A Visit with Value
THE WOLF APPEARS to be knocking at certain restaurant doors these days, but the establishments with a long history of offering good value for the dollar—beaucoup bang for the buck, in other words—seem to have little to fear from the big bad blowhard. Three leaders in this category are Anthony’s Fish Grotto on the Embarcadero, the affable Busalacchi’s in Hillcrest and the consistently superb Vincent’s in Escondido.
FOR THE 63 YEARS before Diego the Whale patrolled the bay, Anthony’s Fish Grotto traditionally did a whale of a business. When the recent downturn threatened to shorten the lines that often stretch from the over-the-water restaurant’s doors, Diego swam to the rescue, packing tables with locals and visitors hoping to glimpse this blithe spirit of the deep. Perhaps Anthony’s should have paid him in its decades-long favorites like New England chowder, hand-battered fish and chips, and the combination shrimp-and-crab Louie salad.
An institution since Mama Catherine Ghio commenced serving homestyle seafood dishes to the public in 1946 (her grandchildren uniformly praise her as having been San Diego’s finest cook), Anthony’s Fish Grotto is one of the city’s longest-running purveyors of good-value fare. A scenic view never hurts, and Anthony’s commands a just-above-the-waves vista that sweeps as boldly around the bay as the luxury vessels gliding between Point Loma and North Island. With neighbors that include the Star of India and her sister ships, harbor-excursion boats and, not so far down the Embarcadero, the USS Midway Museum, Anthony’s serves plenty of visitors, but locals also beg for seating at the comfortable booths along the glass walls.
The menu takes a bit of time to read, but many regulars never give it a glance, since they have their orders down by heart. If the appetizers could go head-to-head, crab-stuffed mushrooms and fried calamari probably would vie for the title of San Diego’s favorite. The well-stuffed, bubbling-hot mushrooms headline the all-seafood starter list, followed not just by a wide-of-girth crab cake and crisply finished baby squid but by such “comfort food” choices as coconut-crusted shrimp.
More-sophisticated offerings like the “martini” of poke-style ahi tuna and sweet, salty oysters on the half-shell set the tone for the simply but carefully cooked fresh catches upon which Anthony’s built its reputation—and for standing selections like dayboat scallops prepared teriyaki style, squid steak Milanese and delicate rex sole, served whole to retain every drop of juicy flavor. It’s a long menu replete with shellfish selections, innovative “right-sized meals” for smaller appetites (a trout fillet with one side dish, for example), seafood-avocado salads and, for those who must, a teriyaki top sirloin.
Anthony’s Fish Grotto, 1360 North Harbor Drive, San Diego, 619-232-5103; gofishanthonys.com
AT NEARLY A QUARTER-CENTURY, Busalacchi’s Ristorante in Hillcrest is not the town’s longest-toothed oldtimer, but it owns a long-running reputation for giving customers their money’s worth. In the course of a generation, restaurateurs Joe and Lisa Busalacchi (whose little dining empire also stretches up India Street and over to Chula Vista’s EastLake district) have nurtured the concept of dining stylishly but casually in this converted house with several small dining rooms, a cozy bar and tables on a sheltered patio that fronts Fifth Avenue. A recently completed condominium complex across the road spoiled the view during two years of construction, but with the work done, candlelight and charm have returned to this quiet block south of Hillcrest’s busy heart.
When he opened his namesake eatery in 1986, Joe Busalacchi introduced a number of locally unfamiliar Sicilian dishes, including the baked imbotitti appetizer (pesto, pasta and cheeses rolled in sliced eggplant) and calamari stuffed with crab, shrimp, breadcrumbs, tomatoes and currants. Sweet, sharp and piquant flavors weave through the menu, highlighted by items such as the orange vinaigrette splashed on a spinach salad with goat cheese, apples and walnuts, and the pungent capers and olives that rev the racy flavors of the rigatoni Palermo with spicy sausage, garlic, tomatoes and hot red chili.
Although the lobster ravioli in a “pink” cream sauce tinted with marinara is a bestseller, the menu also emphasizes less-familiar pastas like mushroom-filled lunette (half-moons) flavored with sage and lemon. A big dish just about engraved with the Busalacchi signature, the pappardelle con osso bucco arranges aromatic stewed vegetables and chunks of braised veal shank over broad, eggy ribbon noodles. Like all of the pastas, the pappardelle are rolled on the premises, a practice Joe says is “so labor-intensive it doesn’t pay”—except in the return visits of customers who taste value in every succulent bite.
Busalacchi’s Ristorante, 3683 Fifth Avenue, San Diego, 619-298-0119; busalacchis.com
IN NORTH COUNTY, Vincent’s remains the landmark fine-dining restaurant on downtown Escondido’s Grand Avenue. Ably operated by the very French Vincent Grumel (who first visited San Diego in the late 1970s and never left) and his very American wife, Lisa, the place is comfortably contemporary. Like the restaurant’s proprietors, the décor balances American and French accents, with periodically changed artworks selected by Lisa hanging just above light-toned half-paneling that recalls Vincent’s home in Provence.
Both the cuisine and the service place this Escondido charmer in North County’s highest echelon, but while the beef Wellington ($36) remains a favorite with celebratory guests, the restaurant has made plenty of friends with the good-value “Trois et Trois” menus served on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Orders must be in by 6 p.m., but the $30 three-course meals deliver so much per dollar that early dining has become en vogue at 113 West Grand Avenue. Key to the Trois et Trois are the three choices per course, distinguished offerings that have nothing budget-scented about them.
New Trois et Trois menus appear weekly, and to give an example of their breadth, a recent one opened with the choice of white bean-wild mushroom soup crowned with a fat prawn, baked Brie tart with a salad of arugula and strawberries or Provence-style frog’s legs fragrant with garlic. Entrée options ran from well-garnished filet mignon with winey sauce Bordelaise to lingcod baked with Provençale seasonings in parchment paper to Jidori chicken “deviled” with hot mustard. On this particular menu, Grumel’s glamorous “Bavarois au Chocolat” (molded cake and Bavarian cream sauced with Swiss chocolate) headlined a dessert list that ran to crêpes Suzettes with strawberries and a plush blueberry tart. Why such elaborate choices? Because, answers Vincent with Gallic simplicity, “Everybody serves cheesecake.”
Vincent’s, 113 West Grand Avenue, Escondido, 760-745-3835; vincentsongrand.com