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Jan 6, 2004 02:53 PM

East County Fine Dining -- An Oxymoron?

  • g

Okay, so fine dining in San Diego with only a few exceptions is probably an oxymoron, but does it exist at all in the East County?

I took my mother and aunt to brunch at Terra this past Sunday. During the meal they were lamenting the fact that the East County had nothing comparable. I don't know that I would consider Terra fine dining. It's more on the casual end of upscale for me, but the room is nice, the food usually very good and the service attentive. We tried to think of any restaurants in the East County that were upscale or could be considered fine dining. We couldn't think of one.

The best my mother and aunt could do was the Brigantine on Mt. Helix. But, good grief, this is a chain. And while this particular location does a nice job on food and service, it isn't my idea of fine or upscale dining.

So is there any place in the East County that could be truly classified as a fine dining experience? By fine dining I mean -- a dining experience where the food, service and ambience are all outstanding, i.e. - great raw ingredients, prepared so that the best qualities of each ingredient shines, where taste, texture, flavor and visual appeal all mesh, where the intent of the kitchen is clear and defined, where the wine list has interesting choices to complement the food served, where the service is polished and effective, and where it is all enhanced by physical surroundings that create a mood and ambience that fits with the food and goals of the restaurant.

East County is full of chains, lots and lots of chains. Some of them execute their objectives well, many don't. East County has lots and lots of small hole-in-the-walls and taqueria upon taqueria. Some of these are pretty darn good, some of them mediocre at best, hardly any of them truly poor. But where is the East County restaurant (or restaurants) that can knock your socks off? My contention is that there isn't one. I'd sincerely like someone to prove me wrong :-))

(I define East County as being from about Mission Gorge Rd. East to Alpine and including places like Santee, Spring Valley, La Mesa, El Cajon, etc.)

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  1. Oh, good lord, no! That's been gripe of ours for the 20+ years we've lived out there. If you want upscale, you have to be prepared to drive. And if you saw the long lines at the Olive Garden, Chili's, and Mimi's they just built in Santee, you'd realize fine dining may be lost on many of them. Then again, I grew up in Chula Vista, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with a place in the South Bay I would call "upscale dining". On a side note, I do encourage you to take them to Antica Trattoria in La Mesa. It's comparable to Terra in many ways, and the closest thing to fine dining I've seen out there in a long time. Plus the food is wonderful :)

    1. Gayla wrote in part:

      "Okay, so fine dining in San Diego with only a few exceptions is probably an oxymoron, but does it exist at all in the East County?"

      Oh Gayla, if that's your starting place, then probably the answer is a sad no. As we've often discussed, the San Diego area is not a "gastronomical destination" like New Orleans, San Francisco, New York or Paris. That kind of cuisine, service and ambiance depends on a large, diverse population with the wherwithal to support such establishments and keep them profitable. Superb ingredients; superior culinary skill; polished, attentive service; luxurious ambiance; all those things come at a price, and if the folks who are supposed to be your customers are struggling to pay a mortgage, they're not likely to spend enough, or come often enough to keep very many of those places in business. If you have any dreams of becoming a rich and famous restaurateur, it's unlikely you'll give much consideration to even the best location in El Cajon.

      Having said all that, however, I still insist that there's plenty of opportunity for fine dining in greater San Diego; maybe even more than in Newark. Since just after Thanksgiving, I've spent way too much money on it, and I haven't had time to report on it in detail, but I've had some fantastic meals in or near our corner of the country that were -- yup -- totally fine. If I could afford it, and had the time, I'd invite all of you to share a blissful lunch at George's at the Cove, an exciting dinner at Tapenade, sample some insanely great food at Region, and bounce down the autopista to replicate the leisurely afternoon comida at El Rey Sol in Ensenada where we truly ate *como reyes.* And those were just the *fantastic* ones -- if I add the "pretty damn good," the list gets lots longer. If none of them were enough to knock your socks off, well, maybe your socks are too tight.

      As for the East County, I've learned that it's mostly full of working stiffs (like me) or retirees (as I wannabe). There just isn't that economic base of corporate business (expense account lunches) or tourism required to fuel the deluxe establishments with long wine lists and fresh flowers on every table. But if you're looking for a skillfully prepared and artfully presented meal, efficient and friendly service, and an ownership that that will leave you feeling well-cared-for (and happily full!), then I offer at least one East-County "fine dining" experience. How I wish there were more!
      Check it out.
      . . jim strain in san diego