La Mesa: The next culinary hotspot


It’s the most prevalent sign of the times on La Mesa Boulevard - “Coming Soon.”

There it is on the future Fourpenny House, whose front window at 8323 La Mesa Blvd. proclaims it’s bringing bread, beer and sprits to the street. There’s Curbside Eatery + Drinkery, with its announcement that it’s “Opening Summer 2017” a block away at No. 8353. Not far, at No. 8381, it’s Surf Rider Pizza Co. & Bakery, which is “Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood.”

Welcome to the booming boulevard.

In recent months, Blvd Noodles, Sheldon’s Service Station, Public Square and Farmer’s Table have all opened, helping to turn the quaint village core into the county’s next dining destination.

Along with such longtime venerable boulevard eateries as Swami’s Cafe, Por Favor, Tiramisu Trattoria, Johnny B’s and Centifonti’s Bar & Restaurant, downtown La Mesa has evolved into an eclectic restaurant row that combines old and new, hipster and homespun and that appeals to every taste and budget.

“This is the new place,” said Aaron Dean, who opened Blvd Noodles four months ago and Sheldon’s Service Station not long before that.

“There’s an energy downtown that’s different than a year ago or two years ago. It really has a charm that you don’t find in any other community,” said Dean, 47, who is chair of the La Mesa Village Association.

A 40-year resident who graduated from Patrick Henry High School and lives in Mt. Helix, Dean said he decided to invest in his two La Mesa Boulevard restaurants after the city dedicated $8 million to spruce up downtown and modernize its infrastructure. New street lights, signage, trees, sidewalks and parking meters were all instrumental to the area’s business boom, he said.

His hope for La Mesa is that it evolves into Old Pasadena, where retail and services are as vibrant as the culinary scene. “Retail is a must - the antique shops, the clock store, the hair salon, the new vinyl record store, they all bring synergy. It just can’t be all bars and restaurants,” Dean said.

Community events are also a way ensure the area’s liveliness, he said. On Tuesday, the quarterly La Mesa Boulevard Stroll will take place on a long stretch of the thoroughfare, east and west of Spring Street. The theme is Summer Luau.

“The idea is that every type of store would keep their doors open, offering a glass of wine here, live music there,” Dean said. “The idea is to get people out of their homes. It’s really bringing awareness - most people think of La Mesa as older, for retirement.”

Posters for the stroll encourage people to “rediscover the village.” They might not recognize it.

In 2012, chef Brian Malarkey stunned the foodie world when he opened Gingham, one of his fabric-themed spots, on La Mesa Boulevard. When the “urban cowboy diner” closed the next year, outsiders snickered a sarcastic “told you so,” and La Mesans mustered a big shrug.

“I don’t think it’s going to break La Mesa by any stretch of the imagination,” Lynne Lopo, a former manager of Johnny B’s, a burger joint across the boulevard from Gingham, told the Union-Tribune in 2012. “We were doing fine long before he got here, and we’re going to do fine long after he’s gone. ... It’s disappointing, but is it the end of the world for La Mesa Village? No.”

It clearly wasn’t the end of the world.

Before long, the Cohn Restaurant Group, with its track record for investing in areas other restaurateurs overlook or even shun, opened Bo-Beau Kitchen + Garden in the space. Replicating the menu, if not the French country feel, of the successful original Bo-Beau in Ocean Beach, the La Mesa outpost soon became the place to see and be seen.

“For the last eight years, our direction has been to open in underserved markets,” said David Cohn, president of the Cohn Restaurant Group, citing the chain’s eateries in Oceanside, Escondido and Imperial Beach. “Those are underserved markets we feel deserve good restaurants and will support good restaurants if you come there.”

He said several factors made La Mesa an appealing location: An unusually large number of people living in the immediate vicinity of La Mesa Boulevard, good highway access and historical character.

“I said then it’s going to be the next cool neighborhood. I believe that now and I believed it then,” Cohn said.

The Cohns continue to invest in downtown La Mesa, recently opening the latest iteration of its video/pinball/game and brew concept, Coin Haus, right behind Bo-Beau.

“La Mesa is still not a late-night neighborhood, but the demographics are changing, older people are moving out and younger people with kids are moving in,” Cohn said.

Strolling the boulevard on a recent sweltering day, Dean was tickled to see how residents had taken to Sheldon’s Service Station, an almost exclusively outdoor breakfast, lunch and brunch cafe.

“Look at this, it’s Tuesday, it’s 90-degrees and I’ve got people on the patio. It’s awesome,” he beamed.

It’s been a little slower going at the newer Blvd Noodles, which specializes in ramen. Dean said it prides itself in its broth, which was created by a chef, formerly of hipster noodle houses Underbelly and Rakiraki, whom Dean said he “stole.”

“It’s hard to get people to recognize that you can have ramen outside Convoy,” he said.

La Mesa’s image makeover extends beyond the noodle bowl, said Kristine Alessio, a member of the city council. Alessio also cited the city’s $8 million investment in spurring the boulevard’s economic verve.

“Part of what a city provides, besides trash collection and the like, is a sense of community,” she said. “It’s becoming a hotspot. It’s not sleepy little geriatric La Mesa anymore.”

5 not to miss

Blvd Noodles: (No. 8325) Silky, umami-rich ramen, nitro-sake on tap and the best one-two flavor punch on the boulevard: miso corn salad and bao bun tacos.

Sheldon’s Service Station: (No. 8401) Excellent coffee, pastries, salads, sandwiches and three words: za’atar avocado toast.

Bo-Beau: (No. 8384) Boho chic French comfort food, hip cocktails, well-chosen wines and the best Brussels sprouts you’ll ever have.

Johnny B’s: (No. 8393) The burger and brew spot everyone wishes they had in their neighborhood. No pretensions, just really good food.

Public Square: (No. 8278) There goes the neighborhood - in a community-minded direction. An earnest vibe along with pour-over coffee, artisan teas and organic food.

5 best of the rest

Farmer’s Table: (No. 8141) To see what all the buzz is about.

Swami’s Cafe: (No. 8284) For big, healthy - and not so healthy - bites.

Tiramisu Trattoria: (No. 8273) For home-style pizza, pasta and, of course, tiramisu.

Por Favor: (No. 8302) Classic Mexican on the bustling sidewalk patio or the gorgeously-tiled dining room.

Konnichiwa Sushi: (No. 8350) Go for the Comic-Con theme, stay for the Godzilla Roll.

La Mesa Boulevard Stroll

What: Free quarterly themed event - this is Summer Luau - featuring music, family-friendly activities, bites, sips and more.

When: 5-8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: La Mesa Boulevard, east and west of Spring Street

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