Coronado, the sleepy, pristine beach town, has woken up. And it’s hungry.
Known for the iconic Hotel del Coronado, wide, white sand beaches and eye-poppingly expensive real estate, “the island” is poised to become San Diego County’s next A-list dining destination.
The perpetually charming community with a seemingly frozen-in-time feel is getting an influx of seven new restaurants that will further elevate Coronado’s increasingly impressive culinary climate. This emerging critical mass of stylish eateries will serve an evolving demographic of discriminating diners made up of locals, tourists and the elusive San Diego resident willing to cross the bridge for a meal.
Among the new projects are the two-week-old Little Frenchie — from the prolific Coronado restaurant group Blue Bridge Hospitality — that puts a casually sophisticated spin on Parisian bistro fare, along with the recently unveiled Latin and Baja-inspired ALBACA at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa, the Hotel Del’s upcoming, seafood-centric Serea from trendy, Las Vegas-based Clique Hospitality, and a future outpost of the popular pizza and pasta emporium Buona Forchetta.
“It’s all part of this culinary explosion that’s happening here,” said Andy Masi, a San Diego resident who is founder and CEO of Clique Hospitality. “Over the last four to five years, what’s been happening in the culinary world here is truly amazing. You have a lot of young, hungry chefs and entrepreneurs, it feels a little like a restaurant renaissance in San Diego. I’m not surprised it’s coming to Coronado — it’s just the next great area for it.”
Clique is known for developing swanky restaurants, bars and nightclubs at such Las Vegas hotels as The Palms, The Cosmopolitan and Bellagio, as well as for downtown San Diego’s Pendry hotel and the new Sycuan Casino Resort. That the historic Del would select Clique to modernize and revamp its signature restaurant signals a generational shift in who is eating in Coronado — and what they want to eat.
“What I’m talking about is approachable food, and everything that’s happening in San Diego and across the country — people want to know where my food is coming from and (want) to support all the local farmers and fishermen — is happening in Coronado at The Del,” Masi said. “People don’t want food that’s packaged; they want it fresh and local.”
There is no one with a keener finger on the local pulse of the Coronado dining scene than David Spatafore, the Coronado native and founder of Blue Bridge Hospitality, which runs seven eateries on the island, as well as the popular Point Loma food hall, Liberty Public Market.
“Looking back 10 to 20 years, Coronado had a few of the chains, Il Fornaio, the Brigantine, Miguel’s (Cocina), the (Bluewater) Boathouse. We had a handful of independently owned restaurants, but I feel
like they were catering to the tourists. There wasn’t a lot of innovation, it was pretty mundane and standard fare,” Spatafore said.
“Here’s your teriyaki chicken, here’s a baseball steak — the chains fed into that.”
Then, 10 years ago, Blue Bridge opened Leroy’s Kitchen & Lounge, which Spatafore said was Coronado’s first farm-to-table restaurant. He said Leroy’s, along with the elegant Saiko Sushi and Tartine, a European-style cafe and bistro, raised the quality level of dining there.
“Things were made with finer ingredients, instead of Sysco-to-table type cooking,” he said, referring to the multinational corporate food distributor.
Spatafore said the once food-snoozy community was home to the military, retirees and people who bought their homes in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s for $15,000 to $20,000 and raised their family there.
“Now those homes are worth $2, $3 million dollars, and we’ve got a lot of young families and wealthy people with second homes here,” he said. “The demographics have changed in this town, and the locals ... will support a broader spectrum of restaurant offerings.”
Two other changes, he said, are driving Coronado’s move toward elevated cuisine: more adventurous hotel guests at The Del and Loew’s Coronado Bay Resort and more San Diegans seeking out restaurants on the island.
“Like elsewhere in America, Coronado’s hotel guests are younger people willing to spend more on their vacations. And people in general, culinarily, are more willing to drive, they want to explore places to eat. I’m willing to drive to La Jolla and Carmel Valley to eat; they’re willing to come here,” Spatafore said.
“The bridge can be a wall sometimes. People didn’t want to drink and drive — even one glass of wine — and go over the bridge. But things have opened up. Uber and Lyft have definitely helped.”
As Coronado has changed, so has Blue Bridge Hospitality, which has a roster of casual spots, like Village Pizzeria, Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q and MooTime Creamery, while expanding a stable of carefully curated, higher-reaching restaurants. In 2015, five years after opening Leroy’s, Spatafore boosted the bar on gourmet dining, with the swanky steakhouse Stake Chophouse & Bar.
“In the beginning, there was a kind of shell-shocked factor,” he said of Stake’s critically acclaimed culinary ambition, first-class wine selection and sizable dinner tabs to match. “We had much lower price points at Leroy’s. But here we were (at Stake) sourcing food from all over the globe, FedExing stuff in, it was more boutiquey. And the prices had to be higher, but because of the cost of our ingredients, we make the least amount money there than any of our restaurants.”
In recent months, Blue Bridge gave Maretalia, a longtime Italian favorite, an overdue design refresh, opening up its dining room, added a glam center bar and lending the restaurant an elegant, open, contemporary feel.
Spatafore said the inspiration for Little Frenchie came to him 10 years in New York City.
“I ate at Balthazar (in SoHo); it became one of my favorite restaurants of all time. It’s not your parents’ French restaurant, it’s not white table cloth fussy. French food is great, but it doesn’t have to be stuffy,” he said.
He lauded other modern French eateries around the country, like Le Diplomate (in Washington, D.C.) and Michael Mina’s Bardot Brasserie (Las Vegas), Margeaux Brasserie (Chicago) and RN47 (Seattle).
“All of them are making French food approachable. You can eat it every day, you don’t have to wear a suit. It’s just about casual, great French food. Come as you are, in flip flops or a nice dress,” Spatafore said.
Little Frenchie’s executive chef, Matt Sramek, has impressive credentials, having been on Thomas Keller’s opening team at the now-closed Bouchon Beverly Hills, a glamorous offshoot of Bouchon in Yountville. Spatafore said Sramek’s menu honors the classics but is also “taking some liberties to fit the California beach lifestyle.” The salmon rillettes, for example, is made with crème fraîche and yogurt, instead of butter.
“It tastes just as amazing but without all the butter,” he said. “That’s our challenge — we’re not trying to reinvent French food, it’s not fusion. ... but we want to make sure we’re meeting our customer’s palate.”
All the better for fitting into that nice dress.
Coronado: Six new & noteworthy
Here’s a closer look at Little Frenchie and the other new restaurants that are helping to turn Coronado into San Diego’s next must-try dining destination.
This charming, modest-sized, all-day bistro is big on authentic Parisian touches and flavors. Diners are immediately greeted at the entryway with France’s two major food groups: a French/California cheese “altar” and an over-sized ice bucket filled with chilled Champagne. The bright, beach-meets-Left-Bank dining room is lined with white marble tables, a red leather banquette and traditional wicker-style bistro chairs. But we think the hottest seat in the house this summer will be on the sidewalk patio. At a pre-opening tasting of select menu items, chef Sramek served me a perfectly composed endive salad, with fourme d’ambert blue cheese, apple slices and candied pecans, a light, but satisfying onion soup gratinée, with aged comté and country bread, a game-changing burger, with onion confit, aioli, crispy duck fat frites and warm raclette cheese poured over the burger tableside, and a luscious, not-too-sweet vanilla bean crème brûlée. Two dishes transported me back to the Rue des Écoles: heavenly, tender roast chicken with truffles and creamy, luxurious croque madame with a comté mornay I’ll dream about. Perhaps my favorite thing about Little Frenchie is the “drink-by-numbers” suggested wine pairing system, where each dish has numbers corresponding to bubbles, rosés, whites and reds on the wine list. So simple, but ingenious. Why isn’t everyone doing this? The list itself is a wonderfully curated, well-priced blend of French wines and California producers using French varietals. Santé. 1166 Orange Avenue, Coronado. (619) 675-0041. bluebridgehospitality.com/little-frenchie
The Hotel Del put Coronado on the map in 1888, and now this spot for coastal cuisine is slated to return the venerable resort to the top of culinary pecking order when it opens later this month. Taking the space that housed the turnover-troubled signature restaurant 1500 Ocean, Serea fittingly embraces the sea, on the menu and in the dining room. Clique’s Masi said half of the 220 seats at the 6,000-square-foot restaurant will be outside and he likens the warm, soft décor and color palette of whites, blues, aquas and greys to a very elegant beach house that’s luxurious and relaxing. Executive chef and local native JoJo Ruiz moves over from the Pendry’s Lionfish. Ruiz is San Diego’s fish whisperer, who can not only name the exact boat that extracted your dinner from the sea, but can also coax onto the plate the true essence of each catch, whether it’s a whole seabass, halibut sashimi or charcoal-grilled octopus . Ruiz was named a 2019 James Beard Foundation Smart Catch Leader for his dedication to sustainable seafood practices. He’s a smart catch for The Del. 1500 Orange Ave., Coronado. hoteldel.com/restaurant-coronado/serea
Clayton’s Bakery & Bistro
A stylish, sophisticated offshoot of the beloved Clayton’s Coffee Shop — the 1940s embodiment of Americana — owner Mary Frese’s passion project will feature vintage recipes from around the globe. When it opens around mid-June, expect charcuterie, cheese, homemade soups, baguette sandwiches and artisan breads and a wide range of pastries and desserts, from Danish butter cookies, to Kiwi pizzelle, baklava, naked cakes, doughnuts to croissants. Just like grandma used to make, but in an upscale setting of Carrara marble tabletops, wrought iron, traditional bistro chairs, decorative and subway tiles and an intricate copper ceiling. 849 Orange Ave., Coronado.
With its sweeping bayfront views, fire-pit seating and new dining room that was part of a multi-million-dollar renovation or the Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa, ALBACA celebrates the Cali-Coastal lifestyle. The name stands for Alta Baja California and chef Aaron Obregon sources seafood,
produce, olive oil, wine and other ingredients for the Latin and Mexican inspired menu from within a 90-mile radius. Don’t miss the excellent duck carnitas and the seafood pasilla rice with octopus, squid and wild Mexican shrimp. 2000 Second St., Coronado. (619) 522-3150. bit.ly/2HxdChU
An utterly charming gathering spot for pasta, pizza, sandwiches, salumi, sweets and Italian wine, Nado Republic has been open for about six months and has already gained a loyal following. Owners David Arato (Bottega Italiana) and Sandro Lattenero are longtime friends from Italy and their family-like relationship is reflected in the eatery’s design, which is reminiscent of a comfortable, but cool, living room. With dishes like burrata-stuffed ravioli, tortellini in butter and sage and seven kinds of twice-baked, extra crispy pizza in pala, we might just move in. 1007 C Ave., Coronado. (619) 996-3271. nadorep.com
Garage Buona Forchetta
The cult South Park pizza and pasta restaurant takes over the historic El Cordova Garage to bring its Neapolitan and Roman pies to the island. Owner Matteo Cattaneo, now a Coronado resident, says he’ll lovingly restore the building and plans to be open by the end of 2019. After the new year, he’ll unveil an Italian market in the space Italian market, selling homemade pastas, sauces, baked goods and more. Garage will be open all day, serving breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner. 1000 C Ave., Coronado.
The latest high-profile, mega-project from restaurateur, and part-time Coronado resident, Sam Fox (North Italia, Flower Child, Blanco Tacos + Tequila and founder of True Food Kitchen). Located in the old Costa Azul space, The Henry will sport a modified mid-century style and a sprawling, all-day lineup of dishes (The West Hollywood dinner menu has everything from pretzels to potstickers, burgers to black kale salad). The self-proclaimed “greatest neighborhood restaurant” has a target opening date of mid-August. 1031 Orange Ave., Coronado. foxrc.com/restaurants/the-henry-restaurant
Coronado’s Select Standouts
Stake Chophouse & Bar, for the island’s most posh and delicious steakhouse; Saiko Sushi, for premium sashimi, nigiri, maki and sake; Maretalia, for craveable Italian now in a setting worthy of the cuisine; Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge, for an appealing neighborhood restaurant with a killer burger; Il Fornaio, for gorgeous bay views and terrific wood-fired pizza and pasta; Clayton’s Coffee Shop, for unbeatable malt-shop classics; Tartine, for perfect baked goods and casual bistro fare.