The portion of 30th Street that runs from El Cajon Boulevard to Upas Street has, it seems, been dubbed North Park's “restaurant row.” Indeed, the roughly two miles that run north-to-south are home to a half-dozen or so new restaurants, bars and a couple of coffee spots that have opened recently (Ritual Tavern, Bar Pink Elephant, Commonwealth Café), or are scheduled to open soon (Cardamom Café, Mosaic Wine Bar). So far the new additions to San Diego's hippest neighborhood (full disclosure: I live there) have been a welcome thing for those of us who like to stay local—the prices are reasonable, and none of the new bars and eateries seems set on pulling business away from an established neighbor. If anything, it's a symbiotic relationship: drinks here, dinner there, and grab some dessert over yonder.
Urban Solace, located just south of University Avenue, has been open for a few months and seems to be a hit (self-proclaimed burger expert and CityBeat editor David Rolland has deemed the restaurant's sirloin and chuck house burger his new favorite).
The mid-size joint, with a patio almost as big as the interior—an ideal spot for the Sunday brunch with live jazz that the restaurant started up recently—is both classy and affordable. My first time there was with a group of six and the bill for three appetizers, six entrées, two desserts and two bottles of wine came to—including tax and tip—$23 each. The service, atmosphere and food rival places that charge twice as much.
Urban Solace describes its menu as “American comfort food,” though chef Matt Gordon's take on the kinds of dishes the words “comfort food” bring to mind (biscuits, mac-and-cheese, fried anything) is refined and just a bit—thought not too much—health conscious. The “Monte Diego,” for instance, has all the components of a Monte Cristo sandwich (egg bread, ham, cheese), but is baked, not fried, and served with pear preserves. The excellent warm cheese biscuits and orange-honey butter, served as a side dish or appetizer, are small—almost dainty—to save you from the carbs and from spoiling your meal. And the fries that accompany sandwiches and burgers are made from sweet potatoes—and sweet potatoes have more vitamins than regular potatoes, right? Whether the sweet potatoes retain the vitamins when they hit the fryer is another matter, but we can only hope.
The restaurant's interior is spacious and breezy with low lighting and high ceilings crisscrossed with dark-wood beams. Ladies, if you sit at the bar, you'll notice there are hooks under the bar from which to hang your purse—and there are equally thoughtful large hooks in the bathroom, too. The only design flaw is the fact that the inside of the place doesn't quite jibe with the outside, which indicates that at some point the design direction was more Bourbon Street than Hemingway hangout.
Back to the party of six: When you suggest that you might write a review of a place, everyone offers a bite of their dish. To my right was an order of mac-and-cheese, made with white cheddar, carmelized bacon and charred tomatoes. The dish was rich, but not heavy, and the tomatoes were a nice touch. Two other standouts were the grilled four-cheese sandwich with a chilled tomato-fennel soup—a grown-up version of kids' comfort food. Four-cheese combinations tend to include one cheese that dominates at the expense of the others, but this combination (gorgonzola, fontina, cheddar and mozzarella) was smooth and balanced. The char-grilled hanger steak entrée was exceptionally tender with a light, slightly sweet tomato-based sauce. (On a follow-up visit I tried the center-cut pork chop, which was equally tender.) The steak's accompanying mashed potatoes were the only dud of the evening, served lukewarm. The menu said the steak would be accompanied by sweet peas, and we neglected to ask about the change.
For my entrée, I ordered the broiled Portobello mushroom sandwich, which needs no description save for its menu entry: “stuffed with butternut squash purée, goat cheese and pine nuts.” Yum.
We started off the meal with two orders of the warm cheese biscuits and the tasty seared albacore “chop chop”—kind of like a ceviche, but with locally caught albacore tuna, lime juice, herbs and pine nuts that you scoop up onto a flat cracker—and finished with the peanut butter chocolate crème brulée and a mint chocolate cake topped with a dollop of crème fraiche. The crème brulée was deemed the winner, though barely—but, really, any combination of chocolate and peanut butter is a sure hit. Urban Solace, 3823 30th St. in North Park, is open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.