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The Red Door

location > 741 West Washington Street, Mission Hills
phone > 619-295-6000
chef > Brian Johnston


IN ROSIER TIMES, the talk of the town was about restaurant openings. This year, it’s a who’s who of who’s closed. Among the doors shuttered in 2009 was Mission Hills’ Parallel 33, once a shrine to the fabulous foods from that latitude. Driving past the faded exterior, we wondered: Who would launch a new dining venue during these turbulent times?

The answer comes not in the form of a corporate chain or a celebrity backer but in a story as romantic as the night it was born: Valentine’s Day 2009. A couple dined that evening at a cozy restaurant/wine bar in Hillcrest. Charmed by the food and the experience, they asked to meet the owner—and surprised him with a business proposition.

Tom and Trish Watlington’s offer to Ric Libiran of Café Bleu was originally to help launch a restaurant in East County. But plans took a fairytale turn when Parallel 33’s prime location became available and top chef Brian Johnston (honored for his work at Anthony’s Star of the Sea and El Bizcocho) was looking for a new gig after leaving the San Diego Convention Center.

By July’s close, The Red Door was open.

Comfort food is big when budgets are small, and the team has wisely chosen a menu we can cozy up to. Pork chops, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, bread pudding: The stuff we loved as children still warms our hearts as adults. Happily, chef Johnston is as adept at making braised short ribs and mac ’n’ cheese as he was at preparing imported Dover sole, loup de mer and fresh abalone at the Star.

And with prices roughly half those of a “fine-dining establishment”—nothing’s over $19.50, and most entrées are much less—we can feel okay about a night out on the town now.

As at Café Bleu, there’s a full bar specializing in designer martinis and mojitos. Wines are again chosen by Libiran’s sommelier daughter, Deyna, whose globetrotting selections are considerately served by the half-glass or as a full pour. Many are small-lot productions, which means if you love that beguiling Domaine Le Capitaine Vouvray or aptly named Two Angels Divinity (a luscious Rhone-style red), enjoy it while it’s here; next week, it may be sold out for good.

A half-glass of the Vouvray paired nicely with chunky crab cakes and grilled summer veggies ($12.50), a starter we recommend along with the superior spinach sal­ad ($9.50) and classic Creole-style shrimp and grits—er, polenta ($9.50). Grilled romaine hearts ($8.50) needed more char—the smokier, the better—but puckery green-apple slivers and bold Roquefort dressing made terrific accents.

Entrées start at $12.50 for a plump, half-pound burger with slim European-style fries and max out at $19.50 for Johnston’s inspired spin on classic surf and turf. This clever riff on the silken textures of long-braised pork cheeks and swiftly seared scallops, and their mutual affinity for polenta and tawny garlic au jus, is a must.

The Cajun catfish ($16.50) is a celebration of Southern cuisine, from the sweet-potato hash to the smoky barbecue sauce, and the gorgeous pork chop ($17.50) is cooked to the tenderest blush of pink. The short ribs ($18.50) are a sure thing: Braised in veal stock and vin rouge, paired with whipped Yukon golds and topped with fried onions, this is meat and potatoes at its best.

Desserts ($6.50 apiece), made on the premises, range from a root-beer float and strawberry shortcake to a fresh blueberry cobbler (cobblers will change seasonally). Each is sufficient for sharing, unless you’re in training for a pie-eating contest.

The original bar and dining spaces have been handsomely updated with beige walls and beadboard siding for the clean, contemporary feel of a stylish living room. In the bar, a comfy window seat offers prime seating, as do the two-top tables along the front windows of the dining rooms. Often the bar is standing room only, as locals catch up on neighborhood gossip and enjoy informal wine tastings.

The banquette seating in the back of the dining room, under a striking wine rack, accommodates larger parties and can get noisy. (Confidential to one clueless group straight out of the Jaywalk All-Stars: When your repartee devolves to shouts of “Shut up!” and “Get out!” it’s time to do both.) Far more often, The Red Door’s an appealing space where you can contemplate the eclectic, low-volume background music, converse with other diners and end an eve­ning feeling your money’s been well spent. Keep it in mind for a civilized lunch, especially for low-key business dining.

In China, painting the front door red is said to attract good fortune and happiness. If the smiling crowd of other restaurateurs, wine lovers and comfort-food connoisseurs who already call this place home is any indication, it works.

The Red Door serves lunch Monday-Friday, dinner nightly and brunch Saturday and Sunday at 741 West Washington Street, Mission Hills, 619-295-6000, thereddoorsd.com. Reservations are strongly recommended.

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