Behind the Best Restaurants Issue
San Diego Magazine's biggest food feature of the year spurs some interesting questions
Critic's Pick for Best Caterer 2017: Miho. | Photo: Sam Wells
And here it is. Our biggest restaurant issue of the year, San Diego Magazine’s Best Restaurants. Every year, I eat out at a few hundred different restaurants. And every year, people ask me the same question: “How are you not dead yet?” The answer to that is that my midsection has begun making a canopy for my feet, yes. But I also have a “two bite rule,” meaning I am merely a taster of food. Two bites, and I’m done. Any more than that and I would grow so large that the gravity on earth would be thrown out of whack, and the rest of you would just be flung off into space.
When this issue is released, my inbox starts to swell with people’s opinions on it. They range from “THANK YOU!” to “YOU’RE AN IDIOT!” to “AMAZING!” to “IT’S RIGGED!” to “YOU’RE AN IDIOT!”
So this year, I figured I would answer a few of the questions I usually get, to hopefully clarify things ahead of time.
Q: Do advertisers pay to win categories? Is it rigged?
A: No. Absolutely not. Nyet. The Best Restaurants list is divided into two sections: Readers’ Pick and Critic’s Pick. The readers make their votes, and those votes are tabulated using a non-subjective tool called math. We do not insert advertisers in there, or give them extra votes, or help them in any way. This list is as pure as we can make it. The only thing that could change the readers’ pick is bad math or if it looks like a restaurant stuffed the ballot box (see below).
The Critic’s Choice is simply me and the hamster in my brain. I keep a list throughout the year of the best things I’ve been lucky enough to put in my mouth. It’s my little black book of San Diego’s most amazing food. In seven years as San Diego Magazine’s food critic, I have never, ever been asked by someone from the magazine to include an advertiser. I just fill out my ballot like the readers, based on my personal experience. A few restaurants have, however, offered upwards of a couple thousand dollars to name them a winner. I declined, which may explain my current living situation.
Q: Are Readers’ Picks a popularity contest? Can't restaurants stuff the ballot box?
A: They can, and they do. But we have ways of sniffing out shenanigans. One way is that we can look at IP addresses and see if one was used hundreds of times. We also notice when a voter names the same restaurant in every category, e.g. an Indian restaurant wins every field, including “Best Mexican” and “Best Restaurant That’s Anything But Indian.” We don’t allow spam, and we account for that, but restaurants are allowed to promote and campaign.
Q: How the hell did readers pick XX Restaurant as Best XX?
A: The readers like what they like. I learned a while ago that my aesthetic tastes are not universal. My palate was not dipped in the River Styx. And therefore I will not begrudge the readers their favorites. After all, I named William Bradley my favorite chef in town, but I’ve been known to crush a rotisserie chicken in my car on the way home from Sprouts. And Thomas Keller, a very fine world-famous French chef, famously purchased In N Out for a staff party.
Q: Why isn't my restaurant included?
A: To be honest, I don’t like naming restaurants “best.” Restaurant culture isn’t a tennis match. And because, with any category, there are usually a handful of restaurants that could “win” a category for me. For instance, with “Best New Restaurant,” I was hemming and hawing between Trust in Hillcrest and Herb & Wood in Little Italy. The ultimate deciding factor for me was that the team at Trust didn’t have the “name” going into this project that chef Brian Malarkey does at Herb & Wood. Malarkey’s restaurant is excellent, and beautiful, and deserving. But he also had more resources and momentum. The fact that Trust pulled off what they did with fewer resources inspired me. They MacGyvered a really great restaurant.
Also, every year I forget restaurants, or fail to get restaurants into the list. Last year, I completely spaced on Kindred, winner of this year’s “Best Vegetarian/Vegan.” This year, I’m ticked off that Flying Pig (Oceanside and Vista) and Land & Water Co. (Carlsbad) aren't included in my picks. Those are two of my favorite restaurants in town that somehow didn't fit the puzzle. And that’s what a list like this is—a puzzle.
Q: How is Sushi Ota not your Best Sushi Restaurant? Is your mouth injured? Everyone knows Master Ota is untouchable!
A: For those of you who still don’t know about Master Ota, do yourself a favor and find his restaurant. It’s in Pacific Beach, next to a 7/11 and a freeway. Ota has, and will be during his time on earth, the apex of sushi in San Diego. Local fishermen literally make all other restaurants wait at the docks until Master Ota has had his pick of the day’s very best catch.
That said, our sushi scene has evolved, and there are very excellent sushi chefs who deserve a nod. For me as a critic, sustainability plays a huge part. Our oceans have been looted, and they’re in danger of collapsing. Sushi is a major contributor to that plundering. That’s why, last year, I gave the award to Land & Water Co.—whose chef-owner, Rob Ruiz, is now one of the country’s top sustainable seafood experts, and runs his restaurant as such.
And this year, I picked another sustainable sushi chef who’s got major chops: Davin Waite of Wrench & Rodent in Oceanside. First of all, Davin’s a punk and has built a little skate-zen place that’s fun to hang out in. Second, he’s a really good, respectful, obsessive sushi chef. Third, he’s as sustainable as it gets. Ota will always be the yoda of the scene, but younger jedis deserve credit for helping in saving the universe.
Q: Hey, Critic! You chose Kettner Exchange as "Best of the Best, Casual"? That's a fancy restaurant whose chef has cooked at the James Beard House!
A: You’re right. That’s odd. And not quite right on my part. Here’s what happened. There was no ignoring George’s California Modern this year as “Best of the Best, Fancy.” Trey Foshee has been one of the country’s top chefs for decades. This year they underwent a massive renovation of their bar area, and bartender Stephen Kurpinsky has become a real inspiration and innovator for the city’s cocktail scene. It was the year to honor one of the country’s best restaurants.
I had actually considered Kettner Exchange for that award, since it’s a beautifully designed spot and Brian Redzikowski’s food absolutely blew me away over the last year. So, I reasoned—Kettner has two very active bars, which makes it a social scene as much as a dining one, and aren’t bar areas, even nicer ones like theirs, casual? It may be flawed reasoning, but it was mine. And I wanted to shine as much light on KEX and Redzikowski and bartender Steven Tuttle as possible.
If you have any other questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below and I will answer as many as possible. Thanks, guys. Hope you enjoy the issue.