Diner's Club: Great Maple
Local guy saves well-loved diner from chain-ification
It wasn’t the sort of place you’d take a father to convince him to give you his daughter’s hand in marriage. But it was loved.
This marooned restaurant locale at the corner of Washington Street and Lincoln Avenue in Hillcrest was just a so-so 24-hour diner called Brian’s American Eatery. Frozen in the 1970s, it was like the airbrushed van parked in your neighborhood—scorned by yuppies, loved by people who romp. Eggs at Brian’s were served mostly around 2 a.m., eaten with swollen tongues in a roar of NC-17 conversation from the people who made this part of town worth living in. Musicians. Architects. Gays. Fashionistas. Progressives. The Nontraditional Restless Among Us.
That’s why news of its closing broke a few hearts—including Johnny Rivera’s. The San Diego native was on a trip to the East Coast when he got the call. A national breakfast chain was eyeing the spot. For Rivera, that’d be like McDonalds ripping out the doorjamb to his home and replacing it with an arch. He canceled his trip, flew home, and took the lease.
Rivera has built a restaurant empire in San Diego and elsewhere. The line at his huge-portion breakfast joint Hash House A-Go-Go starts at a wee-early hour once frequented only by pastors and tweakers. He’s now opened Hash Houses in Chicago, Connecticut, Orlando, and multiple Vegas casinos (Plaza Hotel, The Quad, The M, Harrah’s). He also owns the Bloody Mary haven The Tractor Room.
Rivera gave Brian’s a much-needed deep cleaning, but kept the 1963 bones for Great Maple, which he calls a “European dinette.” It’s a concept he started in Newport for a friend; San Diego is the second, fully realized version. Rivera says the design was inspired by Italian figurative painter Amedeo Clemente Modigliani and the classic ’60s film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. With a mashed pea-green palette, gold leaf trim, thick lampshades, and sturdy woods, it looks like Mr. Brady’s urban hunting lodge. Its food ethics are proclaimed over a stencil of three fish on the wall: “Protect and Serve.”
Rivera’s longtime partner, chef Andy Beardslee, isn’t in on this project. The kitchen is overseen by Carmine Lopez, former exec chef at The Steakhouse at Azul La Jolla. And it’s not a light menu. For breakfast there are hot beignets dusted in powdered sugar and served with a lemon curd. Or the pork belly hash, literally a metal mixing bowl full of potatoes and eggs and fatty pork chunks.
The warm maple donuts with bacon shrapnel overcome my knee-jerk loathing of America’s baconification, thanks to the fact that baking is a big focus of Great Maple. The site’s huge kitchen whips up daily-special pies, both for in-room dining and to go. The personal apple pie is a massive, soft-crusted tower of pleasure, the filling perfectly spiced and not too wet. The tiny side of salted caramel doesn’t do much, but topped with a melted square of sharp Cheddar cheese it’s a pretty fantastic throwback to 1980s New England.
For dinner, the mini-Wellingtons are good carnivore nibbles, if cost-prohibitive at $12 for four bites. Great Maple’s menu has affordable points (a Maple Leaf Farms duck duo is only $20), but it’s not cheap, with entrees hovering in the $20-$35 range. The Portobello mushroom fries clock in at $11. That’s a lot for fries, even ones with quality mushrooms dusted with flour, Parmesan, Asiago cheese, and red pepper. Dip ’em in the pesto aioli and you’re mouth-happy, though. And it’s a welcome creative impulse in the local French-fry microclimate, which suffers from a downpour of truffle oil.
Two dishes at Great Maple are especially amazing. First, the lobster poutine, an East Coast riff on the Canadian classic. Generous chunks of Maine lobster are poached and served with a lobster bisque gravy over steak fries and melted cheese curds (authenticity points for using real curd). Your second chin starts growing just by saying the order aloud, but it’s worth the dietary crime. The second revelation comes with the lamb two ways: Colorado rack and braised lamb shepherd’s pie with a house-made popover. One of the best lamb preparations I’ve had in town.
We aren’t floored by the ahi poke, which begs for a dressing more distinctive than its light ginger ponzu. Could also pass on the braised, slow-roasted pork sandwich with sweet onion, peppers, and Gruyère. The too-thick bread just kind of overwhelms the stewish pork middle. But we get great swine with the pork belly pizza—house-smoked pork belly over a delicious red sauce with caramelized onions, fennel seed, and fresh mozzarella. And the roasted chicken is simply, excellently done, served with perfect cooked carrots and mashed potatoes reeking of butter and Southern-mama love.
Rivera’s Tractor Room was one of the first to embrace fresh-made, hyper-creative cocktails in San Diego, and Great Maple continues that tradition with both light (a California cooler with watermelon, mint, lemon press, cucumber vodka) and heavy (Johnny’s Kentucky Spirit with Buffalo Trace bourbon, house-smoked blackberries, sage, French sugar, and bitters). The list rounds out with a batch of brunch-friendly Champagne creations (pear, peach Bellini, ginger canton, etc.). For boozeless, try the excellent ginger-cucumber-limeade, which tastes like someone mixed their Moscow Mule with the spa water.
Gold paint above the bar announces “PIE” as a main concern at Great Maple. And the pies are excellent. But they bow to the gigantic mascarpone cheesecake with a huckleberry sauce. It packs more sweet-cheese flavor into a lighter body, and is wondrous.
During one meal, a red light went off and staff entered the dining room carrying a giant cutting board lined with crab cakes. Each guest received one, compliments of the kitchen. It’s this sort of convivial, everyone-together-now touch that made Rivera’s other joints feel like a cooler version of your house.
The staff at Great Maple probably played in your favorite local band, or designed that weirdly awesome wheat-pasted poster in the alley. They’ll take a knee in the booth next to you, breaking down the formal dining barrier at every turn. You want subservient role-playing, go somewhere else. You want friends, good drinks, solid and occasionally great food, Great Maple is your joint. While it may not be open late-night for the post-Purple Hooter crowd, it’s a significant upgrade made by a local for locals.