By Lauren Duffy Lastowka | SDUN Columnist
Businesses in San Diego’s Uptown neighborhoods are constantly in flux, and this summer is no exception. It seems every week there is a new announcement of a restaurant, a menu change, or an expansion—especially when it comes to craft beer. Take, for instance, the exciting news that’s emerged in the past few weeks: Lee Chase and the folks at Blind Lady Ale House are planning a new restaurant near the corner of El Cajon and 30th; Scot Blair and the folks at Hamiltons are brewing up an East Village brewpub; and Tom Nickel of O’Brien’s, along with Vince Marsaglia of Pizza Port, plans to open a brewpub in Julian.
OK, well that last example isn’t exactly in Uptown. But it is another example of how the craft beer scene is constantly on the move, quickly working to expand its grip on this town—always, of course, to the benefit of craft beer fans.
Of all the news and developments this summer, there are three I’m especially excited about. If you’re looking for an excuse to explore the neighborhood, visit an old haunt, or try a craft beer somewhere new, here are three to get you moving.
A reimagined linkery
The Linkery has evolved over the years, not only moving from its original location (now the home of Sea Rocket Bistro), but also changing its menu, focus and dishes. While the underlying philosophy has never wavered, the offerings have changed often, as the restaurant continues to experiment and acclimate itself to its niche. The latest evolution happened in early July, when the team overhauled the menu, changed the hours, and doubled the tap selection. The result is a Linkery that very much resembles the restaurant’s early years, when 30th Street was just starting to wake up and craft beer in North Park was far from common.
“We want to keep it simple,” says owner Jay Porter of his decision to limit the menu to casual pub fare and to increase the focus on beer at the restaurant. “Historically, we’ve always been a neighborhood pub. That’s part of what we do.” But, he explains, “part of that got lost” over the years, as the restaurant expanded, started to play with more challenging dishes, and step up the service of its dining area. This return to basics is an effort to reunite the Linkery with its early neighborhood-restaurant vibe.
Most notable is the menu change, as Porter has decided once again to offer a wide range of house-made sausages. Now, link fans can find old favorites as well as creative experiments in the form of plain links, sausage tacos, and sausage sandwiches. Recently the six-sausage lineup included andouille, chicken chorizo, and an English banger. Aside from sausage, flatbread pizzas, sandwiches and salads now dominate the menu, with prices that mostly fall in the $9 to $13 range. Bar snacks and sides also appear, including tempting beer-battered Wisconsin-style cheese curds and the always-popular grilled green beans. “We’ve made the menu more pub-friendly,” Porter explains.
The expanded tap selection—10 taps plus a cask—means a wider selection of craft beer from around the globe. Craft beer has “always been a natural part of what we do. We’ve never had to call attention to it,” says Porter, adding that the expansion was inspired by the realization that just five taps “was limiting our ability to serve beers we wanted to serve.”
Porter expects to keep a tap dedicated to sour beers and another tap dedicated to craft lagers—two styles he believes are underrepresented in the craft beer selections in the city. As for the rest of the lineup, Porter promises it will be “all over the place,” in terms of origin and style. “Our goal is to put in a really great selection and breadth of really good beer.” The restaurant also launched a late-night happy hour, offering beers for under $4 from 10 p.m. to midnight every night of the week.
Porter’s explanation for the evolution is his quest to help the restaurant “carve out a niche” among the other bars and restaurants along 30th Street. He decided to play to the restaurant’s strengths, to re-emphasize its casual, inviting setting, and “to remind everyone that this is a really fun place.” My guess is that after a few visits for beer and sausage, we won’t need much reminding.
My local habit in Hillcrest
“Craft beer is real beer,” says Local Habit co-owner Adam Hiner. Hiner, who with partners Nick Brune and Barry Braden, debuted Local Habit on July 4 of this year, is committed to filling the 12 taps at the new Hillcrest restaurant with all-craft, all-California beer.
“We wanted to bring in many flavors and styles,” Hiner says of the beer program. “Look for Stone, Iron Fist, and Hess,” Adam says, quickly adding Alesmith and Port Brewing. “We’ll be supporting all the local guys.” The restaurant also features a rotating cask, which Hiner explains will always be local.
“We own three firkins,” says Hiner of the vessels that store cask-conditioned beer. He’s sending them to local breweries to be filled, sometimes with a request to create a special version just for the restaurant. “We’re looking to have special beers created for us,” Heiner explains. “For our grand opening, we had a Hired Hand cask [from Iron Fist Brewing] that was dry hopped with peppercorn and chocolate mint,” says Adam. To celebrate the specially prepared cask, the restaurant created a lamb shank pizza with chocolate mint pesto designed to pair with the farmhouse ale. “We’re all about pairing our food with beer,” says Hiner.
Thankfully, their food is quite creative, which should make for some inventive beer pairings. House-cured meats, pickled vegetables, and homemade sauces grace most dish descriptions, and creative flavors such as pickled beef, toasted coriander chicken sausage, and smoked beer-braised onions stand out from the menu. In addition to making many ingredients from scratch, the restaurant is committed to sourcing as many ingredients as possible from within the state. “We wanted to stick with everything all-California,” says Hiner of the produce, meat, and beer. “We get as much as possible from local [purveyors],” says Adam. It is working with Suzie’s Farm and Brandt Beef to supply produce and meat, and supplementing local ingredients with provisions from California farms that have a strong presence at local farmers’ markets, such as Smit Orchards and Spring Hill Cheese. It also features specials with local ingredients that it can’t regularly source, such as local chicken from Womach Ranch.
Hiner, who also owns and operates Eco-Caters with Brune, says the duo had been looking to open a locally sourced restaurant for years. It was “good timing,” he says of teaming with Barry Braden of Pizza Fusion, to open the Hillcrest space. It’s exciting to see a restaurant dedicated to California flavors pay just as much attention to liquid offerings as well as solid. I’ll be keeping an eye on both the menu and the beer selection as this restaurant grows into its shell.
The beer garden at Ritual Tavern
My biggest lament as a beer drinker in San Diego is that I don’t spend enough time drinking beer outside. Anytime I’m indoors during a sunset, a warm evening, or a sunny weekend afternoon, I feel guilty leaving the good weather to enjoy a pint.
Which is why I was thrilled to learn of Ritual Tavern’s recently debuted beer garden, a new back patio that takes over a space that was formerly a loading dock and parking for employees. The patio, which co-owner Mike Flores designed and built over a period of two months, is a casual mix of old-world tradition and urban creativity. Tall turret-like structures surround the perimeter, with custom planter boxes built into their base. Peek inside, and you’ll find herbs, vegetables, and hops, giving some literal credibility to the neighborhood’s first beer “garden.”
Staci Flores, Mike’s wife and the restaurant’s co-owner, rattles off the myriad plants growing in the planters: “hops, chives, tomatoes, sunflowers, corn, squash, sorrel, Perlette grapes, chili peppers, thyme, rosemary, sage, lemon verbena, marigolds, and some other stuff I can’t recall….” She credits the eclectic array to Ritual’s chef, Brandon Brooks, who designed the contents of the planters.
The 20-seat beer garden is not Ritual’s only recent change. The restaurant recently expanded its late night hours as well, staying open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The change brings 30th Street another comfortable, laid-back alternative to some of the louder drinking establishments in the area.
But the beer garden is best suited to sunlit hours, including during the weekly happy hour, weekend brunch, and an earlyish evening meal. You’ll certainly find me back there more than once this summer, likely enjoying
beer-steamed mussels and a local pint, wondering what Ritual has in mind when those hops hit harvest time.