By Brandon Hernández
Simple food done well.
It seems a straightforward-enough concept. But when surveying San Diego’s dining landscape, restaurateur Arsalun Tafazoli found a void of comfortable, casual places where basic, honest dishes were being prepared as well as or better than the cuisine at high-end restaurants. It’s a void he has made it his mission to fill, and his vehicle for doing so is Neighborhood, a stylish new bar-restaurant in San Diego’s East Village serving innovative upscale takes on classic American comfort dishes.
Tafazoli was born and raised in La Jolla, where he graduated from La Jolla High before moving on to UCSD. But when explaining the genesis for Neighborhood’s concept, this native Californian cites an event that took place during a trip to New York City.
“I’d just had a really bad day,” he said. “Some friends and I found this small spot to eat with a very simple menu. I had a great burger, a great beer and we had a great conversation.”
Before Tafazoli knew it, his mood had gone from miserable to ecstatic. It reminded him of a New York Times article he’d read about life satisfaction and long-term happiness, and how accumulation of wealth, career advancement and other such traditional achievements pale in their ability to enhance one’s overall quality of life compared to simpler pleasures and experiences such as joyful times spent with friends and family or enjoying a particularly scrumptious meal.
Such was the case for Tafazoli that day in New York.
“That meal really affected my day,” he said. “I really enjoyed myself and I thought how amazing it would be if I could re-create that experience.”
Doing so would require a lot of hard work and a complete shift in focus for Tafazoli, who had been studying to become a lawyer but had admittedly soured on the idea after witnessing a distressing trend among friends of his who had landed jobs at some of the country’s top firms.
“They were hating their lives,” he said.
He most certainly did not want to fall victim to the same phenomenon. So, despite years of grooming himself for a life in the legal profession, he instead called on the economics background he’d also gained while at UCSD to start an auto repair business to raise the funds he later coupled with money from investors to open Neighborhood.
From the get-go, his vision for the venue was clear. He wanted a spot where people could relax and enjoy top-notch food in a sophisticated relaxed atmosphere reminiscent of the gastropubs and izakayas he’d so enjoyed during excursions to England and Japan. And though he is a twenty-something completely new to the restaurant industry, Tafazoli understands and focuses on the key ingredient to realizing his dream – the food.
Developing a menu featuring dishes capable of chasing away the blues and raising patrons’ joie de vive was a daunting enterprise, and one Tafazoli and Chef Jesse Cruz, a veteran of 1500 Ocean and the Cohn Restaurant Group, did not take lightly.
“We asked ourselves, ‘what are the American classics that we liked growing up?’ ” Tafazoli said.
Images of apple pie, grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburgers and a slew of similar standards immediately sprang to mind.
The foremost example of Neighborhood’s revamped Americana is the dish that sparked its creation - the burger. Whether you go with the flagship Neighborhood Burger with caramelized onions and blue Gruyere cheese, Mushroom Marsala Burger, Spicy Cajun Rubbed Burger or the 777 Burger with plum tomato confit and bearnaise sauce (named for Neighborhood’s 777 G Street address), you’re bound to feel your life, or at least your outlook on it, rise a few notches.
Neighborhood’s non-burger offerings include a diverse assortment of “smalls” (appetizers) that are every bit as nostalgic-yet-nouveau. Artichoke mousse deviled eggs, Yukon potato chips, truffle butter popcorn, pale ale-battered onion rings - if it’s all-American, it’s all here. And it’s so good that ketchup is not only unnecessary, but outlawed altogether.
“We feel ketchup ruins the chemistry,” Tafazoli said. “Since all facets of our dishes have been very thought-out, we want people to experience the tastes we’ve developed rather than cover them up.”
Those fearing a condiment-free existence need not fret. Each of Neighborhood’s burgers is paired with its own homemade gourmet sauce.
Neighborhood’s smalls range from $3 to $8 while salads and entrees (including those hearty half-pound burgers) weigh in at an affordable $7 to $12.
The best bargains can be had weekdays from 4 to 7 p.m. during happy hour, which features nightly specials and two-for-one deals on quality drafts from a whopping 27 taps. A beer enthusiast, Tafazoli pays homage to San Diego breweries by devoting nearly two-thirds of his taps to local favorites including Alesmith, Ballast Point, Green Flash, Port Brewing Co. and Stone. Various themed beer flights are also available along with white, red and sparkling wines.
Neighborhood is open seven days a week for dinner at 777 G St.