Looking Out From The Diorama

I’m sitting on the patio at Laja with owners Jair Téllez and Andres Blanco, talking about what makes a city respond better or worse to certain restaurants. At this time in our culture, says Jair, the restaurant has become the place where people go, to experience themselves as they want to be. In San Francisco, which sees itself as the most European of American cities….

He trails off, because the implications are obvious. Of course San Francisco would have the best restaurants and the best food, just as a byproduct, really, of its citizens’ aspirations, their self-image, their goals for themselves and their city.

The implications for San Diego, are fairly obvious, too, though more troubling. My hometown’s vision for itself, as expressed by its civic choices, is a hamlet that is small, unprovocative, non-innovative, insular: at best unobtrusive and, at worst, xenophobic. What kinds of places would be created by a citizenry like ours, to realize our aspirations? What kind of aspirations could we have? Our city is barely even a union of residents but more a patchwork of residential developments, a sprawl of Spartan dormitories for cubicle helots. What vision of ourselves could possibly tie us together?

In the past, possessed of a strong desire to engage with the culture of my city, I wanted to holler at naysayers who scorned the better ingredients that some restaurants were starting to work with, the higher quality food that started being available. Some restaurants were moving this way despite the cool reception such effort tended to get from the few people who were even paying attention. What kind of restaurants, I thought, do you want us to end up with? If we don’t support the idea of trying to do better, of cooking with better ingredients and of trying to make more delicious food, how will this ever become a great city for eating? Why trash the premise that good ingredients are better, that good food is better, than the mass-produced alternative? What’s to gain by denying even the existence of higher quality food?

But now I saw, from my seat on the Laja patio, that the restaurants that a city has already tells you everything you could know about what that city wants. Walk into the most popular restaurants in the city and you are seeing the shoebox diorama into which we have inserted our idealized selves.

Probably different people would draw different conclusions about what San Diego restaurants tell us about our vision of ourselves, but I think one thing is clear: the San Francisco ideal of cooks hand-crafting meals from high-quality, thoughtfully-grown ingredients is not an essential component.

And what did all this say about me? Here I was at my long-time favorite restaurant, steps from the garden from which my night’s meal would come, enveloped by hectares of grapevines and olive orchards, bullshitting about restaurants and clients with one of the country’s great chefs and a man who makes some of its best wines. What vision of myself was I actualizing by being here, by coming here? What fictionalized version of myself so entranced me six years earlier, when I pulled off the rural highway and ate and drank and experienced, for the first time, the flavors of my home region? How much of what I saw, what moved me so deeply, was pure theater, intentionally created by my now-friends; how much of it was theater created by me for my own consumption; how much of it was naturally “authentic” to the process of growing food and living in the Valle?

Unpacking the answers to questions like these could take a lifetime. Or, at least, the length of a restaurant career.