Looking At Local In San Diego

Yesterday I spent a few minutes on KPBS’ Midday Edition (a public radio show in San Diego) with Matt Gordon and Catt White, discussing the prospects of “sustainable” food in San Diego restaurants. You can listen to the segment here. (Ignore the written transcript, it seems to be partly computer-generated gibberish.)

The segment was prompted by Sea Rocket Bistro’s decision to close, a few months after we sold The Linkery and El Take It Easy/Hubcap. Those three restaurants closing in 2013 made a drastic reduction in the number of San Diego restaurant kitchens driven by local ingredients — I can think of only two that remain, and they both operate within the larger context of a bar or tavern.

Which, in a way, is kind of what I had to say about the question: on one hand, a certain kind of localist restaurant that thrives in some other markets may not seem at this point to have much of a future in San Diego; on the other hand, local ingredients and localist cooking do continue to exist in other contexts — including in bars, beer gardens and brewpubs, counter-service restaurants, food trucks, and more. And there continues to be a culture in some mainstream San Diego restaurants to explore and embrace local ingredients, even if it’s in a measured way.

An interesting thing that I think Matt and I have in common, that came out from the segment: neither of us put sustainability as the focus of our restaurants, although it figures into our mindset. In the segment, Matt indicates that his approach is to first think operationally in terms of what will make the restaurant work in the market, and then looks for opportunities within that model to extend sustainability as much as possible.

For our end, the primary purpose of the Linkery and El Take It Easy was to explore a place-based cuisine in San Diego, to create a dining experience that was unique to the physical and cultural landscape of the place we lived. While that of course meant buying as much as we could locally, more importantly it meant buying from independent producers who invest the time and expense required to raise delicious ingredients that reflect both that care and their terroir. And in our kitchen, it meant eschewing pre-processed ingredients — from bacon and bread even down to condiments and cooking fats — in favor of making our own. Because how could commodity bacon or Heinz ketchup inform us about life at (+32°44′, -117°7′)?

That kind of restaurant — a restaurant that reflects, top to bottom, its place in geography and culture — is a thing that has succeeded and become essential in some markets. Notably on the West Coast of the US, you see it often in the Bay Area and in the Portland area, and to some extent in L.A., Seattle, and our various wine countries. Our mission at the Linkery and El Take It Easy was to provide something like that in my hometown, and while we had a lot of successes, we, like others before and after, never quite got the financial component to a satisfactory level.

The biggest reason for this, in my opinion, is simply the availability of dollars in the community. San Diego is a low density city, so there aren’t that many people near any restaurant to begin with. Plus, it’s a fairly small market — ranked 28th in size, comparable to Baltimore or Nashville (PDF link). On top of all that, San Diego doesn’t have a ton of high-paying jobs; the tech, biotech and academic industries that were driving the high end of our economy ten years ago seem to have greatly withered, at least from what I can tell talking to people who work in those fields.

Which makes for a tough sell when food is expensive. Here’s an example: a locally-raised, medium-sized pastured chicken, slaughtered on farm, typically costs a San Diego restaurant, at a minimum, around 20 bucks. (Anything less than that and the farmer herself is not sustainable). To meet standard margins for a San Diego table-service restaurant, that means a half-chicken entree would have a menu price of about $40.

Before the KPBS segment, I asked Matt what he thought the most he could get for a half-chicken entree, at the highest quality. His off-the-cuff answer: “Around $23.”

Between the $23 top end that a San Diego localist restaurant can charge for that dish, and the $40 it needs to charge, lies real financial sustainability: profit, market-rate salaries for management, two days off a week, the resources on hand to fix a broken refrigerator on a Sunday and still not sweat making payroll. For years, we lived somewhere between that $23 and that $40, and while we probably could have kept going like that as long as we wanted to, at some point we didn’t want to any more.

Recently, the folks who own the Spotted Pig in New York bought Tosca, a 100+ year old neighborhood bar in North Beach in San Francisco; think red upholstered booths, concrete floor, and no reservations. They reopened its kitchen, which had been shuttered for 60 years, and added a casual, delicious gastropub-style menu. We had a great night there recently, feasting and boozing. Like a lot of parties around us, we ordered and savored, among other dishes, their signature half chicken. Its price: $42.

This example doesn’t say anything about the relative merits of San Diego versus the Bay, or about the sophistication of the clientele (plenty of expensive San Francisco restaurants cater to well-heeled ignoramuses). It simply says that the bar of what people can and will pay for restaurant dishes in the Bay Area is high enough that localist restaurants can fit under it.

Two added thoughts come to mind.

One: It seems that a meme developed in certain quarters since we closed the Linkery, that I had at some point(s) attributed the restaurant’s closing to a lack of sophistication or taste of San Diego diners. Even the host of the KPBS segment tried to put those words in my mouth, and went I wouldn’t bite, she suggested I had said it nonetheless. I’ve been pretty sure that I never made this assertion — because it’s not what I think — and I even went back through my old posts to make sure there wasn’t anything like that in there (there wasn’t). The bummer about this isn’t that I’m somehow falsely charged, but that the creation of this particular meme from thin air means that some number of people really wanted me to say and think this — these folks feel the need to defend San Diego, and thus themselves, against a charge of being rubes, that must arise in their own heads. This is a shame and not necessary: there are oodles of sophisticated people in San Diego, and plenty of great, thoughtful and appreciative diners. While a certain kind of localist restaurant — the kind we and others worked on — has yet to financially thrive in San Diego, that isn’t an indictment of the city’s taste; it’s more than anything a function of external forces including the economics of the region, its built environment, and its cultural foci.

Two: San Diego does have the good fortune to be part of Tijuana, where the economics of local food are slightly different and there is a wealth of talent that knows how to work with it. We returned this weekend to Verde y Crema, and I’d say that if you’re looking for the kind of restaurant we sought to create at the Linkery — a restaurant that deeply reflects the physical and cultural landscape of the region, in a fun and delicious way — this is a place for you. And it’s only about 25 minutes from downtown San Diego. If I lived in San Diego still, I’d be enjoying the scene in TJ, all the time.

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