By Peter Rowe
Imagine a cramped, chaotic space full of knives, flames and frantic people. OK, now imagine someone peering into this purgatory — aka your typical restaurant kitchen — and thinking, “Let’s use this same place to cook meals for a second restaurant.”
Crazy, right? No rational person would devise such a crackpot scheme.
But it happens.
“It’s just the way the building was set up,” said Brian Johnston, explaining why his kitchen puts food on the tables of The Red Door and its neighbor, The Wellington Steak & Martini Lounge.
“It isn’t something I planned,” said Trey Foshee, executive chef at George’s at the Cove in La Jolla, Calif., where two kitchens service three distinct dining spaces.
“This is definitely a unique situation,” said Chris Idso, executive chef at Pacifica Del Mar and its downstairs sister cafe, Pacifica Breeze. “It’s kind of hard to explain to people sometime.”
Maybe the difficulty stems from the fact that — how to put this politely? — the concept is barking mad. Yet economics and opportunity have led a small but growing cadre of San Diego kitchens to pull double duty. Case in point: Urban Solace, a temple to refined comfort food, and its North Park neighbor, True North, a temple to somewhat refined drinking. Urban Solace’s kitchen whips up tasteful dinners and lunches for its patrons, as well as simpler burgers, pulled pork sandwiches, salads and other bar food for its neighbor.
“It’s fun,” insisted Matt Gordon, Urban Solace’s part-owner and executive chef.
This is also an intriguing business model involving two ownership teams: True North’s Mark Cirillo, Joe Vaught and Eric Lingenfelder working with Gordon and his Urban Solace partner, Scott Watkins.
“They realized that we were professional cooks, something that you are not always talking about when you talk about bar food,” Gordon said. “It’s a great system. They get good food, and we get another source of revenue.”
Economics also factored into the two establishments flanking Johnston’s small kitchen. A few years ago, the kitchen sat between Parallel 33, a fine dining restaurant, and Blue Lotus, a bar. New owners bought this entire building on Washington Avenue, then remodeled Parallel 33 as The Red Door.
Five months later, the former Lotus opened as The Wellington, a small but full-service restaurant. The quickest route from The Wellington to The Red Door is through their connecting kitchen. The quickest way to tell apart orders from the two restaurants? At first, there was no quick way.
“We’d be reading the tickets, and sometimes we had to look and look and look,” Johnston said.
Soon, though, he devised several fail-safe methods. The Wellington’s tickets are posted on the left side of the counter where dishes are plated; The Red Door’s tickets go to the right.
On those tickets, The Wellington’s 10 tables are numbered 300 through 309; at The Red Door, about twice as large, tables start with the No. 1.
The Wellington’s meals feature black napkins; The Red Door’s meals, red.
And the menus are worlds apart. The Wellington, specializing in beef, offers a Kobe steak tartare appetizer; The Red Door favors fish and serves a Manila clams with chorizo starter. True, both places purvey Atlantic salmon. But the fish exiting the kitchen’s west side is grilled and served with cilantro pesto. The one departing the kitchen’s east side is baked in a whole grain mustard crust.
“It’s challenging,” the chef said. “The kitchen is extremely small. You have to be very clear, very thought-out.”
But at least his two restaurants are on the same level. Pacifica Del Mar’s kitchen is a floor above the more casual Pacifica Breeze Cafe, which offers patio dining for breakfast and lunch.
When Pacifica Del Mar opened in 1989, the open-air cafe wasn’t part of the plan. When the space was offered for lease about 10 years ago, though, the possibilities were obvious — even if the downstairs kitchen was nonexistent.
“We could do breakfast and lunch and private parties,” Idso said. “But we’ve always supplied it from the kitchen upstairs.”
With the installation of a small panini grill, the Breeze can produce its own salads, wraps and sandwiches. But most breakfast items — pancakes, omelets, eggs, bacon, pastries — and lunch’s burgers and meatloaf are carried downstairs from Pacifica Del Mar’s kitchen.
Both places give patrons sweeping views of the ocean, often a selling point with coastal restaurants. When George Hauer opened George’s at the Cove 26 years ago, diners in his restaurant and the separate George’s Bar had stunning views of the Pacific.
But the vistas were even more spectacular from a higher elevation.
“George went up on the roof and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a restaurant up here,'” Foshee said.
Today, 14 years later, Hauer’s brainstorm is the hugely successful Ocean Terrace. In fact, Foshee noted, the rooftop enterprise is now more popular than the main dining room, George’s California Modern.
By adding another dining space, George’s added to the staff’s logistical challenges. A kitchen on the roof now serves both the Ocean Terrace and George’s Bar. Another kitchen, on the lower level, serves California Modern.
Foshee insists the menus are different enough that there’s little confusion in the kitchens. For instance, any meal with soba noodles is destined for the Ocean Terrace. “We don’t use soba noodles in the dining room.”
This is an unusual arrangement, but a profitable one. “The smaller your kitchen is and the more seats you have,” Foshee noted, “the more money you’ll make.”
And even though he admits to a chef’s bias toward more prep space, Foshee finds advantages to working this way. “I’d rather have a limited amount of space so we are better organized. It forces you to think.”
Imagine that: thinking while surrounded by fire, blades and meals destined for multiple dining rooms. Not a bad idea.
Peter Rowe writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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