Common Theory Public House Puts Craft Beer in the Spotlight
Chef A.G. Warfield aims to create food that not only improves with beer but enhances the beer itself
Polenta with tomato confit, roasted garlic, and carrot chips, topped with a fried duck egg. | Photo: Nate Glassman-Hughes
Over the past few years, San Diego has become a great place to find restaurants that treat craft beer with as much respect as they do wine. Not only are chefs considering specific beers and styles to pair when they create menu items, lots of them are using beer in their recipes as well. This growing trend of eateries that feature highly beer-centric cuisine has been a boon for beer lovers and restaurants alike. And, with more than 150 breweries in town—literally thousands of beers to choose from—there seems to be an almost unlimited opportunity for breweries and restaurants to live together in perfect and eternal harmony.
There are dozens of places in San Diego that have elevated their menus above the typical and predictable pub fare while also offering an elevated selection of especially well-curated craft beers. Off the top of my head, I would say some of the best examples of these places are Urge Gastropubs, Bagby Beer, Waypoint Public, (the brand-new) Viewpoint Brewing, and Churchill’s Pub, in addition to the Stone Bistros and the numerous Karl Strauss brewpubs in the county. I would now add Kearney Mesa’s Common Theory to my list of standouts, thanks—in large part—to the recent addition of Chef A.G. Warfield (formerly of Churchill’s) in their kitchen.
They’ve been a good beer bar for a while, but Common Theory has recently undergone a bit of a craft beer renaissance. Some of that change is due to the need to stay relevant on the food scene. As manager Joseph Hsu says, “This business is like a shark. If it stops moving forward, it dies.” Common Theory’s transformation has, to a great extent, been due to the presence of Chef Warfield in the back of the house. Warfield is not only a highly talented culinary craftsman, he is also intimately familiar with beer; he knows how it’s made, its many styles, and who makes the best of it.
Since his Churchill’s days, Warfield has been thinking of beer and food as true partners and he’s strived to create food that not only improves with beer, but also enhances the beer itself. “A.G. not only has an intimate knowledge of beer, he also knows all the major players in San Diego brewing specifically,” Hsu says. These relationships translate into close partnerships and collaborations with brewers, many of who can create beers specifically for Warfield’s menu. “When we did our Maryland-style crab feast (we flew in the blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay), we had Pariah brew a beer specifically for that,” Hsu explains. “They brewed an Old Bay IPA, which was phenomenal.”
Hsu says that, once they knew Warfield was going to join the team, they decided the time was right to really “shake the menu up,” and take advantage of the expertise that he would bring. The new chef was not only tasked with changing up the menu, he was also needed to re-orient and re-focus the entire culture of the restaurant. “There was no real direction for the menu,” Warfield says. “They knew they wanted to do beer, but the food was kind of an afterthought. The menu was pretty much all over the place, and I felt what it really needed was to be geared a little more toward craft beer.” Warfield also welcomed the challenge of redesigning the menu according to his own tastes and influences, adding his own “flair” as he puts it, which he describes as “pretty much East Coast- and Maryland-influenced comfort food with a craft beer twist.”
The new menu that Warfield came up with not only highlights the versatility of craft beer as an accompaniment, it also encourages diners in the large, bustling space to share their dishes with each other. “The flatbreads, for example, are all party size, for sharing, and the sides are all larger, family-style portions,” Warfield explains. Numerous communal tables and bar-lounge type areas make it easy for patrons to pass plates and to sample the many flavors and textures that the new menu offers.
One of the restaurant’s most popular items is the Whole Fried Fish, which comes out on a big platter adorned with carrot chips and dill aioli. “I go to Catalina Offshore three times a week to see what’s fresh,” Warfield says. “We’ll bring in everything from sculpin to snapper to bass—whatever they have available. And we’ll update it daily.”
Another popular entrée is the dish that’s probably closest to the Maryland-born chef’s heart: “For me it’s always the crab cake. I love it because it’s a little bit of home and also because there’s no one else in town that does a proper Maryland crab cake. I challenge anyone out there to bring me a crab cake from anywhere in this city that is a proper Maryland crab cake sold in a working restaurant!” Warfield’s strong feelings about crab cakes stem partly from the fact that he’s been making them since he was twelve years old, from a recipe he learned directly from his grandmother.
The rest of the menu, Warfield says, sprung from his pub background and his love of elevated pub-style food. Duck plays a leading role in numerous dishes (not the least of which is the Flock of Duck Fries: shoestring fries topped with shredded duck confit, crispy duck skin, duck gravy, and a fried duck egg); and bacon, beef, and pork belly also appear in various forms on the menu. There are also more than a few vegan and vegetarian options for those so inclined.
More than 30 rotating taps at the bar provide an ample selection of great beers from which to choose, including many local beers from the best smaller breweries, such as Burgeon, Pariah, Pure Project, New English, 32 North, and Resident. During my visit, I had a chance to sample the Polenta, Tomato & Egg, which paired wonderfully with the medium-malty Amber from San Diego Brewing Co., before tasting the Crab Cakes & Fried Chicken, which were outstanding with Pariah’s Old Bay IPA. The Whole Fish was a fresh sculpin; crispy on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. Pure Project’s Hop Whisperer IPA was the perfect partner for this dish, which was not only dramatic in presentation, but also thoroughly delicious. I couldn’t leave without requesting the Brioche Fried Ice Cream, which has become one of Chef Warfield’s signature desserts. Vanilla ice cream is placed between two slices of brioche before being dipped in a stout batter and deep fried. Served with shaved chocolate, whipped cream, and honey maple syrup, this is a treat that is not to be missed—just like Common Theory.