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Better Half has the whole package- San Diego

Rule 1: Give me free food and I’ll be back.
Rule 2: Give me phenomenal free food and I’ll be back for life.
Rule 3: Give me multiple offerings of phenomenal free food and I’ll be sleeping here.

Somebody get out the cot.

Quaint quarters welcomed us into a cave-like glow where Chef John Kennedy swept in and out of the dining room, visiting tables and toting his sassy sense of humor like a favorite teacher where every student was his pet. The dinner bell had rung and it was time for class.

Lessons of the ‘Half’ life

Lesson 1: Half and half – Owing its name to the fact that they only sell half bottles, our forty-three dollar, Baker Lane (Hurst vineyard) pinot noir was worth every penny. A cask wouldn’t have been enough, so the half bottle didn’t come close, but their idea of pairing a white for the first course and red for the second makes for an excellent multiple choice. Allowing outside wine of any size for a five dollar corking fee also brings up the GPA.

Leson 2: Toast of the town - Is there anything better than an amuse bouche? This bite sized morsel of gratitude boasted a toasted baguette swirled with goat cheese, sundry tomatoes and micro-greens. FREE

Lesson 3: Beet feats - Not much of a beet lover, but along for the ride with one, the “leaning tower” of beets was sculpted in svelte architecture and though not my favorite, it impressed (and ap-Pisa-ed) me.

Lesson 4: Signature salad - I was skeptical when I saw strawberries, candied walnuts and fig vinaigrette. It sounded much too sweet, but somehow it all blended into a delicate mix with greens and bursts of tartness from goat cheese. All doubts dissolved on my tongue.

Lesson 5: Ice cream cleansing - Maybe the most important lesson of all, cleansing the palate. Miniature ice cream cones bearing lemon sorbet were inventive, practical and playful. FREE

Lesson 6: Down and trout - For extra credit, the pecan encrusted trout appeared on tonight’s specials with maple compound butter and herbed rice pilaf, bathing me in its sweet and salty afterglow.

Lesson 7: Tongue and cheek - As soon as that veal cheek hit my tongue, its tender texture floated down my throat. The aftertaste was potent from the savory, chocolate sauce similar to mole with a French flare (depth without overpowering), along with lentils that also softened the dish like a kiss on the cheek.

Lesson 8: The long and the short (rib) of it- Cabernet short ribs voluntarily shredded off the bone served with cauliflower and horseradish mash that had a consistency similar to a browned couscous. Veggies that taste like starch- I’m all in.

Lesson 9: Sprout-prise! - Sautéed and chopped, Brussels sprouts appeared like a tasty quarter pulled from my ear. FREE

Final exam: Brulee relay- We handed off the maple glazed crème brulee to one another, ending our well-rounded education with sighs of stuffed triumph.

They had passed all my tests. In a time where economic strain had most restaurants feeling the pinch, the Better Half’s dining room still bustled in calm reliability. Our waitress, Kelley, revealed that the menu would soon be revised for Spring, which only gave us more reason to study new courses here. Their ability to change with the times, maintain success in a plummeting market and engage the community through a chef that’s a “man of the people”, the Better Half gets my vote for the “Stove-al” Office with Kennedy as President.

get more dish at www.worldlyidventures.blogspot.com

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  1. I live close by, and have been wanting to go there. But every time I find the opportunity, I go on line, look at the menu, and remember that there is virtually nothing there for vegetarians. Of course the menu says that it is just a "sample" or some such thing. But still, if the idealized representation of the restaurant's offerings excludes vegetarian dishes, there's no reason to imagine that the actuality will be any more inclusive.

    So a question: Is there any reason that a vegetarian should go to the Better Half?

    4 Replies
    1. re: notjustastomach

      I'd suggest calling in advance, as in several days, and ask if they can accommodate you, I bet they'll do a great job!

      1. re: notjustastomach

        There's also getting ready to change their menu for Spring, so that might mean some veggie additions. I also agree with cstr- they are very accomadating and would probably whip something up for you.

        1. re: notjustastomach

          I feel the same, although its a little easier for me, as I eat fish. I asked the chef about it and he said he'd be happy to make something if you call a day ahead (which I'd advise anyway to get a reservation). I agree that its disappointing to look at a menu with so few choices for non meat eaters. My heart sinks every time I look at it. It would be nice if they could just have one vegetarian dish.

          I did have the quiche as a main course one time, that worked very well, as I had a soup starter and still had a bit of room for dessert. That, of course, depends on what the soup and quiche of the day are and the size of your appetite

          1. re: notjustastomach

            As cstr mentioned I highly recommend to call a day ahead and my experience is that Better Half will help that also a vegeterian will have a great experience at Better Half.

          2. We are considering hitting up the Better Half for a birthday dinner. I haven't dealt with a Sommelier in San Diego before (only in other cities)....what is the etiquette these days??

            4 Replies
            1. re: MrKrispy

              Unless they've just added one, there is no Sommelier - your waiter/waitress will be able to answer all your wine questions for you. Pretty spot on as well from my experiences. Happy birthday.

              1. re: MrKrispy

                Zubin Desai is the proprietor and sommelier of Better Half.

                What do you mean with "what is the etiquette these days ?" If you have any questions just give him a call before your birthday dinner.

                1. re: MrKrispy

                  The Better Half employes a total of three sommeliers in this tiny 30+ seat restaurant. As mentioned by "Honkman", Zubin Desai is the Advanced Sommelier & Owner of The Better Half. Irena & Elaine (the two servers) are also accredited sommeliers. All three of them are very laid-back and down to earth. As is evident in Ewilensky's comment. If they didn't tell you or you didn't ask, you'd never know about it! Their philosophy seems to be more focussed on your enjoyment and satisfaction as opposed to the traditional "upselling" and snooty attitude that you encounter with a lot of sommeliers or wine-know-it-alls!
                  Zubin personally tastes and selects the wines for his list. They are very laid-back about their corkage policy as well. $5 for a bottle!!
                  And yes! You heard it right! They are doing a "stressed economy" blue plate special. $15/person, three courses. Every night from 5 -7 PM. Thanks for the info. LaurenZ! They started this special last tuesday as a menu insert and have just started advertising for it. Better get there before the masses start showing up.

                  1. re: MrKrispy

                    great, thanks for the info. With the new special maybe we will go to the Better Half for a normal dinner this week and try somewhere else we haven't been for the b-day.

                  2. FYI - The Better Half is now running what they call their "Depressed Economy Blue Plate Special." Its 3 courses for $15.....yes I said $15 folks!! The deal is available 5 pm - 7 pm every day and is pretty great. We have always been fans of TBH, but at $100 at least per dinner we have been cutting back a little. It was a great relief to check out this special last Friday eat a great meal for 6 people for a total of $120 (we brought wine & the total included a required 18% tip).

                    You get a choice between salad or soup of the day, one of three entrees (pasta special, steak, fish special), and the dessert is always a different rice pudding.

                    We had a great meal, mine started off with a heavenly cream of mushroom served over chiffonade spinach w/a touch of some spicy oil, pan fried red snapper served over carmelized raddichio & onions and then topped with quinoia salad, and the rice pudding was pretty good also. Something about pineapple, almonds and raisens. Overall we will be going back as the food was great and SUPER CHEAP! I highly reccomend you take advantage of the deal.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: LaurenZ

                      Is the special advertised anywhere or is it something like an insert to their regular menu?

                      1. re: leanneabe

                        It's an insert to their regular menu. They haven't put it on their webpage yet

                    2. Had a great meal here in May. The best item they served was smoked ribs, and they were perfect. Great wine too, and half bottles are a plus because I don't drink more than that.

                      This place definitely stands out, and I hope they keep doing what they've done right.

                      1. It just doesn't get any better than The Better Half. Here is a letter I wrote to a friend when I ate there a few months ago. I've been there several times since but had to include this letter since we are talking about FREE and what a surprise! I was ecstatic, food, service, ambience and great people. Zubin is the best and Chef K, a dream of a guy.

                        I stopped by the Better Half for dinner after work. Oh jeeze, what a killer! I was the first customer of the night and was seated, without a res, at the same table we had before which I really like, Table 21. The place was filling up quickly by the time I left at 7 pm. What a meal! We are definitely going back, the sooner the better! After an amuse of yummy mushroom and pate on a crostini,I had mussels in a saffron, kafir lime and coconut broth for apps. And even though coconut is not my favorite taste, I swear I could have drunk that sauce. OMG!!! I had asked Zubin to choose a wine to accompany the mussels and got a fascinating lesson with it. After I told him I liked to open dinner with a fish course and dry white, he ultimately chose a Sancerre, light, dry and crisp as linen, too perfect with the mussels. I had my first glass which lasted through the course and then gave the remainder to the staff. She (Irene, whom Zubin told me was also an accredited sommelier or what's the femme counterpart?), said, "oh no, you can take this home". But it was so perfect with the mussels I told her I didn't have any mussels at home so she should enjoy it! That cracked her up but it was true. I suppose I could have scrounged up SOMETHING to go with it but decided against it.

                        I wanted Foie Gras but didn't give them the requisite 48 hours notice so instead I choose veal cheeks WITH foie gras (measured of course, to one fat slab on top) but a taste was enough. Divine. Served with some exotic lentils in a semi sweet sauce, side of tender, sweet brussel sprouts. So again, I asked Zubin to choose a wine and he went on to explain everything in the sauce and how certain wines would compliment it. He gave me a choice of about 4 different wines. You would really appreciate this guy's superb knowledge of food AND wine. Not really surprising considering his background but oh, such a charming and modest delivery. I was hypnotized. Finally ended up with a fabulous and really rich and unctuous GLASS of something forget what it was but most likely a port (surprisingly not just for dessert). How sharp these people are is amazing. He noticed that I had drank only one glass of DRY wine with my appetizer so he suggessted a superior SWEET wine to compliment the rich sauce of the veal cheeks (nice fatty ones, too...Oh, by this time I really thought I'd died and gone to heaven) and the fact that he also sold this particular premium wine by the glass. It was probably as expensive as a half bottle but by this time I would have done anything he suggested. I was talking to myself already. Jeeze.

                        Then came the dessert spiel and that evening's bread pudding used blueberries instead of peaches. Now I'm not crazy about blueberries either but I was in no way going to pass up this stuff! Ordered my little pot of french press brew and the pudding. It was glorious, girl. I ate about 3 bites and pushed it aside. She smiled when she asked me if she should package it up. It's then I told her all I needed was a cigar and she said she's see what she could do! They gave me plenty of time to digest and boy did I need it! Then out she came with a really good Cuban cigar on a plate. I almost fainted! I can't tell you how thrilled I was. On the way out, I passed Zubin in the courtyard and he smiled..I said that cigars had always been my dessert of choice and he said, "But, of course". Indeed, he said his dream is to eventually have a great humidor with cigars worthy of the place and a space where they could be smoked without anyone objecting. He said he'd tried it before in the courtyard but had too many complaints. Then I passed the chef before I got out of the patio and told him how much I enjoyed every bite. I was in total ecstasy when I left. As soon as I got home, I poured my little self a snifter of Grand Marinier and lit up, baby! I abstained from inhaling but was not,in this world, going to waste that cigar. It was really the piece de resistance. This meal goes down with a few others as the most memorable. I'd go back tonight but my experience has taught me that things can't be replicated at will and that the most important things in life are not THINGS...You were absolutly right in stating that this place has something nowhere else has. I still don't know what it is but it's fabulous. Now that isn't all...can you believe it? I had the bread pudding with coffee for breakfast and savored every morsel. I heated it up and added a bit of half and half. I never really considered myself decadent but am beginning to understand the true meaning of the word.I really did a good thing for myself. Usually if I really like something at a restaurant (like Lilianna's osso buco) it overshadows everything else on the menu and I end up eating the same thing everytime I go. But in the case of this place, I'd have to be experimental simply because every taste is an experience and I want to try it all! SO, can't wait for you to get back home.

                        Never would I have expected this act of kindness and if offered the same again, I would certainly demand it appear on the tab. Can you tell I like this place? Go there, enjoy!

                        1. After reading all the rave reviews of The Better Half I decided to go try it out on a whim for breakfast. Now, I know that breakfast is not their specialty, so I do take that into consideration before posting this reply. BUT....and I hesitate saying this because there were many wonderful things about this place.....I was not as blown away as I anticipated. Here is my gripe.

                          I am a BIG coffee drinker in the morning, and I was anticipating good coffee as excitedly as I was anticipating a good meal. Unfortunately, I was served a watered down and slightly stale tasting cup of percolated coffee. The cream I was to use was an ultra-pasteurized type already sitting on the table in those small pre-measured plastic cups. Uber disappointing!! In my book, the beverage a meal is served with is as important as the meal itself, which is something the owner of this establishment is aware of , I'm sure, as he titled the joint after a bottle of wine. So, this just set a poor tone for the rest of my experience.

                          I will say, however, that the food I ate was superb enough so to draw me back for a second try at some point.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: foodpeople101

                            Hmmm...must be a change in coffee. I've had breakfast at The Better Half and the coffee served was served French press coffee, not a generic brew.

                            1. re: foodpeople101

                              As DD mentioned, ask for the French press next time. I saw at other tables that you get regular coffee at Sunday Brunch but obviously it will never be as good as French press.

                              1. re: foodpeople101

                                I've been to the Better Half for breakfast as well. The food and service was fantastic, but the coffee was not so great. The menu specifically states that only the Decaf is served in a French Press. Strange that they would go through all of the trouble only for decaf, I say.

                              2. I just want to thank all the posters here who alerted me to The Better Half. I finally had a meal there, and it was as good or better than promised.

                                I took advantage of the $15 special menu (5-7 pm) and that's got to be one of the best values around.

                                If you want to see what I'm talking about, I did a little post about the place for Kirk's blog:


                                Thanks again, folks!


                                1. In case you all missed it...as of January 29th the Better Half Bistro has changed ownership. Zubin sold it to the chef.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: DiningDiva

                                    And the prices have kept creeping up except for the special menu. I had a hard time getting myself around the cost for half-bottles of Cab. Four of us went to dinner (not special menu), shared one appetizer and two desserts and a half bottle of Cab and ran over $200. The food was delicious but it felt a little...heavy?
                                    Why is he leaving for SF?

                                    1. re: keena

                                      "And the prices have kept creeping up except for the special menu."

                                      We are pretty much every week there and the prices for the food have been pretty much the same for the last year and with some of the food even getting a little bit cheaper (e.g. chacuterie plate). The most expensive entree is still not more than $22-23.
                                      BTW, the owner change is ongoing for a quite some time now.

                                      1. re: keena

                                        I have to agree with Honkman. I've eaten at The Better Half semi-regularly for a while now and haven't noticed that much difference in the pricing.

                                      2. re: DiningDiva

                                        Interesting, do you expect to see operational changes too?

                                        1. re: DougOLis

                                          According to John Kennedy there are no plans to change the concept of the restaurant. Since there are also no changes in the kitchen I am confident that the quality of the food will still be great with a lot of creativity. Obviously with Zubin and Elena leaving there are changes at the front of the house. As with every changing team it might take a few days/weeks until everything runs as smoothly as before but since this is relative small restaurant it shouldn't take too long.

                                          1. re: DougOLis

                                            I think it's too early to tell. Last time I was there Zubin and his SO were working the FOH with one bus boy and Chef John and the sous were working the kitchen. It appeared there was no other staff. To be fair it was a Tuesday night which is not the busiest restaurant night of the week. But that level of staffing was a serious departure from what I had seen and experienced in the past.

                                            Part of what always made The Better Half such a pleasurable dining experience for me was the attention to service. Chef John's resume includes stops at some restaurants that are well known for exceptional service which should bode well. I think if he gets a good (i.e. strong) front of the house person in there he'll be fine. It's one thing to run the kitchen and produce food, it's quite another thing when you're the boss.

                                            There may be a bobble or two along the way as John settles into his role as chef/owner but as a diner I'm not anticipating much in the way of change.

                                        2. We went now twice in the last few weeks after the change in ownership to the Better Half and are glad to report that it still is one of the best restaurants in San Diego.
                                          The service is already surprisingly smooth even though the restaurant just recently lost three important members. Especially comparing our second visit to the first one the service was very good even with both times an absolutely packed restaurant.
                                          Since there are no changes in the kitchen the food is as outstanding, creative and often unusual as it was before and we still didn’t have ever a single meal which disappointed us.
                                          There are a few changes in the interior of the restaurant which makes it even more like a living room of a friends house and Chef Kennedy discussed a few more things he is planning.
                                          Another change which makes sense in the current economic time is that they also start to offer a few wines by the glass. (I have read/heard a few times before that people complained that they weren’t able to get any wines by the glass).
                                          One change Chef Kennedy mentioned that we are really looking for are some kitchen upgrades which will allow him to be even more creative and will also help him to change the menu even more often. We had for example in December an outstanding multi-course tasting menu prepared by him where for the first time ever he served some souffles which were unbelieveable good. Unfortunately due to some restriction in the kitchen he can’t serve them regularly at this point but hopefully that might change in the future.
                                          Yes, based on the title of the thread Better Half still has the whole package and is getting even better. Based on the service and creativity and execution of the kitchen it is still for us the best restaurant San Diego.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: honkman

                                            We are new in San Diego being here for only 2 months. In reading this and other posts, I know honkman thinks very highly of the Better Half and has had many great meals there. It is because of his and other similar reviews that we decided to try it last week. Thus you must take this critique after just one visit with a grain of salt (which we thought could have been eliminated in a couple of their dishes). Unfortunately, we must have hit one of those rare off nights that restaurants have. The plus sides was a comfortable cozy room, the delicious blue cheese mousse amuse bouche, the earthy, slightly spicy mushroom soup, and the palate cleansing lemon sorbet cone served before the entrée (although in the future we would eat the lemon sorbet which did a wonderful cleansing of the palate and eliminate the cone which undid part of what the sorbet just did). We did have the blue plate special (which may not be a fair judge of the creativeness of the kitchen) and found the shrimp risotto tasty but slightly overcooked and a bit too salty for our palate. The wild game meatloaf was rather bland and again overly salted. The desserts were a coconut pineapple ice cream which was good but nothing special and a bread pudding which was very sweet. Service was spotty. One of the waiters seemed very new and needed advise from the other waiter regarding wines (which is not a problem), but also misplaced the knife and fork (wrong side of the plate) at another table. At our table, one of the bus boys set our forks back down on the table to be used again when he was clearing our dishes (perhaps we were allocated only so many utensils with the blue plate special). However, water glasses were constantly kept filled without hesitation, which was good since we were drinking so much with the saltiness of the food. By the way, the website which is controlled by the previous owner is wrong. The blue plate special is now $20 and corkage is $15. For the same amount or a little more for the food, we feel that Wine Vault and Bistro is far superior (after two visits there). 10 dishes (2 Saturday 5 course dinners) have all been different and great. Their wine flights (they are currently featuring 20 of Wine Spectators top 100 wines of 2008) are less expensive than most of the half bottles at the Better Half and for us, five 3 oz pours gives us real pleasure with so many different tastes and enhances each dish it is paired with.

                                            1. re: wcrchow

                                              No need to downplay your review because of only 1 visit. I think this restaurant has devoted fans and an almost equal amount of people that have had similar experiences as you. I have had mediocre food (but great service) and my husband refuses to go back. But I respect Honkman and Dining Divas opinions. Different opinions is what makes the world an interesting place.

                                          2. A few updates on the changes/transformation of The Better Half: There were some significant changes in the service and kitchen staff over the last few months but it looks like everything starts to settle down and especially the service part runs smother now (the kitchen part was never really a problem). The significant changes in the interior are still ongoing but large parts should be finished soon and it is interesting to see how the place becomes even more cozier and relaxed before. Most importantly Chef Kennedy told us that since much of the paperwork and other work is soon mainly done he now has time to really start to focus on changing the menu more rapidly and have the possibility to realize his vision on cooking. His influences were always from all over the world but often with a strong focus on French and New Orleans something which he will intensify in the future. As a start he has now a great flatiron steak with shrimp etouffee new on the menu. Overall it seems that Better Half will be the serious restaurant like it was before (great food (with even more unusual ingredients) and service) but with a more humorous twist (interior, regular special nights (e.g. crawfish boil). In addition the Sunday brunch also started last Sunday.

                                            8 Replies
                                            1. re: honkman

                                              thanks for the update. Man I would love some good etoufee, don't know of any Nawlins-type places besides Chateau Orleans - and I don't know if they even exist still.

                                              1. re: MrKrispy

                                                If I'm correct, Chateau Orleans was the restaurant on Market, downtown. If that' it, it closed several years ago. There's another restaurant there, but I don't remember the name.

                                                1. re: sdnosh

                                                  Bud's? If so, it relocated to Tierrasanta.

                                                  1. re: DiningDiva

                                                    I wish it was still in little italy...

                                                  2. re: sdnosh

                                                    Chateau Orleans was in north PB on Turquoise St by the French bakery. It might still be there....it was average but the only place I knew of that had cajun food 10 years ago. Never been to Buds.

                                                    1. re: sdnosh

                                                      I believe you may be thinking of Bayou Bar & Grill, which was on Market Street, and, yes, it closed several years ago.

                                                      1. re: phee

                                                        Yes it was Bayou I was thinking of. Also, thought Bud's relocated then closed again.

                                                  3. Starting last Tuesday Better Half is now hosting Winemaker Dinners on a regular basis to explore one specific winemaker in their wines and great food matching the different wines.
                                                    This Tuesday it were wines from winemaker Stephen Goldman (Stephen's Cellar & Vineyard) which were served with a great five-course tasting menu.

                                                    First Course:

                                                    Soup of spiced debutante peaches, shellstock and cream, crawfish and sea scallops stuffed baby zucchini squash blossom, fresh herbs.

                                                    Wine selection: Stephen's Cellar Pinot Grigio, Stromsoe Vineyard 2005

                                                    Second Course:

                                                    Tart of roasted wild pheasant, tahachapi apples, oven roasted tomatoes, asiago and orchard smoked gouda, basil and coriander, house cilantro-lime Caesar salad

                                                    Wine selection: Stephen's Cellar Chardonnay, Smith Vineyard 2006

                                                    Third Course:

                                                    Southern spiced crispy duck confit, apricot, tulare cherry, Brandy demi glace, smoked potatoe mash with fresh herbs de Provence, spiced iranian pistachios, rose petal chiffonade

                                                    Wine selection: Stephen's Cellar Pinot Noir, Encell Vineyard 2006

                                                    Fourth Course:

                                                    Chocolate and quince glazed smoked bison ribs, sauteed bitter greens, crimson beet sauce, sweet yellow corn

                                                    Wine selection: Stephen's Cellar Claret 2004

                                                    Fifth Course:

                                                    Poached emerald Ranch Mission figs, shafts bleu cheese chantilly cream, Ruby Port reduction, caramel sauce

                                                    Wine selection: Stephen's Cellar Touriga-Souzoa 2003

                                                    Since the Better Half is more or less our second living room we of course know the quality of the food from Chef Kennedy and he and his team really love the bistro but with his background it is also clear that often he really would like to serve high-end multi course tasting menus but The Better Half (and San Diego) is not really the right place to do it. And so it is great that for example with these winemakers dinners he is trying to come up with possibilites where he can serve such meals.
                                                    This first winemaker dinner was a full success and had outstanding food and great wines. For us it showed again why we feel that Better Half (especially for this price - the whole tasting menu including the wine pairings were just $65) is one of the best restaurants currently in San Diego. Over the last 1-2 years we tend to drive more and more to LA for great food and tasting menus but this winemakers dinner can easily compare to our recent tasting menu at Hatfields.
                                                    We can only highly recommend these winemakers dinners - the next one is most likely planned for 07/21.

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: honkman

                                                      I lived many years in the South. Never heard any reference of "Southern spiced". Could you determine what was in the mix?

                                                      1. re: foodiechick

                                                        It was a subtle taste and I am not really sure but I will ask him the next time

                                                      2. re: honkman

                                                        Sounds great and like a pretty good deal with wine included at $65