A couple months ago my friends Jay and Katie closed down one of my favorite restaurants and completed the transition out of San Diego and up to the Bay Area. I felt a little lost not having my table with an open air view out onto 30th Street and my North Park neighborhood that we love so much. No more running over after Planning Committee meetings or stopping by to see what Adam behind the bar would recommend. I know, people had their issues at being “forced” to pay 18% table service and some thought the food was overpriced. I wasn’t among them. Nevertheless, when I heard a new place was opening up I wanted to really like them and wanted them to be the type of people who would embrace the spirit of our community. Now that John Pani, Brian Jensen and Chef Amanda Baumgarten are here I DO like them and I DO believe in what they are doing. And it started well before the doors opened. Here goes…
This is a blog about food and drink. But it’s also about people and community and caring about what your business means in the context of a neighborhood. So I started with that photo of a delicious chicken that Chef prepares in a way that locks in juice and stays tender while bringing a ton of flavor out mostly so you wouldn’t forget that I do like to talk about food. If you are thinking “man, it’s just chicken” all I can say is go try it. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and say if you don’t like it maybe chicken just isn’t your thing. It’s that good. I like Chef Amanda. We don’t know each other well yet, but she is really into creating quality meals and she cares about where our city is headed, two great characteristics in a person in my book.
Flashback #1: I met John Pani, owner of Hotel Vyvant in Little Italy, at my Pay It Forward party over the summer. Having a party with its own name seems a little over the top, but it was for a few good causes. We had a jumping castle for kids and kegs from 8 brewers along with a whole roasted pig courtesy of Chefs Hanis and Max and Chef Ricardo put his whole foot in a chicken chimichurri dish (no, not literally, ask a friend from the south what that means). Anyway, the point is it was a place for people who cared about where they were and about our community and it was an opportunity for parents to bring their kids and not feel weird about it. (Note: that link to Chef Ricardo is him doing a short interview to support The Literacy Council’s Eat, Drink & Read benefit a couple years ago – yet another reason to support his restaurant in addition to great food!) John and I only spoke briefly that day, but the first time we got together one on one he talked about wanting to create that type of vibe. Where you could have a nice meal out and your kids would be welcome, too. Obviously community stalwarts Jeff Motch and crew at Blind Lady Ale House and Sam Chammas at Station Tavern have blazed a nice trail to follow on this front, but it was still great to hear. This started me on the path to believing the socially conscious part of me would like where they were going.
This meatball starter is a combination of ground pork and veal and as I point out in the caption above it is one of the best things on the menu. I don’t even really like meatballs as a general rule. And I lack the vocabulary to describe why they are so good. So instead I will tell you that my often hard to impress fellow North Park lover of food Colin Parent has given these little guys his stamp of approval. And while Colin is not always right, he definitely nails this. I would suggest if you are just in the mood for something quick, get this or a happy hour “baby burger” and call it good. There is a solid photo of the baby burger below (pictured with Societe Brewing Co’s Harlot – a tasty Belgian style beverage), although I should point out that it’s what a normal sized burger looked like 30 years ago and is plenty of food for standard appetites.
Flashback #2: I was at a Cocktails for Choice event at Stone World Bistro & Gardens Liberty Station a short while before Waypoint opened and bumped into Odette Cressler, formerly the Assistant GM at The Linkery. We chatted briefly about life and what was next and I remembered in that moment that having talented people isn’t just the province of a CEO when she wants to run a great company. Odette had become as much a part of the soul of The Linkery for me as the signature handmade sausage. I knew I’d miss Michael McGuan, who along with his great big beard and easy demeanor made dropping by more like coming home than paying for a service. He is good at what he does, and so is Odette. I REALLY hoped Brian and John chose to bring her back on. I mean, I wanted them to keep several people (see Adam, above, for example), but Odette is one of those special talented people who can treat the place like a business and a place for a great neighborhood connection for guests without compromising either one. I realize that I care about some things most people don’t think about when eating out, but having watched the way she manages the team while helping people of very different ages and needs I was pretty sure keeping Odette would be important. And it would be a great signal that the new ownership team was going to value this place as a neighborhood restaurant. Odette made the transition and I’m thrilled she did. She’s the one you need if you have an issue that your server can’t quite address.
We met two of our favorite people eyeballing each other’s meals at The Linkery a few years back. We now do food adventures together. One such adventure was a fun night at Herringbone back when Chef Amanda was running the kitchen up there. La Jolla is a bit of a trek outside my normal travel zone, but we’d heard good things so we sucked it up and headed north to check the place out. And we had a dish there that reminds me of the tuna tartar on the Waypoint menu. The Waypoint option has little pomegranate seeds on the plate that add a great combination of texture and sweet to complement the dish. Again, she wrangles textures and flavors together in a way that can really make a meal stand out. (Note: I wrote that last line before googling Amanda after someone told me she’d been on Top Chef. Here she is in her own words.)
Flashback #3: Wife and I came in for one of those pre-opening things where you try a bunch of the food and help the staff get ready for people who will be less forgiving about slight mistakes. We tried a lot of the food and I’d say you’d do well to enjoy the mussels and pork belly and the kale salad. But the thing that stood out aside from the menu options was that they really solicited a ton of feedback not just about the food, but the layout, the sound level (which is still a 9 when crowded and could stand to be at about a 7), the service. Really the whole experience was up for review, and I’ve been back several times since to see that many of the things have been tweaked and improved. It’s a good sign when the owners want constructive feedback, so I was happy about that.
I could spend a fair amount of time writing about the craft beer. Brian Jensen (pictured below), who has brought us two Bottlecraft locations and knows a thing or two about this stuff, has put together consistently good, consistently balanced beer lists. There are about 30 taps and typically over half of them are from brewers in the San Diego Craft Beer region. I am a huge fan of Societe Brewing Co., which is regularly available and you should try if you like good beer – here is one beer guy’s take on them. But Brian is comfortable putting a range of styles from across the spectrum on this menu and then making sure the servers know what they are talking about.
The importance of having beer people serving a beer-centric menu at ground zero for San Diego craft beer is really hard to overstate. This is a place you can go, post up at the bar and talk to really cool bartenders like Ben and Adam, and get people who really like beer helping you with recommendations. Amanda, John and Brian have created something important. No, it’s not a cure for some epidemic, but it does help create what a friend of mine calls place, and that’s really helpful. It is a neighborhood anchor, a place for families, an important step in the craft beer supply chain and it serves really, really terrific food. Some of my friends will remember how concerned I was that we might end up with a new restaurant that would be content to mass produce whatever sells and ignore the larger role a quality establishment could play in this community. Well as happy as I am that the food is excellent and the craft beer is stellar, I’m most thankful that all signs indicate Waypoint Public will be a great asset for years to come.