1450 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
It's safe to say the food hall concept has been embraced in San Diego — at least by investors. East Village saw one open earlier this year with Bottega Americano, while nearby Market Hall promises to open any day and a huge effort in Liberty Station is in the works. The concept is simple enough: fill a huge space with multiple food stations where people can order sandwiches, or pizza, or cured meats and cheese, and then eat in a massive shared dining space. It's not terribly different from a mall food court, except you won't find a JC Penney nearby, and the food should be drastically superior to a Sbarro.
I recently checked out the 10,000 square foot, Italian-owned Pan Bon ("good bread"), a straight-outta-Verona concept that recently opened in Little Italy. Immediately upon walking inside I was impressed, if only for its magnificent scope. The huge two-plus story space looks fabulous, with a series of food stations along the left wall and a patchwork of raw wood cuttings tastefully collaging the entire right side. The back wall — quite far from the entrance — features a large picture window looking into a lively kitchen.
On closer inspection, that wood-piece design looks pretty inexpensive, mostly comprised of two-inch thick flats attached to a simple framework. While this maybe dampens the illusion of grandeur, it's certainly smart given the size of this space, and actually has the effect of adding a hint of rustic-to-industrial vibe, which jibes with the times.
Deciding what to eat may prove challenging. You're immediately met by a patisserie, followed by an organic bakery. The all-day approach means you can belly up to a counter and find some breakfast dishes, buy some salumi, get yourself a thick slab of heat-and-serve lasagna or custom order a big salad. There's pizza by the slice, and whole pies after 5 p.m. Most of the space is cafeteria seating, but if you drift all the way to the back you'll find table service.
Despite the Italian origins of the place, I wasn't surprised to see breakfast items include scrambled eggs and pancakes. I was kind of startled to see hamburgers featured alongside the handmade pasta dishes. I got a glance at one of those burgers, and it looked impressive. Instead I settled on the ciabatta Pan Bon ($15), made with belly veal, scamorza (stretched cow milk cheese), braised onions, and bacon.
The veal came in strips, but not the bacon, which instead came in thick little cubes that mixed beautifully with those onions. The ciabatta itself was outstanding, lacking the dryness I often associate with this sort of bread. My willfully gluten-free lunch mate even tried some, since they promised all grains were organic, sourced from northern Cali, and unlikely to rouse certain sensitivities among non-celiac gluten-avoiders.
We also split the calamarata carbonara ($11), which served some of those same bacon chunks in a yolky, buttery, and peppery sauce over wide tubular ribbons of fresh organic pasta (calamarata, named for its calamari-like shape). These noodles had a satisfying bite half-worth the entire meal. On the whole, both dishes far, far exceeded anything from Sbarro, and the great open atmosphere convinced me — maybe there is something to this food hall thing. At least, this one's pretty solid. And I haven't even mentioned the delightfully sweet little pastry mignons I got for dessert.