SAN DIEGO — A few gloomsayers in the local restaurant trade claim that for most restaurateurs, 1990 opened like a glass brimming over with Dom Perignon but closed like an empty bottle of white muscatel slowly rolling down the gutter.
This is a dramatic point of view.
The few weeks on each side of Jan. 1, 1990, saw the addition of well more than 1,000 restaurant seats in downtown San Diego, the great majority of them parked in notably good houses.
It is true that the year jerked to an uncertain halt with the closing of one of the downtown landmarks, Lubach's. But this demise seems much more the case of a shrinking audience intensified by the failure to attract a younger one (everybody wants pasta, which Lubach's did not serve) than a portent of hard times for the restaurant business.
Be that as it may, the loss of one of the city's truly formal restaurants--a place that actually was a restaurant, as opposed to those that have misappropriated the name--certainly is unfortunate.
If there are additional major closings in 1991, they may be due much more to increased competition than to the present uncertainties about the economy. The San Diego restaurant pie is a large one, but even given the opening of the San Diego Convention Center it has increased in girth more rapidly than has the clientele base.
The success of such enormous new restaurants as Mission Valley's Prego, which seats more than 300, and the downtown Fish Market, which seats something like 700, means that other places must be losing clientele, at least in dribs and drabs.
For diners, 1990 was a banner year, particularly for those who dine downtown and in the Golden Triangle.
Primarily due to the convention center, downtown and especially the Gaslamp Quarter were rocked by an explosion of new eateries.
The hottest member of the pack is Fio's, whose servers may wear black garb disconcertingly similar to that of Mussolini's Fascisti, but whose sweeping murals of Siena's Palio races and up-to-the-trend Italian menu have made it a rendezvous for the young and chic. Chef Nancy Silverton's exciting menu spends little time on formal entrees--although the Venetian-style liver with onions is ravishing--but lavishes attention on clever opening nibbles, classy pizzas from the wood-fired oven and such pastas as lasagna stuffed with stewed duck and gnocchi in rabbit sauce.
Just a few steps down F Street, a crowd equally young and chic instantly adopted Ole Madrid as its own. This delightful if noisy tapas bar, run by two Spaniards and a Mexican, features a wall-sized reproduction of Picasso's "Guernica" and an authentic cuisine seasoned with garlic, garlic and garlic.
It is more than permissible to make a meal of such snacks as the chorizo and cantinpalo sausages, the suave serrano ham, the tuna empanadas and the shrimp in garlic sauce, but many guests arrive in pairs so that they may sample the paella Valenciana, the seafood paella and the parrilada de mariscos ("seafood feast)," which are prepared for two guests only. Since everybody's doing pasta, Ole Madrid serves fettuccine with shrimp, cream and an unusual flavoring of lemon and rosemary.
A few steps north from Fio's on 5th Avenue is Falco, a charmingly anachronistic place with a semi-baroque atmosphere that somehow seems in step with the ultra-contemporary menu.
The chef and owner, Austrian-born Gunther Emathinger, offers a challenging but rewarding menu of such things as lobster strudel with tropical fruits and curry sauce, an exquisite stew of crayfish and sweetbreads and a grilled seafood sausage in bouillabaisse-style broth.
Those are the starters--the entree list includes such wild-but-tasty items as grilled chicken breast with black bean sauce and orange-jalapeno relish, and pork tenderloin slices with peanut souffle and a compote of rhubarb and ginger. Emathinger has the Austrian touch with pastries and composes a handsome tray.
A half-block and several light-years distant from Falco, the Grill on the Park, a branch of a popular Aspen restaurant, leans primarily to basic Americana and does it best with the fried onion loaf and the herbed, roasted chicken.
The barbecued baby back ribs are good, the pizzas issue from the currently requisite wood-burning oven, there are pastas (of course!) and the kitchen knows how to deal with fresh fish. Portions are daunting.
A bright light began burning down on Market Street with the Bayou Bar & Grill, the place that finally brought the true taste of New Orleans to San Diego.