Three cheers and four stars for Mobil’s top picks


By Brandon Hernández

Good movies get four stars. A catchy music album might garner as many as five. The star rating system is everywhere. But where did it originate?

Mobil. That’s right. The folks famous for gasoline, diesel fuels, lubricants and mini-marts invented the star rating system for the Mobil Travel Guide back in 1958. Updated annually, the guide contains in-depth profiles of the nation’s finest lodgings, restaurants, spas and attractions. The guide is celebrating its 50th year in 2008 and, as a result of receiving four highly-coveted Mobil stars, two La Jolla restaurants are joining in on the festivities.

The Lodge At Torrey Pines’ A.R. Valentien and Jack’s La Jolla are among the elite group of 149 U.S. restaurants that earned a four-star distinction this year. Only one other restaurant in all of San Diego – Uptown’s sleek French-Mediterranean number Laurel – made the four-star club this year, giving La Jolla a two-thirds share of the region’s best classification.

“Being recognized by a publication like the Mobil Travel Guide, confirms and acknowledges what you’ve brought to the table is appreciated. We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to be proud of,” says Steve Pelzer, the Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Evans Hotels, which includes the Lodge At Torrey Pines (which, in tandem with The Spa At Torrey Pines, earned four stars as well).

Mobil Travel Guide’s are held in the highest regard because of the time-tested honest manner in which they are determined.

The first step to determining a rating is facility inspection, during which a Mobil inspector makes an unannounced visit to a restaurant and uses a comprehensive checklist to evaluate the cleanliness, physical condition and location. This initial inspection results in a Mobil one, two or three-star rating.

All three star facilities that inspectors believe may be eligible for a fourth or fifth star are then inspected a second time, this time by an undercover inspector. Inspectors constantly scan the room to observe how other guests are being treated and use checklists, stop watches and recorders to evaluate the venue and make their final determinations, which take cuisine, speed, efficiency, graciousness, luxury and everything in-between into consideration when formulating a final rating.

Mobil’s inspectors are so meticulous that, in cases where an establishment offers multiple restaurants, each eatery is judged individually. Hence, it was The Dining Room at Jack’s La Jolla (which also features Jack’s Grille and Jack’s Ocean Room) that merited the highest praise. With so many diverse venues and so much action all in one building, Executive Chef Tony DiSalvo notes, “Sometimes the food gets overshadowed by all of the things we have going on, so it’s nice to be recognized for the food by such a reputable source as Mobil. We’re super excited to be recognized for the effort we put in every day.”

“Chef Tony’s modern American cuisine with Asian influences is unique and creative. He deserves all the honors he has received,” said Jack’s owner Bill Berkley. “Hopefully as a result of the publicity, more people will try Chef Tony’s innovative dinner creations. There is nothing more enjoyable that a charming restaurant setting, a great bottle of wine and an exceptional meal enjoyed with good friends.”

Another contributing factor to Jack’s high rating is Berkley and DiSalvo’s attention to providing customers the chance to experience the restaurant in creative, enjoyable and affordable ways.

“Some people are scared by the high ratings from prestigious publications such as Mobil,” notes Berkley. “They assume that the food is expensive, but the prices at Jack’s Dining Room are very reasonable. The black sea bass, slow-baked wild king salmon, jidori chicken and Muscovy duck breast [dishes] are all less than $30.”

Tuesday evenings feature an unbeatable value for seafood lovers in the form of Lobster Night – a one-and-a-half pound Maine lobster with accoutrements for $29. The rest of the week is studded with similar promotions providing budgetary relief without a lapse in quality of food or service. And, as if having three restaurants and five lounges under one roof didn’t already provide enough variety for patrons, Jack’s just opened Level3, a dining room seating 120 that converts to a lounge complete with a dance floor, DJ, retractable roof, patio, fire pit and ocean views.

Where Jack strives to provide a refined ultra-modern experience, A.R. Valentien excels in treating guests to luxurious traditional dining events that simultaneously pay homage to classic gastronomic practices and showcase the most en vogue, cutting edge ingredients and cookery methods.

Those looking to sample Chef Jackson’s creative market-driven cuisine are encouraged to book a Thursday evening at the Artisan’s Table where diners are seated together to break bread, drink wine and make new friends. “It’s an amazing experience with what starts out as a table of strangers sharing a special menu centered around fresh regional ingredients getting to know each other,” explains Pelzer.

Regional editions of the 2008 Mobil Travel Guide are available for $17.95 online at