San Diego Dining Goes Outside the Box: Ryan Gosling Bathroom Stall, Anyone?
San Diego has never been recognized for dishing out an imaginative dining experience. But then Top Chef happened, and former contestants cranked out off-the-wall, dressed-down joints (Rich Sweeney's R Gang Eatery) and design-friendly crowd-pleasers (Brian Malarkey's Herringbone and Searsucker), not to mention another alumni slated to join them this winter (Richard Blais' Juniper & Ivy). Outside Top Chef world, unassuming, gays were opening breweries (Chris Shaw at Hillcrest Brewing Company), hipster hangouts stacked shelves with New Orleans-themed relics and curio like trinkets and antiques (American Voodoo opened by a filmmaker and an art collector) and taverns went fancy by serving premium wines by the glass (via Galvanic system at Sublime Tavern). Even a highbrow resort (AVANT at Rancho Bernardo Inn) is unusually serving mustard on tap. Chefs in San Diego are finally braving past comfort zones, and we're impressed with these three noteworthy restaurants offering outside-the-box experiences.
526 Market St.
Uncommon for San Diego, the hype at Bang Bang is more about design than nosh. Opened in the tourist-flooded Gaslamp Quarter, this new sushi restaurant/bar is experiential. The tunneled entryway is reminiscent of a Tokyo subway with soundtrack to boot and, inside, oversized Japanese lanterns cram the ceiling while projectors feature trippy visuals on the walls. There's a separate modular room for private parties that includes the largest disco ball on the West Coast. The most Instagrammed space, however, is the Ryan Gosling themed bathroom stall, already having been featured on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Live. It feels like a shrine (minus the offerings but double the queue). Never have female diners used "bang" and "Ryan Gosling" in the same sentence without cracking a smile. Fresh sushi and creative rolls are the plan of action, though the "street market" Asian menu served up by chef Jose Ruigomez has excellent options like dumplings and bok choy.
1250 Prospect St.
Interestingly, no hake is served at The Hake: the owners thought the name suited their new restaurant right on the main drag in La Jolla. "When we started looking for a name we had the image of the fish—which we got from an old cookbook about fish—and we knew we wanted to name the place after a fish," says Frederico Rigoletti, one of the two chefs/partners that hail from Mexico (the other is Roberto Craig, and they both have published cookbooks). Fish wins the award for "Best Use Of" thanks to its versatility in modern interpretations of Mediterranean dishes. To make it more exotic, dishes are prepared with strong Japanese and Mexican influence. For instance, the hamachi tiradito is lightly dressed and sashimi-style rather than thinly sliced. Another highlight is the grilled octopus entree that comes with grilled tomatoes and tzatziki.
Amaya La Jolla
1205 Prospect St.
Amaya La Jolla is a fresh, contemporary spin on "Old World" design (or “Old-World New”). It's fine dining without the dinner jackets (it is San Diego) though the atmosphere still rings highbrow. The restaurant is the new La Jolla outpost of Amaya restaurant at Grand Del Mar, one of only six resorts in the country to have 15 Forbes Stars for 2013. Locals call Amaya La Jolla a "mini Grand Del Mar:" the resort's dramatic, Old-World, Western European design (arched lunettes, Italian stonework, hand-wrought irons, crystal chandeliers, hand-painted frescoes) is also featured there. Expect popular California coastal inspired plates (like the Spicy Chile Lime Shrimp) as well as Southern touches (Buttermilk Fried Chicken), thanks to chef Camron Woods' background in North Carolina.