There aren't many restaurants you can experience before even walking in the door.
But as you're heading from your car to Fireside, at Liberty Station, you're met with the intoxicating scent of espresso-rubbed brisket, chipotle tri-tip and barbecued pork shoulder. Your meal is beckoning from the parking lot.
And when you arrive at the outdoor hostess stand, you're just feet away from the searing, smoking meat in the massive, Santa Maria-style grill. Look, there's dinner.
Whether you sit under the twinkling lights on Fireside's gorgeously verdant patio or inside the historic Naval Training Center's fire station-turned-stylishly designed dining room, your senses are already fired up.
And fortunately, most dishes are ablaze with enough flavor to live up to that enchanting pre-meal, wood-fired welcome. In three visits to Fireside, I found only a few things to be a complete flameout.
Where: 2855 Perry Road, Liberty Station, Point Loma
Phone: (619) 432-2100
Fireside is the latest in the Patio Restaurant Group's growing empire - with sister locations in Pacific Beach and Mission Hills. For this elevated backyard barbecue restaurant, the ever-compelling consulting chef Antonio Friscia has developed a globe-trotting menu built around fire but not solely limited to meat.
In fact, I shared one meal with a vegetarian and she had plenty of delicious options, like the crispy, paprika-dusted papas, served with a creamy herb aioli, and the moist, straight-out-of-the-oven cheddar cornbread with whipped orange mascarpone butter. If heaven were fluffy and citrus-flavored, that's what it would taste like. Or perhaps like the whipped potato and herb side dish that's so light it could crown a savory dessert.
Another time, I loved the smoked trout and quinoa salad and roasted mushroom flatbread, despite a less-than-crispy crust. Both are earthy dishes. And the wood-fired mussels swimming in smoked tomato and beer broth should come with a glass - you will want to drink that intense, unforgettable liquid.
Hey, who needs meat?
Well, I do, especially when it's that Santa Maria-style beef and pork, all tender, juicy and coated in sweet, smoky goodness. Order a platter or a mixed combo and enjoy them unadorned, save their rubs, or seek them out in other dishes where they are embellished.
The smoked pork shoulder, for example, comes as a sandwich at lunch, the kaiser roll sopping up all that Carolina barbecue sauce. And the smoked brisket is a knockout on a flavor-packed flatbread with blue cheese, béchamel, roasted garlic and scallions.
Juicy, bone-in pork chop and crispy, fatty pork belly and succulent smoked half chicken are among the best versions I've had of those dishes, which made it surprising that the bratwurst and the elk meatball yakitori were so average. And it was perplexing that the same kitchen that turned out the culinary perfection of that pork chop, pork belly and those mussels would also serve a soggy flatbread and ice-cold cornbread. A deft waiter whisked it away and brought out a fresh, hot one when we pointed it out.
The kitchen crew wasn't the only one having an off night on that visit. Our regular waiter wasn't so deft. In fact, he committed all of the cardinal sins of service: too informal, yet badly informed on the menu; too chatty, until he disappeared.
Luckily, the wine and cocktail list is well-chosen and enticing, and the meat was so good, we didn't get too fired up over it.