Another comfort zone has grown restless, as the California restaurant world enters its most challenging era in decades. Starting in the new year, longtime local favorite Urban Solace will become a different thing.
When chef Matt Gordon arrived in 2006, his gourmet comfort food provided a struggling yet ascendant North Park exactly what its name promised—a warm spot of solace among the gristle and grime. He made dishes that made him, like the duckaroni, which went on menu New Year’s Day, 2008, because they had a lot of leftover duck confit. Or the watermelon salad, which elevated the picnic fruit into a more composed realm. Or the beef cheeks, which at first scared people, but then became a tender-delicious San Diego mainstay.
And on New Year’s Day, 2019, those dishes will be gone. So will the full dinner service. At night, the restaurant will morph into a more social-dining experience they're calling Bar Solace. And they're also launching breakfast daily, starting this Tuesday.
"It’s time for it to be done," Gordon says. "We’re an 11-year-old restaurant. Time to do something new."
There will still be food after dark. Gordon’s team will still be cooking, in fact more so—inventing small, shareable plates on the fly. Really creating. The bartenders will still be making craft cocktails and pouring wines you can’t find many other places. But the main entrées will be gone.
"We’ll have a ton of share plates, like cheese boards and oysters, on certain nights," Gordon says. "That’s how I like to eat when I go out. Just order a bunch of plates and try different things. It’ll be more like the food we do at events around town. I love doing those. We always create something new and get a huge response. People ask if they can get it on our menu and we say, ‘No, we’re just playing around.’ So now they can get it on the menu."
You’ll walk in and find your own table; they’ll pair drinks. So to boil it down, they’ve decided A) North Park needs a gourmet breakfast spot, and their weekend brunch has been one of the city’s best for years now, and B) the whole idea of "full dinner service" for a neighborhood bistro is not sustainable anymore.
We all know why. No one likes to complain about paying people. Gordon wants to provide jobs and pay well. But California’s decision to raise minimum wage without letting restaurateurs count tips as earnings has drastically pinched the industry. Every time the wage goes up, a restaurant goes out. Or reconcepts. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe "full service" is a relic of the past.
Gordon is reticent to even discuss it. But I press him, because it’s obvious. Every restaurateur I speak with says the numbers don’t pan out.
"We have to be more efficient in what we do" is how he words it. "I want everyone to be able to work from behind the bar. It’ll be a little less formal than multi-course dining. It’s not meant to be coursed out. The goal will be a variety of seating options. We have that upper back for a date spot."
Restaurants like Solace must adapt. They streamline. Counter service is the future. Concepts like "chef to table" at Maestoso in Hillcrest are the future. Anything but having a robust floor staff is the future. I know a four-star chef who’s doing restaurant concepts that exist only as entries in app-based delivery services like Postmates. Facing the rising cost of labor, he’s literally opted to build a digital empire.
Longtime fans of what Urban Solace was have until December 31 to enjoy the duckaroni and beef cheeks. Come the new year, the design will change and the place will be a more open, social-dining, share-plate experience. And good breakfast/brunch items.
Gordon shared his breakfast menu, still a work in progress. It includes a "Toast" section (avocado with pickled fennel, pumpkin seeds, and greens; burrata with fig jam, caramelized onion, and arugula); "Carbs" (his famous skillet sticky buns; orange mascarpone French toast; buckwheat zucchini banana pancakes); "Healthful" (spicy quinoa bowl with ranchero sauce; pitaya parfait with dragonfruit, local granola, greek yogurt, banana, and hazelnut-almond butter); "Eggs and Savory" (scrambles, croques, soups, burgers); and an "Unleaded" drinks menu (maca malt shake, fresh-pressed juices, cold brew egg cream, turmeric latte, teas, specialty coffees).
"North Park is a great spot for breakfast," says Gordon. "Our brunch is and always has been our highest volume. I think we’re good at it. A lot of our locals who live there don’t have conventional 9-to-5 jobs.They’re musicians and artists and designers. They work from home. We only have a front door, so we’d leave it open every day for deliveries. Every day, people open that door and ask if we’re open for breakfast. So now we’re going go open at 8 a.m."
"I feel a little liberated," says Gordon.
3823 30th Street, North Park