Amid a vibrant social dining scene like ours, it’s easy to take restaurants for granted. Their very existence becomes a matter of convenience. We are either too busy or too lazy to cook, and keeping up appearances means seeing and being seen at whatever eatery trends moment to moment. As a result, few restaurants are really special because dining out isn’t just for celebration now, it’s an obligatory part of life.
When I was a little kid, going out was a treat. It was a special occasion in and of itself. I want to reconnect with that, so here are some restaurants worth treating as occasions, no celebration necessary. It’s like if Grandma gave you a 10-dollar bill, then 50 more dollars, and said, “Treat yourself to something nice.”
1250 Prospect Street, La Jolla
TBL3 at George’s California Modern
One, made-up word: TBL3.
Worth. Every. Penny. And then some. This is where I had the second-best meal of my life, and it surely wins my vote as the best meal in San Diego, bar none. There are equally (and more) expensive destinations, and there are menus of equal complexity, but Trey Foshee’s kitchen produces a most uniquely San Diegan fine-dining experience. Maybe it’s the view of the Cove, or maybe it’s the tendency to incorporate ingredients like fried krill, or local honey that tastes like a blooming lavender field somewhere in East County. Either way, TBL3 personalizes worldwide sensibilities like nowhere else. If experiencing TBL3 doesn’t make you a little more proud to be an SD gastronome, just GTFO; maybe move to New York.
838 W. Ash Street, Little Italy
Shino Sushi + Kappo
Shino makes me glad I was born before humanity leaves the sea a barren, lifeless wasteland. It’s not possible to understand sushi, not truly, without having eaten at a spot of this caliber. Of course, I’ve gone casual to Shino, sat at a table, nibbled some small plates, enjoyed a few bites of world-class sushi, and not made a big deal of it. It’s possible to do that. But, gluttonous American that I am, I’ve also gone to Shino, bellied up to the sushi bar, and eaten sushi until I could eat nothing more. The perfect sushi experience lies somewhere in between. Respect the Japanese concept of hara hachi bu; i.e. “eating to 80% fullness,” and enjoy.
514 Via de la Valle, Solana Beach
Much like those irksome people who say they don’t like the Beatles, anyone who claims he had a bad meal at Pamplemousse is either lying or pathetically trying to be cool. Unlike many fine-dining spots, the menu here doesn’t aspire to be edible art; it aspires to be delicious, and it unfailingly succeeds. It’s not that Pamplemousse is the best restaurant, it’s that Pamplemousse is unflappably itself at any time, and that particular self carries an understated glory second to few. Service, food, wine, and the ambiance here achieve a Groundhog Day level of consistency that most other restaurants could only hope to match.
640 Tenth Avenue, East Village
I’m a snob. Sometimes, I need to nibble genteelly at flowers and sniff balloons of scented air to experience an unforgettable dinner. Other times, I must sit down with nothing but 18 ounces of bone-in ribeye (dry aged for 35 days) and a bottle of Opus One in front of me. Cowboy Star feeds the primal hunger of the latter option better than anyone else in town, while at the same time managing to sneak a bit of elegance and artfulness in around the edges. It’s a snob’s steakhouse dream.
2335 Morena Boulevard, Bay Park
I confess, at the peak of hipster farm-to-table dining’s dominance over the American palate, the younger me appreciated this place as an ironic blast from the past. I didn’t really get it till I tried to go there without a reservation and I was turned away. Like any self-entitled product of modernity, I wanted to pout and blame the restaurant. I wished for undeserved accommodation. That was wrong. Old Trieste reminds us of nothing so much as the dying tendency for ladies and gentlemen to make appointments and to keep them. You want to eat here? Make a reservation, wear a jacket, and polish up your best manners. I promise, it will be good for you.
910 Prospect Street, La Jolla
As a rule, I don’t want to be thinking about saving money when occasional dinners roll around, but this restaurant’s “Mercy of the Chef” tasting menu is one of the better deals in town. For true thrift, the restaurant offers half-price bottles of wine on Wednesdays, providing a great opportunity to take advantage of an excellent, if somewhat quirky, wine list. Budgetary concerns aside, Nine-Ten is a longstanding bastion of excellence in San Diego’s restaurant scene; absolutely worth the asking price and more. This is also probably the only spot on my list I’d recommend for brunch (which I normally avoid), due to the pastries’ deserved reputation.