IN GOOD TASTE:
One year ago, Waterbar opened its doors at the foot of Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach , replacing the old Joe's Crab Shack and proclaiming itself an up-and-comer in the densely populated restaurant jungle of those four corners overlooking the ocean.
Surrounded by PB Shore Club, PB Ale House, The Local, and Firehouse American Eatery and Lounge, Waterbar had a strategy to stand out: offer more high-end dishes and fancy craft cocktails.
"Whenever you open a new entity," said general manager Brent Nolls, "you envision what you want it to be and put that out there. And then the community and the locals kind of shape what they want it to be overall."
The original plan was working for the most part, until tourists invaded PB for the summer. "During the day, tourists wanted more of the traditional items you'd find here in San Diego — fish taco plates, the cheeseburgers, sandwiches, things of that nature. Once the sun went down, we found more of a higher-end clientele. But we definitely made things a little more approachable (for everyone)."
At first, Nolls said he tried to showcase some of the chefs' culinary talents by putting items on the menu one wouldn't find anywhere else in PB and using a sous-vide technique. "Sous-vide is the process of vacuum-sealing a protein, and then putting it in a warm-water bath," he explained. "Then, when you're ready to cook it, you're basically pulling it out and searing it on both sides just to establish a crust. A lot of the guests didn't understand the preparation style and it scared a lot of them off. They weren't ready for those items."
Live and learn.
"So, we just went to more traditional items," Nolls continued. "We put scallops on the menu, and other recognizable dishes. This resonated more with the tourist crowd — the sheer inundation of people coming over from Arizona is overwhelming. It really exceeded our expectations! Still, the locals wanted the stuff they're not used to seeing."
Nolls admits it was a tricky menu balance.
"But as soon as summer ended and September hit us, we went right back to accommodating the locals as much as we can."
Part of that accommodation includes keeping the happy hour at the uncommon hours of 8 to 10 p.m. — something the locals had gotten used to. Another was offering entertainment — live lounge music on Thursdays starting at 4 p.m. Two acoustic artists play until 7 and 11 p.m.
Nolls said he's also noticed — especially on weekends — that more people are breaking away from the bars and restaurants on Garnet Avenue and heading to the beach. "The nightlife typically stays in that corridor on Garnet, with Mavericks and Backyard and those places ... but now we're seeing people in the beach area, not just for lunch and dinner, but for the nightlife as well."
Waterbar changes its menu a little every few months, but the popular items stay. The system allows chefs to be creative with new dishes and serves as a barometer of what guests want. Right now, the Pork and Octopus Tamales are a crowd-pleaser, served with salsa roja, cilantro, chipotle black beans, cotija cheese and green-onion crema. Other picks include the Catch of the Day (try the Seared Arctic Char with miso butter, edamame puree, pickled red-pear onion with roasted chanterelle mushrooms and roasted sunchokes) and the Baja Crab Cake (with citrus-agave slaw, chipotle taco sauce, tortilla strips, cilantro and Tajin — a blend of chili, lime and sea salt). Most entrees are $15-$20.
— Waterbar restaurant is at 4325 Ocean Blvd. in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. For reservations, call (858) 888-4343 or visit waterbarsd.com