In what may be a first for San Diego, a secret dining room has opened in Ponsaty's restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.
The small brick-lined room - which comes with its own waiter, door to the outside and parking space - was designed for VIP clients who may want to pop the question or close a big business deal, and for local celebrities who prefer to eat without an audience.
Ponsaty's staff calls it the Secret Room, but customers are referring to it as a "speakeasy for food," said marketing director Jessica Gillon.
Secret dining rooms have been a popular trend in Asia, Europe and South America, but only began popping up in the U.S. about five years ago with the rise of nouveau speakeasy bars.
They run the gamut from little-known extra rooms that restaurants use for weddings to underground supper clubs that require a password or secret phone number. Among the most famous secret spots in the U.S. are Hush in Washington, D.C.; Vernon's Hidden Valley Steakhouse in Albuquerque; Bohemian in New York City; and Safe House in Milwaukee.
Gaining access to the secret room at Ponsaty's doesn't require a password, but diners who book the room must spend a minimum of $500 to reserve the space.
Ponsaty's Restaurant opened 10 months ago at the corner of Paseo Delicias and La Granada. The two-level building has been owned for nearly 75 years by the Millar family, who used it as a family home after they came to Rancho Santa Fe in the 1920s to farm avocados. Thirty-six years ago, the building was converted into a restaurant space that was occupied for most of that time by Delicias restaurant, which closed in 2015.
Last year, the space was leased by Grand Restaurant Group, which spent months modernizing the old building's interior. The old kitchen in the back corner of the building was gutted and a new, larger kitchen was built closer to the front dining room. The old kitchen space was used for storage until work began on converting it into the Secret Room about three months ago.
The restaurant is named for Patrick Ponsaty, the corporate chef for Grand Restaurant Group. One of only two French Master Chefs in San Diego County, Ponsaty is a fifth-generation chef from Southern France who started cooking school at age 15. He honed his skills at Michelin-starred restaurants in Monaco and Spain, then moved to New York in the mid-1990s. Since 1997, he's been cooking at restaurants around San Diego.
Ponsaty said that since opening the restaurant last summer, he's learned a lot about the Rancho Santa Fe clientele. His customers like a menu that ranges from $14 burger plates at lunch to six-course chef tasting dinners that are $165 with wine pairings. Another thing he's learned is that diners have been looking for a place where they can have an exclusive meal experience with customized services.
"There are a lot of celebrities, especially sports celebrities, around here who enjoy going out to dinner but don't want to be watched," Ponsaty said.
To get to the Secret Room, diners must be led through the dining room, past the new kitchen, through a door, down a staircase and through a second door. Situated near the restaurant's wine cellar, the room has the look and feel of an old-school New York steakhouse, circa 1940.
Up to six diners can sit around a custom-made, hand-painted table in a high-backed red velvet banquette. The walls are decorated with brick and hand-embroidered leather panels by custom upholsterer Lawrence Solc in San Marcos. The room is decorated with retro items, including a 1950s-style cocktail cabinet and an antique radio.
Gillon said the first bookings have included a wedding proposal and a celebratory dinner for six men who enjoy group dinners over Scotch whiskey (Ponsaty's has 125 varieties of Scotch). Customers who want to book the room can work with the staff to customize the experience.
A few weeks ahead of each Secret Room reservation, Ponsaty meets with the client to plan the menu. Then on the reserved night, he will arrive with each course to describe the dish. Cocktail lovers can get tableside presentations from the bartender, and descriptions of wine pairings from the house sommelier. Diners can also request a custom music playlist for the room.
For extra-special occasions, Gillon said diners can pay for add-on services that range from $300 to $600. A singer-songwriter can be hired to write a unique love song that he will perform in a private concert for the couple. There's also a speed painter who can capture the surprise moment of a proposal on canvas and present the finished artwork at the end of the meal. And for a takeaway memento, the words of the proposal can be etched in glass.
Ponsaty said he hasn't wanted to do a lot of publicity about the Secret Room because that spoils some of the surprise. But interest in the room has been high and Gillon said they expect it to be in great demand, no doubt when horse-racing season begins on July 19.