant's new name: seafoam beadboard wainscoting, brushed nickel lamps, weathered furniture, paintings of jazz musicians. At first, Gruber held to the corner eatery's traditional role as a breakfast/lunch spot, outfitting his version with not only the de rigueur fresh-squeezed OJ, but also fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and an array of goodies baked in-house. He changed the bacon that Gavre had been using at Café 222, but the customers noticed, and let him know. Gruber followed the will of the people and went back to Hormel Old Smokehouse. When I visited, I learned why. Too often, bacon -- one of the chief pleasures of the big American breakfast -- curls away from the pan during cooking, leaving patches of white fat. Americana's side of bacon lay flat, the straps of meat striped with yellow fat, and it chewed the way cured pork should. The finish, laced with applewood smoke, was a bonus. (When Gruber started serving dinners, that same democratic spirit led him to switch the crust on the tuna from coriander to sesame seeds, and the bread spread from variously flavored bean purée to whipped butter spiked with garlic, thyme, and rosemary. "When you open a restaurant, you've got to listen to your customers, see what comes back on the plate, and adapt.")
He also stuck with Gavre's choice of waffle mix but added a proprietary twist "to make it crispy and light." The twist did its job; by the middle of breakfast, my wife Grace was saying, "I keep going back to the waffle. I can't stop eating it. The sponginess holds up; the waffle never gets heavy or cloying. Crisp on the outside -- perfect texture." Between the whipped cream, the berries, and the shredded coconut on top, she said, "You almost don't need syrup." The French toast was similarly wolfed down, but its cinnamon and egg were overshadowed by a waffley cloud.
The waffle was supposed to be secondary; Grace's main order had been Dylan's Eggs Benedict, which added roasted tomato and smoked bacon to the usual eggs/muffin/hollandaise combo. (The menu promised arugula, but we couldn't find any, unless it was hidden in the accompanying pile of greens.) Everything else was in place: the yolks ran, the whites stood firm, the hollandaise held together and didn't weigh everything down. Basil complemented the lemon in the sauce, and the English muffins made a pillow for it all -- but the tomatoes, their flavor intensified by roasting and perfumed with garlic, carried the day. "They're ripe, and it's not an afterthought," said Grace.
I was happy munching my Roman Breakfast: mounds of prosciutto shavings sandwiched between English muffin halves, tomatoes, mozzarella, and fried eggs. One thick slice of meat would not have been as pleasant, though mild as the shavings were, they still smothered the fresh mozzarella. "It's a good thing we can't afford to live here," I mused to Grace as we sat on the side patio, gazing through the Plexiglas at a patch of ocean. "I'd be here all the time in the morning, and even fatter than I am now." (For the more body-conscious, there is the Del Mar Powerhouse breakfast, made with six scrambled egg whites. The restaurant also makes its own granola.)
But Gruber never forgot his desire for "fine dining," and he never forgot Estia -- the way it would turn from coffee shop to bistro come suppertime. During Americana's first months, Gruber served breakfast and lunch and remodeled in the evenings. Right before race season of 2001, he broke out the tablecloths and opened for dinner. It was hard to shake the venue's reputation as a daytime eatery. "I overstaffed for that first summer," he says, looking back. "I would make money during the day and lose it at night. I thought I wrote a pretty good menu, but people just didn't think of the place. But we keep putting it out there and making improvements," and the evening traffic has picked up some. He won a liquor license through the lottery system. Recently, he added his version of chef Todd English's version of New Haven's "paper-thin pizzas." It's something for the masses: lower-priced but still interesting -- Gruber mentions a topping combo of fig, prosciutto, and Gorgonzola -- and he hopes it will build volume. "It's not like Sam Ladeki's, or Del Mar Pizza, or Il Fornaio's. It's a very wet dough, and it's got whole-wheat flour in it."