IN GOOD TASTE:
When it opened in 2012, Solare became one of the first restaurants in Liberty Station. At that time, the former Naval Training Center was in its infancy as a community hub and destination spot, but restaurateur Randy Smerik was willing to take a risk on it.
"When I started here," Smerik remembers, "Liberty Station was definitely not a home-run in any way, shape or form. Ninety percent of the people I spoke with really didn't know where it was. They didn't know if it was in Barrio Logan or somewhere in North Park . They really had no idea."
Lucky for him, the risk paid off. The area went from "up and coming" to "arrived" within just a couple of years. Stone Brewery opened up, followed by The Lot movie complex, then Liberty Market. Slowly but surely, Liberty Station became a magnet, not just for Point Lomans, but for all San Diegans.
Smerik explains that he started the restaurant with his sons, Brian and Tommy. "We've been together a little over six years, which in the restaurant business is pretty long," he laughs. "What's made it work is that we have very clear roles and responsibilities — that's essential for anything you do, but especially with family."
His older son, Brian, is responsible for the kitchen and everything food-related. His younger son, Tommy, works with the "front of the house," including all the servers and bartenders. Smerik handles the overall management of the team, all the marketing and financials, and the wine program.
Smerik said he decided to pursue his passion of owning a restaurant after a quarter century working in the high-tech arena. He started a number of software companies and traveled all over the world 90 percent of his former life. That international travel included lots of meetings over meals.
"Everybody goes out to eat, and everybody knows what it's like to be in a restaurant. But for me, I almost ate out professionally for 25 years," he explains. "Usually, either I wanted to go somewhere nice to impress a client, or they wanted to go somewhere nice to impress me. So I really had the opportunity to see firsthand the best restaurants all over the world. I saw which ones succeeded, which ones failed, what I felt they did right, and what they did wrong. So one of the biggest benefits I bring to the business is that I really know what it's like to be sitting in the customer's seat."
All that wining and dining translated into well-earned recognition in 2018: Solare was named Best Italian Restaurant in San Diego by San Diego Magazine's annual Readers Poll. Solare also won for Best Chef, Best Service, and Best Wine List.
The restaurant has a lounge, bar and two outdoor patios offering an impressive selection of wine, beer and craft cocktails. It also has a Wine Room and Chef's Table for special dinners, and a private dining room.
Did we neglect to mention that Smerik is not Italian? Nevertheless, he's been to Italy more than 150 times (yes, 150 times!) and he lives in Little Italy.
"I know the Italian culture very well," he insists. "I have so many friends there. I really appreciate the food from the different areas of Italy, and it's been a passion of mine for more than 30 years." There are also native Italians in his midst; his executive chef was born and raised in Tuscany, and three kitchen staff and three servers are also from Italy.
His love of Italian food and culture drives Smerik to make every dish — and the whole dining experience — authentically Italian. For example, one of the restaurant's specialties is a Pig Feast, which is a traditional dish dating back hundreds of years from Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy but still part of the countryside.
At Solare, a suckling pig is roasted in the oven so that the whole pig comes out with very crispy skin with moist, mouth-watering meat inside. The roast feeds up to 14 people for a special reservation.
Solare also does wine-pairing and cocktail-pairing dinners with local distilleries. In addition, it offers a Tasting Menu so diners can experience a wide range of dishes. As Smerik says, "We spend a lot of time describing to our customers exactly where the ingredients come from, why they're there, and how they contribute to the dish."
The menu is focused on locally sourced ingredients, he points out, including pasta made fresh each morning and organic produce, wild fish and hormone-free meat. On Tuesdays, there's 50 percent off a bottle of wine; Wednesdays, it's $6 martinis, and Thursdays, half-off on pizzas.
—Solare Restaurant, 2820 Roosevelt Road, Point Loma; is located in Liberty Station. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. for lunch and 4:30-10 p.m. for dinner, Tuesday-Saturday, and 4:30-10 p.m. Sunday for dinner. There are also cooking classes every other Saturday for $85 per person. (619) 270-9670 solarelounge.com