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Downtown's hopping with great new restaurants, raising the bar – and San Diego's profile – for serious dining

By Maria C. Hunt

May 26, 2005

Among the notable restaurants opening downtown is Confidential, which has celebrity cachet due to the involvement of former "Bachelor" star Andrew Firestone.

As recently as last spring, if an out-of-towner had asked where to go for dinner, I probably would have recommended La Jolla. Despite a couple of notable exceptions, dining downtown seemed more about ambience or location than about great food and service.

But what a difference a year makes.

Spurred by the influx of upscale housing development and the cachet Petco Park has brought to East Village, downtown San Diego is rapidly developing into a destination for serious dining.

Since Oceanaire Seafood Room and Cafe Chloe debuted in late 2004, it seems serious restaurants have been popping up downtown as fast as new condo complexes. This spring, the House of Blues, Confidential and Jsix all opened in the space of a month.

And the coming months will bring more glitzy projects, including an outpost of the venerable Palm steakhouse chain, and Red Pearl, a hip Southeast Asian restaurant planned by a nationally known chef from Orange County.

"It's the evolution of the Gaslamp, and I think some of the names coming to town are just going to help raise the bar and make the whole area even more vibrant," said Mike Mitchell, general manager of Oceanaire.

In recent years, droves of conventioneers and business travelers have visited downtown San Diego while working, but they often would head elsewhere when it came time to play, said Sal Giametta, a spokesman for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. Unlike Chicago, San Francisco or New York, San Diego didn't offer much to do or eat downtown.

"With our downtown renaissance, we are being seen as a city with a true urban experience," said Giametta. "Dining is very important."

The fruits are recent, but this development started back in 1985, when Croce's opened in a blighted downtown that people rarely visited by choice.

Things started to pick up when Horton Plaza opened in 1987; two years later, Fio's debuted, ushering in an era known as downtown's Early Italian restaurant period.

Next came a spate of tourist-oriented eateries, and most recently, bars that served food as an afterthought.

But with 27,000 people now living downtown and another 60,000 expected to move there over the next 25 years, downtown offers a concentration of hungry people with disposable income.

"This is going to be a wonderful community, and part of the draw is that they're going to be within walking distance of world-class entertainment and dining," Mitchell said.

The buzz over business development in downtown San Diego has also attracted companies and individuals willing to invest millions in a restaurant site and concept.

Tim Goodell, a chef and owner of acclaimed restaurants including Aubergine in Orange County, said he went to college in San Diego and couldn't wait to leave. But when a friend invited him down to look at an available space, he was so impressed that he decided to open a restaurant.

Red Pearl, a hip spot with a circa-1940s Shanghai theme and a menu featuring well-priced small plates, is set to open this fall at the corner of Fifth Avenue and J Street.

"I love everything San Diego is about: young population, growing, the ball park, the convention center." Goodell said. "It has got a cool urban feeling, and being right there on the ocean.

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