The Florence takes unconventional plunge into dining scene


Sixty-nine years ago, San Diego’s Florence Chadwick became an international sensation when she set the first of two world records for long-distance swimming. Although Chadwick, who died in 1995, isn’t a familiar name to San Diegans today, a new restaurant dedicated to her memory is fast making its own waves on the local dining scene.

The Florence, which opened in late March in an inland North County office park, is a unique culinary hybrid. By day, it serves as coffeehouse, cafe and catering operation for workers in the Kilroy Sabre Springs business park. On weeknights and weekend mornings, it also serves dinner and brunch to the surrounding community. And on Saturday and Sunday nights, it’s reserved for private events. The $4 million, 10,000-square-foot project incorporates 2 acres of indoor/outdoor upscale beach-style dining and recreation space.

In keeping with the theme of the fast-swimming, globe-hopping Chadwick, diners can sample a fresh-baked Chadwick bun or fish-shaped taiyaki pastry for breakfast; have lunch over a shrimp Louis salad, which executive chef/partner Ricardo Heredia adapted from a dish on the Chadwick family’s restaurant menu from the 1930s and ‘40s; and spend happy hour sipping a tropical Riptide cocktail with a falafel egg appetizer, inspired by Chadwick’s travels in the Middle East.

Decorating the walls and shelves of The Florence are Chadwick’s original trophies, mementos, luggage, books and photographs. There’s even one of the swimsuits Chadwick wore when she set the women’s speed record for crossing the English Channel in 1950 and, a year later, became the first woman to ever swim the channel in both directions.

Three months into service, The Florence is ramping up quickly, with a fast-growing happy hour and dinner business and a steady workday lunch/brunch crowd. One reason is likely the affordable prices. Lunch and dinner entrees range from $7 to $17, with most in the $13 to $14 range. And during happy hour, house wines are $4, beers are $4 to $6, and cocktails are $7, with appetizers starting at $6.

The other reason for The Florence’s smooth sailing is less visible but more critical to its success, the dream team behind the scenes. The Florence is the first project of newly formed Legal Restaurants, led by local chef and founder Antonio Friscia (Rustic Root, Gaijin, Don Chido), developer Nick Sanderson, interior designer Keoni Barcarse and culinary director Fern Tran (Don Chido, Gaijin).

In recent weeks, I sampled items on the brunch, happy hour and dinner menus and found many I’d recommend for and a few that need more work. But the service is consistently on point, the bar staff is well-trained and the decor of the restaurant and its large outdoor seating area is attractive, comfortable and interesting.

Heredia’s globally inspired menu takes familiar dishes and gives them an unusual twist. On the brunch menu, the hearty Cubano sandwich ($14) replaces pork and with braised beef and pastrami. The perfectly seared salmon is served in the pressed style of chicken paillard, with arugula, grapes and a house Hollandaise (a terrific value at $15). But the most interesting and soul-satisfying dish is the broken rice porridge ($9), with surprise of chicken meatballs hidden inside, ginger, scallions, cured egg yolk shavings and a dash of spicy chili oil.

Salmon is also a standout on the dinner menu. Here, tender New Zealand salmon is slow-cooked on a sheet of cedar paper and served with a wedge of charred purple cabbage and decorative dots of gochujang, a spicy Korean chili paste. The dish tastes as good as it looks and at $16, it’s a steal.

The ultra-savory roasted chicken breast dish is served with a buttery baked mushroom tart, potato puree and roasted onion demi-glaze ($16). The steak frites ($17) is a cast-iron cooked bavette sirloin with the best gourmet cubed tater tots I’ve ever had. And the seemingly simple grilled cheese sandwich with tomato bisque ($14) has been glammed up with five different cheeses, fresh herbs and crème fraîche.

There is also a children’s menu with $7 meals including grilled cheese sandwich, pasta and cheeseburger.

Not every dish I’ve tasted in these opening months has been a home run. The healing chicken soup ($7) was too watery on my visit. The double cheeseburger ($13) has the taste of a souped-up Big Mac, but the meat was mushy and the bun was blah. The happy hour Korean chicken wings ($7) are finger-licking good, but a wet-nap would be welcome. The small Florence kale and blue cheese salad ($7) is a hearty and healthy happy hour offering, but it’s served in such a small bowl that some of my salad ended up on the table.

I’m also looking forward to the roll-out of more items on the dessert menu. For now, there’s just lemon meringue pie and an ice cream sundae. An in-house pastry program is producing breakfast buns and taiyaki (Japanese fish-shaped cake) for the brunch hours, but hopefully more sweets will arrive for dinner service in the coming months.

Legal Restaurants co-founder Sanderson said the company goal is to create more unique hybrid restaurants in office parks around the county. There is a built-in clientele from 9 to 5 weekdays, but the risk for a restaurateur is attracting diners into the nontraditional setting on weeknights and weekends.

In the early months, that risk appears to be paying off at The Florence. The crowd has grown larger every time I have visited, while speed of service and food quality has remained consistent. Florence Chadwick broke the mold as one of the world’s fastest women swimmers, and the restaurant in her name is keeping pace in forging its own path.

The Florence

Hours: Brunch, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Happy hour 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner service, 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Brunch, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Where: 13480 Evening Creek Drive North, Suite 150, San Diego

Phone: (858) 433-1545