To many people, San Diego is the U.S. Naval Submarine Base and Air Station, the museums in Balboa Park and the renowned San Diego Zoo. But to food fanatics like me, San Diego is the birthplace of the organic food revolution.
In the 1970s, Alice Waters, champion of farm-to-table cuisine and owner of the renowned Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California, tasted some organic haricots verts from Tom Chino’s small San Diego farm stand. From this clutch of slender green beans, the food revolution in America was born. Waters says, “I thought taste had to do with cooking, but it has to do with farming.”
As it happened, I was in the area on a certain Sunday when Waters came again to Chino Farms, now spread across 47 acres of manicured farmland, to autograph her book, 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering. Refreshments were served. Not surprising that throngs came to catch a glimpse of the high priestess of organic cuisine. Her influence has spread across the world like smooth crème fraîche over organic berries.
I believed that, with Chino Farms and other organic ranches in its own back yard, San Diego would offer a feast of culinary experiences—and I set out to prove it.
A scenic drive across the distinctively curved Coronado Bay Bridge brings us to the iconic Hotel del Coronado, with its whimsical turrets, covered verandas and asymmetrical design. My imagination flips back in time to 1888, when the first official guests were received. In the magnificent Crown Room, we spend the better part of the day at the Champagne Sunday Brunch, sampling from hundreds, yes, hundreds of selections from Coastal Cuisine, Farm to Table, Café American, Mexican, Italian and, of course, the incomparable dessert tables. If they don’t have it, it doesn’t exist! Outside in the brilliant sunshine, we consider lacing up a pair of rental skates for a spin around the ice skating rink, set up for the holidays, on the hotel’s Windsor Lawn. Instead, we choose a delicious massage at the Spa and a snooze on a pool lounge, just a few of the unique pleasures in store for guests at the “Del.”
Come evening, we’re ready for the nightlife in the Gaslamp Quarter. Entering Searsucker for a late dinner is like walking into the eye of the storm. The young and beautiful are sardined in the front lounge as if it’s their natural habitat, rocking the drinks, the ambience and the music. In the rear, there are people like us who are interested in the wild and crazy menu including warm bird lollipops with snake oil and bleu fondue; local harpooned swordfish with drunken cherries and smoky almonds; and unique “tongue & cheek yes” with agave, fresco and cactus. It proves once again that a chef must really know the rules before he can successfully bend them.
La Jolla is just a 15-minute drive from San Diego, and though it’s known to be one of the most affluent communities in the country, it’s as unpretentious as a T-shirt and a pair of cut-offs. From my window at the Grande Colonial, one of the lovely Historic Hotels of America, I can see the craggy coastline and the Pacific Ocean. As we near the beach, we can hear the unique barking of herds of seals. Cavorting and playing in this beautiful, natural setting are harbor seals, gray whales and bottlenose dolphins off shore, pelicans and swallows on the rocks, and baby squirrels darting along fences and on the grassy slope.
Sea air gives us an appetite for a great dinner, and we’re in for a treat at George’s California Modern. On Chef Trey Foshee’s award-winning menu, we find unique signature dishes. Both sides of the spectrum are covered with seared foie gras partnered with a doughnut. Surprisingly effective. His braised lamb shank with butternut squash sings and dances on the plate. Potato foam is a canvas for earthy Chanterelle stew topped with a gently poached egg. Here, food is art.
If the question is, “What is California Cuisine?”, then Nine-Ten in the Grande Colonial is the answer. This charming, street-facing restaurant is on everyone’s go-to list, and Chef Jason Knibb’s menu, peppered with local/sustainable fish and seafood and produce from local artisanal farms, tells the tale. Grilled sword.fish, with a treasury of Chino Farms veggies is unforgettable and port wine braised beef short ribs is a dish I immediately tried to duplicate at home. Chef Knibb gains the total trust of his clientele, that’s why his “Mercy Of The Chef ” prix fixe menu with wine pairings is amazingly popular.
Early morning breakfast at the turn-of-the-century cottage, Brockton Villa, is the perfect last memory to take away from this special place. A table on the vast, wrap-around veranda overlooking La Jolla Cove or inside, near the abalone shell studded fireplace, is a local custom we enjoy sharing. We love the steamers—three steam scrambled eggs (no butter or oil)—the poached eggs on crab cakes with spicy coconut tomato sauce, and “Coast Toast,” the signature, soufflé-like French toast. It seems I’ve proved myself right: from start to finish, it’s a feast of San Diego culinary experience.
• Editor’s Note: I came away from San Diego with a wonderful travel souvenir: the recipe for Coast Toast. Want to try it yourself?
1 loaf soft French bread (sliced)
1 qt. whipping cream
¾ cup orange juice
½ cup sugar
a pinch of salt
2 tbs. vanilla
2 tbs. orange flavoring
Combine liquid ingredients. Pour over bread slices. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour.
Remove bread and discard liquid. Spread butter on flat grill.
Cook bread until golden brown, then bake at 450° for 5 -7 minutes or until bread is puffed up like a soufflé. Dust with powdered sugar.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.