At first glance, Nine-Ten might not seem the most likely place for a fun and relaxed night out. The restaurant is in La Jolla, in the lobby of a swanky hotel that has valet service out front and chandeliers within. Perhaps three strikes against it if you were just going by first impressions, but you'd be missing out on a really good thing.
While I've eaten in the main dining room a handful of times and the food has almost always been great, the atmosphere is a little stiff, and sitting there makes me feel obligated to order a three-course meal, which is sometimes more food than my appetite, or budget, is comfortable with. I'm happier on the other side of the wall, seated at the L-shaped bar, where I can still order off the main menu or from the more moderately priced bar menu. The bar is where Mike, Nine-Ten's main nighttime bartender, shares his skills with an ever-growing crowd of regulars. He does fun off-menu experiments, like brown-butter-infused scotch or boozy gelatin bites that look more like pretty petit fours than Jell-O shots, but he's equally great at making custom cocktails or mixing classic drinks. Mostly, though, he's just good people, as are the rest of restaurant's staff. Their welcoming attitude can be summed up by this example: There's an older gentleman that lives at a nearby retirement community who comes in for a drink nearly every night, wearing only a sport coat, house shorts and slippers. At any other fine-dining restaurant, he'd probably be shown the door, but here, he's greeted with a warm handshake and his favorite cocktail.
If you're just there for a beer, no one will shoo you away or give you the up-sell, unless you try to order a Bud Light, on the menu under the title “Hang Your Head in Shame”—probably the work of Neal Wasserman, the food and beverage director, who used to own a craft-beer destination in Hillcrest and has stocked Nine-Ten's list with other more interesting domestic bottles, from Avery to Ommegang.
Head chef Jason Knibb has none of the conceit of a celebrity chef, though he cooked for many during his time running the restaurants at a resort owned by Robert Redford. He's well-respected among his peers, and I appreciate that it seems like he'd much rather be in the kitchen than in front of a camera. My friends and I regularly order a dish inspired by Knibb's birth place, the Jamaican jerk pork with tender spice-rubbed chunks of pork that get extra heat from chili-pepper-infused sheets of gelatin that drape over and fuse with the meat. Salads and seasonal soups, made with produce from local farms, are always good, as are the raw or nearly raw fish preparations, including the house-smoked salmon and souped-up sashimi plates. The mussels from the bar menu, a well-priced and generous portion, used to be one of my favorites until recently, when there have been more empty shells than mollusks in my bowl. But Nine-Ten's burger never disappoints. The juicy burger sits on a delicious, house-made brioche bun, with house-made pickles and mustard aioli. Ask for your accompanying fries to be upgraded to truffle- and parmesan-sprinkled. The burger can also be ordered as part of the restaurant's winning $24 three-course lunch deal.
Mixologist Mike knows my tastes, so he always gives me a little nip of nice single-malt scotch with, or in lieu of, dessert. And though I'm not an ardent chocolate lover, Nine-Ten's warm half-baked chocolate cake, with its gloss of caramel sauce and cap of melting ice cream, is good enough to send me into total rapture.