Several years ago, a distinguished restaurateur from Los Angeles came out of retirement just long enough to gain a reputation as the Wrong Way Corrigan of the food biz.
The fellow, who had no knowledge of San Diego, mistook Mira Mesa Mall as the heart of the city's downtown--this is a true story, folks--and invested a fair sum turning a retail space into a posh, very Continental restaurant, just at the time such places were falling out of favor.
Since he had decided to panel the place in oak, he naturally had to name it the Oak Room, and, although the restaurant had its points, a large clientele was not among them.
Something new is brewing in those oak-paneled rooms, however. While the plush emerald carpet remains--if a little faded and worn--the principal colors now are Red and Gold, the names of the two house-brewed ales at Callahan's Pub and Brewery.
Callahan's is the newest member of the small but speedily growing microbrewery industry, which nationally numbers fewer than 200 establishments and in San Diego County is represented by just one other house, downtown's Old Columbia Brewery and Grill. The local roster may expand considerably in the coming year.
With its dart boards, TV screens tuned to sports events and youngish, very casual crowd--the dress code would be considered formal only at a nudist colony--Callahan's seems very much the classic neighborhood pub. The difference is that--like neighborhood joints that once flourished throughout this country, England and Ireland before the days of mass production--the house stakes its reputation on its very own brew.
Callahan's has nothing to worry about in this department; the Callahan's Red ale has a deep, full, slightly bitter flavor and a rich, almost chewy body, qualities that invite thoughtful sipping. The Callahan's Gold, lighter in both color and body, has a fruitier and less complex flavor and would seem, on the whole, somewhat more refreshing if less sophisticated than the Red.
Part of the restaurant's wood paneling has been replaced by plate glass to display the stainless steel mash tun, kettle and fermentation tanks in which plain old San Diego water, hops, yeast and malt gradually ferment. This inaccessible brewing room may be the quietest spot in the house, since a newfangled, compact disc jukebox in the bar keeps the two dining rooms roaring to the likes of Bruce Springsteen. Spirited conversations hum along under the music and help the place quite handily to live up to its designation as a pub.
The menu seems a fairly complete survey of pub food. While we're not discussing gourmet chow, the kitchen turns in a good performance with this very basic bill of fare.
At its fanciest, the list offers something called chicken and broccoli fettuccine, but most guests seem to order one of the burgers, a bowl of chili or the house special, fish and chips. As is common in these parts, the fish part of the equation turns out to be cod, dipped in a beer batter that fries up crisp and tasty; the fries are standard but likewise crisp. Both can be doused with a little malt vinegar, which perks up the otherwise bland flavor of the fish.
The hamburgers are generously sized, juicy and arranged on butter-toasted buns (these were common in pre-fast-food days and are much missed), and at their most affected sport a garnish of avocado and Cheddar. A self-consciously Irish version substitutes grilled rye for the bun and adds grilled onions and cheese.
Corned beef stars on the list of typical sandwiches and, when sided with cabbage and carrots, it also takes a major place on the entree list. Other entree choices include Irish stew served in a hollowed sourdough loaf; the venerable pub classic called "bangers and mash" (sausage with mashed potatoes, and no more exotic than it sounds); chicken pot pie; beer battered shrimp and a New York sirloin.
The prices are not the kind that will leave anyone crying in his beer when the check arrives. Except for the steak, nothing costs more than $7.95.
CALLAHAN'S PUB AND BREWERY
Mira Mesa Mall. 8280-A Mira Mesa Blvd.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: A meal for two, including a glass of ale each, tax and tip, about $15 to $25. Credit cards accepted.