Cafe Reviews


You want dramatic scenery? Arizona's got it. You want an azure sky? Arizona's got it. You want a cool ocean breeze? Arizona doesn't got it.

That's why a half-million summer-baked Zonies trek across mountain and desert to reach San Diego and exclaim, "This is the place!" But vacationing Zonies don't care to live by bread alone. Here's a guide to some of San Diego's best restaurants.

The young and the hip are flocking to Fio's Cucina Italiana, a 2-year-old yupscale eatery that's part of downtown's Gaslamp District revival.

You know you're not in Phoenix anymore as soon as you enter. The young, well-trained staff is clad entirely in black, with Southern California good looks and the charm not to introduce themselves. The patrons are chic, sleek and prosperous. So is the decor: black-frame chairs, snazzy lighting and pastel banquettes set the mood. A back room has a pizza oven encircled by bar seating for drinking and noshing. The place is casual, Californian and convivial.

And unlike most popular see-and-be-seen places, Fio's actually dishes up outstanding fare.

Start off with insalata di Fio's, lightly dressed mixed greens goosed with golden raisins, mushrooms, pine nuts and warm goat cheese. It's not too filling if you ease up on the fresh-nut-studded wheat bread accompanying it.

Pasta dishes are superb, and you can order half-portions. Particularly good is the pesto-laden angel-hair pasta, flecked with pine nuts and chunks of roast chicken and blended with lots Parmesan cheese. It's too rich and fattening, I thought, momentarily putting down my fork. The extra calories, I mused, might diminish my beach-bunny magnetism. But a quick check in the men's-room mirror told me there was no point in worrying. I had all the seaside appeal of an oil spill. I went back to eating with a renewed sense of purpose. I needed it for the huge main dish, a terrific whole chicken breast stuffed with spinach and cheese, and covered with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and green peppercorns. Crunchy, parsley-tinged mixed vegetables and wedges of roasted red potatoes completed the platter. Surprisingly, the chicken came with the skin on. Over the years, my family has thoroughly educated me on the dietary evils of chicken skin. I'm about as likely to munch it as I am to eat my cat. This bird's skin, though, was a buttery, crispy, golden brown. One taste led to another, and pretty soon the skin had disappeared. Perhaps sensing a change in our relationship, the cat hasn't been nearly as friendly since I got back. Those who absolutely refuse to dine out without dessert should save room for the macadamia-nut cheesecake. It rests on a thick, buttery shortcake crust and comes with a caramel-sauce topping. An extra-strong espresso will keep you up until you reach your hotel room.

About an hour northeast of San Diego lies one of California's better-kept tourist secrets. The Temecula Valley is a poor man's Napa Valley, a wine region just evolving from sleepy backwater to booming suburb. If the new housing developments, hotels and sprawling malls are any indication, in five years it will be as congested as its northern California counterpart. But for now, at least, it's as pleasant as Napa before the hordes. About a dozen wineries stretch down Rancho California Road, and you can make a day of it tasting the local vintages.

There's even one champagne maker, Culbertson Winery. Stop for a tour and lunch at its bucolic Cafe Champagne.

About four years old, this delightful spot overlooks the thickening vines at Callaway Vineyards, spread over the rolling hills across the road.

You can eat in air-conditioned comfort inside, but lunch on the wood-beamed outside pavilion is even better. The seating is informal, on white plastic chairs of the poolside variety. Overhead ceiling fans and a burbling fountain in front of the main Culbertson building will cool you off. To make you feel at home, the waitresses wear bola ties.

Avoid the pricey, heavy lunch entrees and stick to the lighter dishes. A good start is to share the terrine of black beans. It's a pt of black beans and sausage, with a wedge of warm goat cheese in the center. It comes with fresh corn relish, avocado salsa and several crusts of toasted Italian bread. This appetizer is clever and tasty enough to be copied by Valley Southwestern-style chefs.

Among the excellent lunch salads, none topped the one featuring warm scallops and roasted shallots. Eight huge, meaty, lightly cooked scallops alternated with tender, mild shallots to ring a plate of greens. A hefty portion of sun-dried tomatoes rested on the salad, splashed with a gentle, balsamic vinaigrette. With a forkful of scallop in one hand, a glass of Culbertson bubbly in the other and the Valley before me, life seemed a little less nasty, not very brutish and altogether too short. A desire to linger and a peek at the homemade desserts should keep you rooted to your seat. The best of them is a swirled white-and-dark-chocolate mousse, extremely rich and dense. Covered with fresh raspberries, it gave the sugar jolt necessary to continue the wine-tasting tour. When I asked Harvey, my Pacific Beach friend, to suggest a good neighborhood seafood restaurant, he immediately blurted out, "Lamont Street Grill." He and his wife, a bicoastal New York/San Diego pair, had their wedding reception there, he told me, and come back frequently. Suddenly he came to his senses. "Oh, no," he moaned, "you're not going to tell Zonies about this place, are you?"