Just how important is a restaurant's name? Should it give you any indication of what to expect in terms of food and décor? What blunders do restaurateurs make when they select the restaurant's name? A couple of places I visited this week got me thinking about the subject. The examples illustrate how a name affects diners looking for a place to eat.
Vagabond, one of the newest additions to San Diego's eclectic restaurant scene, brings to mind a traveler seeking a place to eat on a cold night. It also implies world travel, reflected in the menu and décor. At this South Park eatery, the name and ambiance coalesce in a comfortable, tavern-like, cleverly designed neighborhood restaurant. Various walls tastefully depict some of the traveler's worlds: Asia, South America and Europe. Wood tables are set with a white cloth and white paper cover sheet, cloth napkins and utensils in a glass jar at the end of the table near stacked bread plates. The small bar area is dark wood, with box shelves for liquor and wine, a worldwide wine-by-the-glass list-$5 a glass-and windows that open to the street.
You might be leery of a menu with an around-the-world theme, but fear not. Whether it's the whole-leaf Caesar with a creamy dressing, tiny homemade croutons and not-too-salty whole anchovies; the Vagabond black bean soup with whole perfectly cooked beans and a faintly sweet broth; or the crispy calamari with an Asian twist-all of the food is worthy. Coq au vin (chicken in wine) shares the menu with a toothsome Peruvian meat-and-potato stew. A pound of mussels with frites (fries) has a crème fraiche finish in a light broth and makes a delicious light entrée.
A few minor problems, though: Nearly every plate came edged with a dusting of finely chopped green onion and black pepper and salt which I regard as a bit lazy in the garnish-and-spice department; the bruchetta bread needs more toasting (it was soggy); and the egg on the Caesar says soft boiled (it's hard). Prices are reasonable and portions ample; three of us ate dinner for $100, including a bottle of wine, and two of us for $23 at lunch. 2310 30th St. in South Park, 619-255-1035. www.vagabondkitchen.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Cantina (Spanish for “bar”) used to be a bakery on Felspar in Pacific Beach. With no visible signage, save for a chalkboard just outside the front door with daily specials and the name “Cantina” in big letters, I nearly missed it for a breakfast meeting. The Asian dragon across the top of the entrance; the lovely, simply decorated large room with a Buddha in the corner; the small bar area with Asian carved wood accents to define the space; and the high ceiling and bare walls-all conspire to create a serene atmosphere. But a Buddha in a Cantina? Hmmm.
Here, Asian décor meets Latin-Asian-fusion food, most of it with south-of-the-border ingredients and cute Asian names: Crispy Dragon Potatoes (rosemary potatoes, jalapenos, black beans, avocado, onions, cheese and salsa) and Single Happiness (crisp brown rice and summer vegetables and chicken). The menu is similar to the one owner Isabel Cruz created when she owned The Mission, just down the street. My “scrambled” eggs in the Cantina Rosemary arrived as an omelet, folded and not scrambled. Our server said that's the way they make scrambled eggs there. So then why not say omelet on the menu? 966 Felspar St. in Pacific Beach, 858-272-8400.
A soon-to-open restaurant describes its food as “Southland Coastal Cuisine.” This wording shows how restaurant consultants get carried away with their gimmickry. Did they forget that California isn't the only place with a southland? Is this menu about grits and crayfish and the Gulf Coast? Or is it about local ingredients from Santa Barbara to Mexico, used in creative, seasonal dishes? Think about it. What do you expect when you see these words on a menu or in the pages of CityBeat?
Let's hope the tag line to define the locale makes it onto the menu.
The latest venture of restaurateur Joe Busalacchi and club owner Michael Viscuso is Crudo (Italian for “raw”) in Little Italy. Many people I asked had no idea what it meant, much less how to pronounce it (it's Croo-do, not Crud-o). So the name gives little indication of what to expect with the food and décor. To assume that diners are so savvy to know Crudo is a New York restaurant with an emphasis on fish is quite a leap. Without some explanation, many potential diners will be hard-pressed to realize that Crudo is a sushi place, bar and lounge with Japengo-esque sushi and entrées. 1953 India St., 619-398-2974. Dinner only.
Write to marcie[at]5dollarchef[dot]com and editor[at]SDcitybeat[dot]com.