Walleye? No. Ahi tuna invading en masse.
1360 North Harbor Drive, San Diego
We arrive at six bells. They’re ringing out aboard the Star of India. Love it! (We’re talking 3 pm, landlubber’s time.) Pursuant to our campaign to find places with a ton of fresh air blowing in, the Scottish Lady and I are down here at the Embarcadero beside the Star of India, but actually staring at this egg-shaped glass geodesic dome. Brand new. It juts out over the waters, right beside what looks like a giant black sushi roll.
“What da...?” I start to say.
“It’s a restaurant,” says Annie. “Och, it’s ane, twa, tree, four restaurants!”
She’s right. Starting at the geodesic dome, they have Portside Gelato and Coffee, then Miguel’s Cocina, then The Brigantine, and upstairs, Topsail, which looks like the upscalest of them all. And the good Covid news is they all have this sea breeze sifting fresh Pacific air through the place. It turns out these guys opened only a couple of weeks ago. But no shortage of customers. This being the Embarcadero, tourists are traipsing in and out all day long. That doesn’t mean food’s cheap. Here at the Brigantine, small plates start at $10 (for most soups and salads), and top out at $23, for shrimp and crab Louie. Large plates start at $24 (chicken Milanesa), and go up to $55 for lobster tails.
Upper deck: At sunset it’s the place to be.
“Forget it,” says Annie. Except this is when the receptionista goes inside and comes back with a print-out page. “Happy Hour,” she says.
Oh yes. Now we’re talking. Basically all draft beers (and they have nine) go for $5 each, and so does a glass of house red or white wine. Food deals too. They include three oysters on the half shell, two oyster shooters, a plate of calamari strips, a bowl of clam chowder, potato skins, “Napa Valley Nachos” (whatever that means), a flatbread, and a house salad. Also a bunch of slider options like ahi tuna, Wagyu beef, fried fish, pulled pork, or “free birder” chicken. Not a bad set of choices for five Washingtons.
Oysters: surprisingly filling.
Of course, we have to wait. But that’s no pain. This is a spectacular building, with an even more spectacular view, once you get through the odd egg-roll back part. The glass frontage looks out at a Big Bay panorama from the Midway aircraft carrier on the left, around past the active-duty carriers at North Island, to Point Loma to HMS Surprise, the square-rigger frigate from Master and Commander, past B-39, the Russian sub, to — suddenly, in your face — the giant bowsprit of the Star of India. It really does make you go “Oh wow,” first glimpse you get. You sit down so close you feel you can touch her.
So Scottish Lady and I order a Karl Strauss Boat Shoes Hazy IPA each, which is kind of appropriate, because IPA — India Pale Ale — was what Star of India for sure carried out to the British troops stationed in “Inja” back in the 1860s. And it was the extra hops they threw in that kept the beer from going bad on the months-long voyage.
The skins: heaven in a spud.
So yeah, barista Julie’s waiting for us to get on with it. “Uh, the house salad?” says Annie.
“It’s got hearts of palm, cranberries, glazed pecans,” says Julie.
“I like sweet,” Annie says.
Dang. So do I, but since Ensenada, I’m also loving oysters again. So I get the three in half shell, plus — was there ever any contest? — the skins, five of them, bristling with bacon, chives, drooling golden cheddar. Dee-lish! But so are the oysters, with stinging horseradish and a sweet, tomatoey cocktail sauce.
The main magic of this place: The maritime world outside.
The hazy IPA goes down so well, we order another, while it’s still happy hour. And in the end, we’ve hung around so long chomping, slurping, and waiting for the sun to dip, we get the bowl of chowder and a slider, the ahi one, just to keep our seats. And, have to say, chowder’s great, but the slider, with its big chunk of tuna flesh and a wasabi-soy aioli that’s not shy about giving you a slow burn, is the top story of the day.
And guess what? Next afternoon, we’re back, this time to Miguel’s. (Nice touch is the walkway around all four restaurants is open to the public.) And here, kinda roasting in the afternoon sun — there are no awnings — we check their HH offerings. As with the Brig, everything is $5. Along with more of that cloudy beer, Annie gets a cup of albondigas soup and a flatbread. And the flatbread is the deal. It’s nice and thin, but weighted down with jalapeños, olives, melted cheese, and Annie pays $4.25 extra for chicken. Scrumbo!
The $5 ahi slider.
Me, I go for the empanadas piccadillo. I’d feared there would be too much pan and not enough flavor, like some I’ve had. But no, these little half-circles are deep-fried, a little crispy, and full of ground beef, jack cheese, roasted corn. Plus guac and salsa, and a crema.
Only complaint is out on deck, they have no shade. People next door are so broiled they hang their menus from the glass barrier to shelter their faces. The crew takes pity on us and moves us into the shade, but hey, why didn’t the architects think of this?
Still, short of sailing away on the Star, this could be the newest, best experience on the waterfront.
- The Places: The Brigantine, Portside Pier, 1360 North Harbor Drive, The Embarcadero, 619-719-4960; Miguel’s Cocina, 1360 North Harbor Drive, The Embarcadero, 619-719-4962;
- Hours: 11am-10pm, daily (last orders, 9:30pm)
- Prices: Brigantine Happy Hour prices = $5 for: three oysters on the half shell; two oyster shooters; calamari strips; clam chowder; potato skins; Napa Valley Nachos; flatbread (with chicken, $9.25); house salad; sliders (with ahi tuna, wagyu beef, fried fish, pulled pork, or “free birder” chicken;
- Brigantine standard prices: BLT wedge salad, $10; chowder bowl, $10; cup, $7; shrimp and crab Louie, $23; chicken Milanesa, $24; lobster tails, $55
- Miguel’s Happy Hour prices = $5 for: Albondigas soup; Miguel’s flatbread; taqujitos (shredded beef or chicken); calamari strips, empanadas Piccadillo; flautas de carnitas y queso; guacamole; nachos; sopes (shredded beef or chicken); three carnitas tacos
- Buses: 280, 290, 923, 992
- Nearest Bus Stops: North Harbor Drive and Ash 280, 290 (southbound); 923, 992 (northbound);
- Trolley: Green Line
- Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy