If you read a certain misguided Food & Wine article recently, you know that San Diego's dining scene is good enough to backhanded compliment, but "not the sort of thing you travel for."
3040 Carlsbad Boulevard, Carlsbad
To that I say: come on back in a couple months and see if you don't change your mind. Because you can argue San Diego restaurants don't measure up with the best of cities like New York and San Francisco, but San Diego offers something other metro areas can't when winter strikes: comfortable outdoor dining.
Take this summer's addition to Carlsbad Village: Park 101. The coast highway property is less a restaurant than a courtyard dining room and beer garden served by several discrete food and drink components. Along with a grab and go deli, coffee counter, and rooftop deck; a BBQ counter dishes up smoked beef, pork, fish and fowl, plus a full complement of Southern side dishes.
That's where I found a hearty lunch during a sunny weekend afternoon, surrounded by a healthy mix of families and young adults enjoying the weather. This was the second day of autumn, so most of the country still had pleasant enough weather. But I can't imagine a single New Yorker who wouldn't rather be here when the needle drops below 50 degrees out east.
Would I recommend anyone travel for the food at Park 101? Not really. I liked it well enough, but for fast casual at this price point, you're mostly paying for proximity to the beach.
You can fine-tune your BBQ counter experience thanks to its freewheeling policy to give out tasting samples. I was able to determine the smoked salmon and swordfish were each a touch fishier than I prefer. I could tell I wanted the $7 roasted Brussels sprouts to be more tender, and less bitter beneath the balsamic glaze. I learned the $7 smoked cheddar mac and cheese might be the best thing on the menu.
But I was feeling the $17 brisket platter. Served with two sides, pickles, and a slice of white bread, I chose heaping portions of coleslaw and collard greens (the mac isn't offered as a side dish). The coleslaw was unremarkable. The collard greens were more pork than greens, leaving the pork bland and the greens bitter. The brisket was a dry overall, but benefitted from a black char and rendered fat — get a bite with one or both of those in it, and now you've got something.
But the atmosphere around Park 101 is hard to beat after a beach day. It's best enjoyed with a group of friends or relatives, sharing a pile of agreed upon proteins and side dishes, drying off in the sun, laughing and playing games.