La Valencia replaces Whaling Bar with with Euro flair and novel cuisine

Café La Rue bartender Jack Petty prepares a ‘Drury,’ one of the venue's new signature drinks, named after La Jolla streets. Pat Sherman photos

Café La Rue
Address: 1132 Prospect St. at La Valencia Hotel
Phone: (858) 454-0771
■ The Vibe: European bistro
■ Signature Dishes: Lamb Shank Pot Pie, Filet Mignon Flatbread, Grilled Albacore Sandwich, The Whaler (ice cream cocktail)
■ Open Since: 1947
Reopened (after renovation): Jan. 1, 2014
Reservations: Yes
■ Patio Seating: Soon
■ Happy Hour: Yes
■ Hours: 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday (coffee and pastry only from 6-11 a.m.)

Three of four artworks by La Valencia hotel’s former artist-in-resident, Wing Howard, remain on the walls in the remodeled Café La Rue. The bright colors of the room were inspired by the iconic paintings. The works were recently appraised at between $45,000 and $70,000 apiece.

By Pat Sherman

The fish (er, Whaling Bar) has been gutted — and to marvelous effect.

Though anxiety over the extensive transformation of La Valencia Hotel’s iconic watering hole ran high among some regulars, the sky hasn’t fallen since the eatery’s Jan. 1 reopening as the expanded Café La Rue (though the Sky Room restaurant, once located on the 10th floor, will soon be converted to guest suites).

“Loyalists came in and said, ‘I really wanted to hate this space,’ ” the hotel’s managing director, Mark Dibella, said, adding that though some turned and vowed to never return, many more initially skeptical guests were pleasantly surprised by the bright, open space, whose décor and menu take inspiration from the village cafes of Europe.

“It’s been very rewarding,” Dibella said. “Some regulars are already coming back, sitting at the bar. They love it.”

Re-envisioning of the space formerly housing both the old Café La Rue and the dark and dated (albeit beloved) Whaling Bar were all part of a $10 million renovation Pacific Companies vowed to invest when it purchased the historic, 112-room hotel in 2011.

The colorful terrazzo flooring of La Valencia’s recently remodeled Café La Rue took 28 days to install. Photos by Pat Sherman

The $1.2 million renovation of Café La Rue, including colorful terrazzo flooring, walnut accents, leather banquettes and chairs, Venetian plaster ceilings and European art deco lamps was inspired, in large part, by the paintings of the late Wing Howard, the hotel’s former artist-in-residence (who painted the murals to settle his hotel debt).

The ‘Drury,’ one of six signature cocktails at Café La Rue named after La Jolla streets, is made from Hendricks gin, St. Germaine, lemon, cucumber, mint and soda water.

Alongside already popular menu items, such Chef Daniel Barron’s Lamb Shank Pot Pie and house-smoked bacon (served on artisan bread with maple chili sage dip), regulars will find comfort in modern interpretations of some of the establishment’s most popular menu items, including Paella, Fish and Chips, Filet Mignon Flatbread and The Whaler, a frothy drink concocted of Kahlua, Crème de Cacao and brandy ice cream (inspired by the house drink of the same name, created in 1964 by recently retired bartender, Rey Arcibal).

Dibella said those with a soft spot for the Whaling Bar — formerly frequented by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Gregory Peck and Theodore Geisel — were mostly “novelty regulars,” those who came in once a year for a birthday, anniversary or special occasion, which was not enough to sustain business.

“We want to make sure it’s not a novelty room anymore,” Dibella said, adding that the Whaling Bar is a legacy that cannot be reproduced or replaced. “We have to make sure that we’re reopening something that takes on its own legacy.”

The formerly one-sided bar has been replaced with a granite, u-shaped bar that accommodates twice as many guests, which it may need, given the café will offer happy hour twice daily, from 4-6 p.m. and from 10 p.m. until closing. Hotel management has rechristened happy hour as “The Appointment” — another nod to the hotel’s past. A former retail shop that existed in the same space for two decades after the hotel’s 1926 opening was called “La Cita” (Spanish for “the appointment”).

Six specialty drinks are named after La Jolla streets (and one lane): The Prospect, Herschel, Ivanhoe, Drury, Coast and Fay.

La Valencia Head Chef Daniel Barron (left) and Café La Rue Chef Stephen Gage serve up Lamb Shank Pot Pie and Filet Mignon Flatbread.

Finishing touches on the space yet to be completed include a transparent wine vault near the café’s lobby entrance that will display some of the nearly quarter-of-a-million dollars in French and California wines currently housed in a room four floors underground. Italian panel drapes will also be added, in part to soften the room’s acoustics.

Though the iconic Whaling mural is now in storage, adorning the walls are three colorful pastel murals, reproductions of French art deco scenes Howard created for Café La Rue’s 1947 opening (and recreated by the artist in 1977). The paintings served as inspiration for the restaurant’s color palette and design, which by late February will include a six-table sidewalk café.

Chef Daniel Barren’s Baja Prawns with polenta, egg, uni (sea urchin) and Piquillo peppers, one of the new menu items at Café La Rue.

Wing Howard’s son, Point Loma artist Harrison Howard, served as a consultant on the project, working alongside Dibella with Los Angeles-based Paul Darrell Designs.

“The impetus for the room was how do we respect the legacy of the space — and the art was the easy decision,” Dibella said.

More café cuisine
Café La Rue now has its own kitchen (the Whaling Bar used The Med kitchen). The café opens daily for a basic bistro breakfast of pastry and coffee, with full menu service from 11 a.m. to close (11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 12 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays).

Award winning chef and molecular gastronomy advocate Daniel Barron — whom Dibella said was brought aboard last year to “shake up food and beverage” — borrowed inspiration from various regions of Europe. However, the produce and meat is all sourced locally, including chickens grown at a farm in Alpine specifically — and sustainably — for the hotel. The animals are fed leftover lettuce, celery and other veggies from the hotel’s two kitchens.

The beef is raised on a cooperative in Utah, while local ranches supply pork for Barron’s charcuterie, prepared meats such as bacon, ham and sausage (some of which, like the guanciale, or pork cheek served on flatbread, Barron smokes in-house).

In the near future, the menu will also include a pine nut, spinach and roasted tomato flatbread; two more salads; and two new deserts — a beignet (deep-fried French fritter dusted in sugar) with dulce de leche, whipped cream and chocolate, and a hot cinnamon roll stuffed with caramelized banana and chocolate.

Related posts:

  1. La Jolla’s iconic ‘Whaling Bar’ at La Valencia Hotel to close, re-open as expanded Café La Rue
  2. La Jolla hotel presents sidewalk café plans, ‘storybook’ rebuild gets DPR nod
  3. La Valencia bids La Jolla’s iconic Whaling Bar adieu Feb. 14
  4. More people join lawsuit over La Jolla Cove stench; complaint amended to reflect gate installation
  5. La Jolla Cove Stench: City to reveal fence removal decision Nov. 15 in effort to thin sea lion colony

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Posted by Pat Sherman on Jan 21, 2014. Filed under Featured Story, La Jolla, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

3 Comments for “La Valencia replaces Whaling Bar with with Euro flair and novel cuisine”

  1. Bill

    What a shame. The Whaling Bar was a classic. It will be missed.

    • anne

      Couldn’t agree more…La Jolla has had a landmark destroyed.

      All the locals are now going to Manhattan, as it has the cozy, intimate ambience that the Whaling Bar once had. The replacement resembles a Denny’s at best.

  2. dave

    I happened upon Café la Rue last week and I have to say it is the best thing that’s happened to La Jolla in a long time! Awesome food served in a cool European bistro…and in such a beautiful setting like La Valencia. i’ll definitely be back for more. great bartenders too!

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