Quality Social Dining Review
When Jared Van Camp signed on to be executive chef at Quality Social in the Gaslamp, he knew the menu concept would require a little explanation.
“We wanted to take the typical luxury-restaurant approach and apply it to dive-bar staples” like burgers and stiff cocktails, Van Camp says. “Because everyone loves a great dive bar.”
The same idea has successfully worked at Old Town Social in Chicago, where Van Camp is executive chef and reigning king of the “hot newcomers” food scene. So when the minds and money behind Old Town Social decided to open a bar and restaurant in San Diego based on the same aesthetic, Van Camp was the obvious choice to lead the kitchen.
His menu focuses on locally sourced ingredients and creating everything possible in-house. Van Camp spent months traveling around the San Diego region looking for the right farms and ranches. Among his finds, he’s included fresh ground beef from Brandt Farms for his house burger, Carlsbad oysters (on the menu two ways: raw with cocktail sauce or barbecued and served on a napkin), Crows Pass lettuces and heaps of citrus, fruit, asparagus and herbs from local farms.
“My first reaction to opening a place in San Diego and being able to tap into the local foods there was utter excitement,” Van Camp says. “You basically have a year-round growing season.”
He applies his culinary skills to common items like hot dogs and burgers by making everything from scratch — the hot dogs themselves as well as the mustards, relishes and other condiments. Toasty flatbread is also made daily and dressed up with crushed English peas, ricotta, mint and local Meyer lemons. An ever-changing charcuterie plate shows off his curing talents as well, with a choice of 12 meats and 12 California artisanal cheeses. The chef brings in a whole pig each month and uses every last inch, from ribs to bacon to sausages.
“My favorites are the dry cured meats, especially the finnochiona and soppresata,” says Van Camp, who has a pig tattooed on his arm. “It has been 15 years of evolution with those recipes.”
The menu and the space both come off as approachable. Affordable. Accessible. You don’t have to know the mustard and aioli are made in-house to know they taste darned delicious. And except for a handful of larger plates, the menu is à la carte, so you can order to your appetite easily. Sides and appetizers like Belgian-style fries ($6), duck wings with Harissa sauce ($10) and Carlsbad oysters ($2.50 each) are a good start before one of the finely tuned sandwiches ($9-$13).
Quality Social is also a place to meet friends after work for a drink. The unique cocktails and strong beer list stand just as tall as the menu. “Not your grandma’s gin & tonic” comes stiff with North Shore #6 gin and house-made tonic; the popular Dirty Old Man with Old Overholt rye whiskey, Bénédictine, lemon and peach bitters packs plenty of punch ($10 apiece).
Inside, the design team knocked out a few walls and partitions in the corner space at Sixth Avenue and F Street (formerly the short-lived Greek eatery EXY; before that, the Palm Springs– based chain LG’s Steakhouse), creating a wide-open space outlined with booths, plus plenty of seating at two separate bars and long wooden tables for communal chow.
On a pulsing weekend night in the Gaslamp, QS feels distinctly — thankfully — more casual than neighboring clubs at the Andaz Hotel, and far from the mechanical-bull antics and chili fries found at Double Deuce across the street. Out of place, perhaps? Maybe. Some may say Van Camp’s Chicago-born brand of next-level restaurant food with casual-bar atmosphere (never a cover charge here, and nary a doorman or fashion police officer in sight) might fit in better at the beach or an uptown neighborhood with a more discerning clientele than the Gaslamp’s anywhere-I-can-get-on-the-list crowd for whom food is more of an afterthought. Or an after-2-a.m. thought.
“A lot of people have said the concept and feel of Quality Social would be more comfortable in North Park,” says Christopher Dexter, a partner in the restaurant, along with Christopher Freeman and Christopher Guimond. “But what we wanted to do was bring a neighborhood-bar feel to the Gaslamp.”
With crowds already flocking in for Happy Hour and pre – Padre game drinks, here’s hoping the locals stay for dinner too. There’s some serious culinary heavy lifting happening in this kitchen. But don’t get too set on your favorite dishes just yet. The menu changes with the seasons according to what ingredients are available. Up next? “Lots of peaches,” Van Camp says.
[Cocktail] Also imported from Chicago’s Old Town Social, mixologist Charles Joly created the cocktails for Quality Social. There’s a strong preference for bourbon, scotch and whiskey on the liquor list, and the Dirty Old Man has the subtle power to complement the menu’s flavorful meats without being overwhelming.
[Hits] Duck wings with Harissa sauce, charcuterie plate with house-cured meats, beet-and-burrata salad — and the “our way” burger with local Brandt beef (ground daily), bacon and a fried egg, as delicious as it is guilt-inducing.