Crest Cafe atop Cowles Mountain.

When I opened the e-mail proposing this article about San Diego Restaurant Week’s April event one question consumed me: How could I write about this occasion in the shadow of the Covid-19 Pandemic? The article wouldn’t come out for months and no one could say where on the spectrum of  “open” local restaurants would be. Would dining inside be a go? Would we be back in lockdown?

And then I thought: why not do exactly what my wife and I had already been doing? For months our weekend routine had included getting takeout from our favorite restaurants and taking it somewhere beautiful so we could enjoy both the food and the view safely. So, for this story, we searched for the perfect Restaurant Week food and view pairing.

San Diego Restaurant Week is a celebration of the San Diego restaurant scene. Sponsored twice a year by the California Restaurant Association (CRA), this year’s first event will take place April 11–18. Restaurants spanning San Diego will offer three-course prix-fixe dinners for $20 to $60 per person and two-course prix-fixe lunches from $10 to $25. Just as the world is reborn every spring, this event is designed to feel like a rebirth of San Diego’s restaurant scene following a lengthy, enforced hibernation.

The French dip near Windansea beach.

It was in that spirit we headed to The French Gourmet in Pacific Beach. We gathered moules Provençale and French dip sandwich and headed to the nearby La Jolla bluffs between Windansea Beach and the Children’s Pool. This classic dish of black mussels in a sauce of tomatoes, herbs, and garlic is spiked with bits of Spanish chorizo. The shaved prime rib in the French dip sandwich was excellent but it was the caramelized onions that really made the dish. Apparently one of the local seagulls agreed. Despite our avian moocher, it was perhaps the perfect food and view pairing.

One of the past issues Restaurant Week has faced is the resistance of some restaurants to the price of entry. Michel Malecot, chef-owner of The French Gourmet pointed out to me the CRA addressed that this year by lowering prices. Indeed, CRA’s Kristina Owenburg confirms registration pricing is down nearly 60% this year. “We are always here to support our restaurants, especially during this difficult time.

Crest Cafe sandwiches in the backpack on the way to the top of Cowles Mountain.
Making the most of a soggy Cubano and turkey club.
Crest Cafe sandwiches in the backpack on the way to the top of Cowles Mountain.
Making the most of a soggy Cubano and turkey club.

The pandemic has been tough on everyone but with an exception for those who have actually been infected with the virus it’s entirely possible no one has been hurt worse than the restaurant industry. Nearly a year ago the federal government aided the “crippled airline industry” with a $25 billion bailout. It’s not difficult to see why. Just before the crisis, the industry had 575,049 full-time employees and 108,974 part-timers nationwide. That, however, is paltry compared to the foodservice industry with 5,324,100 employees nationwide in 2019. But the restaurant industry would not receive anything like the bailout the airlines got for another year and with countless restaurants—and their jobs—permanently gone.

As Malecot observes, the Payroll Protection Plan offered some help. “But I’m a lucky guy,” he says. “I own my own building, I have a bakery and a catering business. That let me survive.” For Karina Kravalis, owner of Giardino, the answer was creativity that will outlast the Pandemic. Forced to create patio seating in their old parking lot, Kravalis persuaded the City of Lemon Grove to let Giardino keep it post-pandemic thus doubling the restaurant’s total capacity. Not everyone was so lucky or creative. Innumerable restaurants, locally and nationally, simply have not survived.

The view from the top of Cowles Mountain, the highest point in San Diego.
Giardino at the top of Mount Helix.

Our second food and view pairing figured to be one of our best: sandwiches from the Crest Cafe in Hillcrest with a view from the top of Cowles Mountain. I remember Crest fondly from my childhood: it’s what I envision when I hear the word “diner.” Sadly, the sandwiches, a Cubana and a turkey club, did not survive the hike up Cowles all that well: the coleslaw juice soaked through the bread of the sandwiches on the way up. The view was great, though!

Our final shot at food and view pairings was Giardino’s antipasto salad and Caprese panini at a picnic table atop Mount Helix. This time we drove rather than walked and came equipped with a bottle of wine we learned is verboten. But the food was great, the view was great, and the pairing spot on.

The ultimate lesson to come from this food with a view exercise is learning that the food has to make it to the destination. Takeout will survive a short jaunt to the beach. A drive up to Mount Helix? Check. But a hike up Cowles Mountain in a backpack? Not so much. Not every restaurant’s pandemic experience was the same and not every dish can go everywhere equally well, but there may be no better way to celebrate Spring and the rebirth of our dining scene than a well-selected San Diego Restaurant Week meal in a beautiful location.  

A Note From the Editor

Pack out what you pack in and more on such adventures. This means—leave no trash behind!!! And put a little effort into looking for extra litter that needs cleaning up around you.

About the Contributor
Michael Aaron Gardiner
Michael Gardiner is the author of Modern Kosher: Global Flavors, New Traditions (Rizzoli, 2020) and Cali-Baja Cuisine: Ensenada Aguachiles, Tijuana Taco Stands and San Diego Cali Burritos (Rizzoli, September 2023). He is a regular food feature writer for Edible San Diego and The San Diego Union-Tribune, contributing editor for The Cook’s Cook, and freelanced for Tasting Table,Thrillist, and other publications. Gardiner was the long-time weekly restaurant reviewer for San Diego CityBeat before its closure in 2020. Gardiner has won San Diego Press Club awards every year since 2018.