Drinks with Tracy Borkum at The Tractor Room in Hillcrest was less about the drinks we ordered and more about what we were not drinking.
"When Stephanie first told me that you wanted me to pick a bar and a drink," Borkum said, "I told her I should have you over for wine on my patio.
"I'm so British, I put ice in my wine," she laughed. Her accent was detectable, if only barely. I must've looked puzzled. "To make it last longer," she added.
Borkum, who was born in London and lived there until high school, is the biggest name on the San Diego restaurant scene that nearly nobody knows. Her Urban Kitchen Group owns Cucina Urbana and Fish Public (and their predecessors, Laurel and Kensington Grill), as well as two Cucina Enotecas, with a third to come. She's not a celebrity chef, though everything food-related goes through her. She's not the face of the organization and doesn't think it needs one. She is, in short, the anti-Brian Malarkey: She gets it done without plastering her name and face all over the media.
As we walked into the dimly lit comfort of The Tractor Room, Borkum's eye went to a quiet corner of the bar, only to see that it had been taken. "Inside?" she asked. "Outside?" She chose the latter, an inviting patio space with filtered light. She ordered a Negroni, the classic Italian cocktail of gin, Campari and red (semi-sweet) vermouth with an orange-peel garnish. I ordered a Sazerac, New Orleans' take on a whiskey cocktail with rye, Peychaud's bitters, a sugar cube and absinthe served over large ice cubes. Our conversation turned to wine and travel.
It may have been my imagination, but it seemed she was more comfortable talking about these things than she was with the question she knew I'd ask next. "Tell me your best barroom story," I said, "and then I'll tell you my best wine-in-Spain story."
"No," she said. "You first."
And so first I went. My story centered on La Batalla de Vino in Haro at the heart of Spain's most famous wine country. It was a whole town of people in lilywhite outfits and red scarves all stained purple from a battle fought with bota bags of the local product. It involved a drunken march to a bullring, revelry in the ring with baby bulls and a severely overweight and over-inebriated Spaniard in a stained toga who did not quite manage to make it over the wall until "helped" by the bull.
My tale segued into hers of the final night of service at Chive, Borkum's shuttered Gaslamp restaurant. Aside from a menu that was ahead of its time, Chive featured a sparkling-white, industrial-modern design. The bar was no exception. After the close of service on this final night, every one of the female employees climbed atop that pristine white bar and danced. And danced. And, fueled by Chive's remaining stock, danced. It never could have happened before and never would again.
Hours after our drinks, Borkum contacted me with a different response: "There is nothing better than drinking with strangers, finding a place off the beaten path populated by locals you do not know." She told me about an evening in the bar of Florence's Hotel Brunelieschi with a diverse group of 20—a California farmer, some catering people from Atlanta, a Frenchman, a Venetian woman and more than a few locals.
"Fabulous," she said. "It was all about how the conversation evolved with a group of people you would never otherwise be with." And it was about how the alcohol encouraged people to open up. "It was a series of snippets of 'In the life of...'" She laughed. "A hangover? Yes. But you get something in return."
We both would've preferred to be drinking wine, maybe in Haro or Florence, but we were there in circumstance not unlike those she'd described: strangers who'd hit it off in the moment, enjoying the connections and insights they—and the drinks—revealed.