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Former restaurant critic saw it all and tasted most of it

Thirty years ago this summer, the La Jolla Light hired its first restaurant critic. The concept of restaurant reviews was a fairly new one in San Diego at the time. The dining-out scene was just starting to sizzle; baby boomers had jobs, money and the desire to learn more about food; and adventuresome eaters of all ages sought guidance to the best bouillabaisse and the puffiest pancakes in town.

Leslie James was up to the task.

In my first column, on June 28, 1979, I promised to “share the goods and bads, brilliant successes and devastating failures of the restaurants in our area.” My second column extolled the glories of Ming’s Garden in Bird Rock. My third made me realize the wisdom of writing under a pen name. (I had created Leslie James - L.J. - as a tribute to La Jolla.) Just hours after that edition hit the stands, the disgruntled owners of the new “French bistro” I reviewed showed up at the Light’s offices looking for the critic who wrote: “The Coq au Vin turned out to be a tasteless misnomer … absent were the sauteed pearl onions, blanched bacon, aroma of bay leaf … and if this chick had ever seen wine it was on the way past the bar to our table.”

Undaunted, I continued to play guinea pig for fellow foodies until I moved my bib and utensils and left for the San Diego Union.

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This summer’s 30th anniversary is a good time to reminisce about the good, the bad and the inedible in a career of eating for a living.

I remember fondly the early days of The Gatekeeper, a funky cafe on Prospect where we enjoyed strong coffee, classical music and quintessential comfort foods such as Apple Brown Betty. I remember the thrill of being led to a window table at Top of the Cove, where we feasted on lobster in avocado sauce. I can still taste the buttery, garlicky escargots at Chez Francoise. And I can still see a smiling Alfonso standing at the door of his original location (the home today of Jose’s Courtroom). As guests arrived, Alfonso would dutifully write their names on the waiting list. I sneaked a peek at that list one night … most lines said “amigo.”

Some of our favorite eateries from 25 or 30 years ago have hung in there. Georges at the Cove (now George’s California Modern) is now on the national gastronomic map, thanks to the cutting-edge cuisine of chef Trey Foshee. The Marine Room has shed its musty odors and antediluvian dress codes (well-dressed men were turned away in the ‘70s if they didn’t have a tie on), and is thriving with chef Bernard Guillas at the helm. And fans of the Whaling Bar in the La Valencia still rave about the Caesar salad and the sauteed sole.

The Pannikin is still one of the nicest ways to ease into a day. Carino’s still offers pizza and a laid-back beachy ambience. And though the names Rancherita and Ranchero have been juggled over the years, you can still get a warm welcome and a cold beer at this La Jolla Boulevard institution.

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But some of our favorites closed their doors, leaving us pining for a great frittata (Cresci’s) or hunk of perfect, runny Brie (C’est Cheese). I know I’m not alone in shedding a tear for Pierre Lustrat’s luscious tarte tatin at L’Escargot or for Cindy Black’s creative riff on roast turkey and rack of lamb.

How lovely and simple life was in the days when we could drop into funky Ocean Fresh in Bird Rock and devour fresh, local grilled fish served on sturdy paper plates with yummy coleslaw. How cool it was to sip a Tanqueray-and-tonic-in-a-tub-glass at Bully’s before digging in to a slab of prime rib or a superlative burger on onion roll.

But it was a time, too, of growing sophistication. At La Mediterranee in Solana Beach, chef Andre Menu wowed us with sauteed foie gras and soaring souffles. At Bertrand’s, high on the hill overlooking Cardiff beach, Vincent Grumel treated us to a confit de canard that was better than any I’ve tasted since. (Grumel also made Chocolate Bavarois - outrageously rich, smooth and bittersweet - a household word.)

Remember the thrill of discovering deep-fried parsley at the tiny Belgian place in the Prospect Street arcade? The tuna tartare with wispy taro chips at Pamplemousse in Del Mar? And how about the allure of classic French bistro fare at La Cote d’Azur? The omelets and ratatouille were terrific; host Bertrand Hug was an inimitable mixture of charm and chutzpah; and sexy crooner Guy Richard made “Ne me Quittez Pas” an unforgettable song to all who listened.

The world was already becoming a smaller place, and with that came an appetite for “exotic” fare. Chef Neil Stuart catapulted our notion of Asian food well beyond Kung Pao Chicken when he introduced the concept of fusion food along with his Takashimi at Pacifica Del Mar. (That creation of seared ahi, fried wontons and tropical salsa is still available today at the Del Mar Plaza restaurant.) In Bird Rock, El Chalan was all about Peruvian specialties, including papas rellenas and pescado chorrillana.

And what did we know about Swedish food in those days? Nothing. Until Gustaf Anders opened in La Jolla Shores and introduced us to the glories of sugar- and salt-cured salmon, and wild rice pancakes topped with caviar and crème fraiche.

Of course, we thought we knew everything there was to know about Italian food … until restaurant maestro Larry Mindel opened Il Fornaio in Del Mar Plaza and brought the world of regional Italian cuisine to us.

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For this restaurant critic, the last 30 years has been a lot more than a bowl of cherries. It’s been fabulous fish tacos at Beaumont’s in Bird Rock and an out-a-site Caesar salad at Barbarella in the Shores. It’s been cutting-edge cuisine at La Jolla’s Nine-Ten and Del Mar’s Market. It’s been hidden gems such as Cavaillon in Carmel Valley, and familiar neighborhood places such as La Taverna and Rimel’s in La Jolla and Americana in Del Mar, where great food is also great value.

It’s been Michele Coulon’s glamorous cupcakes; Trattoria Acqua’s homemade pasta; appetizers in front of Roppongi’s fire pit; and a hamburger to die for at Whisknladle.

In the summer of 1979, a percolating local restaurant scene demanded the addition of a restaurant critic to the La Jolla Light team. In contrast, the summer of 2009 has been a shaky time for local restaurants and the folks who love them. The recent closing of Jack’s, where chef Tony DiSalvo created extraordinary Italian food in the second-floor Viareggio restaurant, is a sad case in point.

But we can all do our part to ensure that our favorite pasta puttanesca and potatoes gratin, foie gras and fajitas will still be there when we have a craving for them:

Eat out soon … and often.

A critic’s picks

Awesome oldies

Now closed, these restaurants contributed to the growth and sophistication of our communities’ dining scenes.

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Cindy Black’s, La Jolla

Bertrand’s, Cardiff

Gustaf Anders, La Jolla Shores

La Mediterranee, Solana Beach

Jack’s, La Jolla

Today’s stars

These favorites, with their talented chefs and creative cuisine, have put us on the nation’s gastronomic roadmap.

Tapenade, La Jolla

Market, Del Mar

Mille Fleurs, Rancho Santa Fe

Georges California Modern, La Jolla

Pamplemousse, Del Mar

Maureen Clancy was a political writer and assistant producer at KPBS-TV in 1979 when La Jolla Light publisher Phyllis Pfeiffer tapped her to be the Light’s first restaurant critic. That was 30 years and millions of calories ago. Today, she shares her love of good food, wine and adventure with readers of her blog “Matters of Taste.” Visit her at

www.maureenclancy.com

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