I love San Diego. From the moment I flew out of Philadelphia into Lindbergh Field in 1973 on one of those adorable pink PSA planes, together with my husband, Jim Croce, and our two-year-old son, A.J., it just felt right!
I vividly remember exploring our new hometown with Jim, who had just returned after months on the road promoting his songs “Time in a Bottle” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Heading south on Broadway, we stopped on the corner of Fifth and F, looking for a place to eat and a club where we could listen to live music. We were disappointed to find only tattoo parlors, ladies of the night, and people begging for change.
We joked that evening about opening a local restaurant and bar that would offer great food and music. But less than a week later, after playing a college concert, Jim’s plane crashed near Natchitoches, Louisiana. Our dream was gone. I was a 26-year-old widow and a single mom who knew exactly three people in the area: a neighbor, a cousin, and a woman I’d met at the gym.
Devastated and heartbroken, I found my way to the grocery store and started cooking. For me, the way to cope with tragedy lay in the ritual of preparing meals. Before long, there were people coming to my home every night for dinner, playing music and bringing with them a healing feeling of community.
Having lived all my life on the East Coast, I was surprised and delighted by the fresh, locally-grown organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs that were available all year long in San Diego. I shopped every day at a small, family-owned market on Voltaire Street and soon came to know the owner and his family. True pioneers, in 1984 they closed their market and opened a Cajun restaurant in the historic Gaslamp district.
Their venue, unfortunately, proved to be short-lived, and their restaurant soon closed. For two decades, retailers and urbanites had been fleeing downtown San Diego for the sprawling suburbs. The few locals who still braved a trip to the center of the city were too frightened to let their children out of the car.
In my imagination, though, I saw the Gaslamp as a future Greenwich Village of the West Coast, filled with fabulous art galleries, live/work lofts, theaters, restaurants, and clubs like the ones where Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and my husband Jim and I had once played. Happily, in the summer of 1985, a friend called to tell me there was a vacant restaurant storefront available in the Gaslamp a block from a new shopping mall, Horton Plaza, and up the street from the convention center that was about to open.
When I went to look at the space, I realized it was located on the corner where Jim and I had stopped twelve years before. It felt like an omen. Building a restaurant there would be the perfect tribute to Jim and a wonderful opportunity to help build a strong downtown San Diego. A few months later, I opened Croce’s Restaurant on the corner of Fifth and F, and a satellite location, Croce’s Coffee House, in Horton Plaza.
While the rest of downtown San Diego still looked like a scene out of HBO’s “Deadwood” or a verse out of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” Horton Plaza proved to be an oasis in the desolation. When guests at the mall stopped for coffee and a muffin, I’d invite them to have a meal at Croce’s. Like a safari guide, I would personally escort each and every diner to the corner of Fifth and F.
Still in the red two years later, I managed to obtain a liquor license for Croce’s. On St. Patrick’s Day 1987, Croce’s Jazz Bar opened in the space next to the restaurant, where a whip, chain, and leather store had been.
The night I opened the Jazz Bar, however, my home burned to the ground. A few months later, my chef/general manager was taken away in handcuffs by the police during our dinner service. I was just about ready to give up my dream of downtown San Diego dining community.
Instead, I met my wonderful husband, Jimmy Rock, at Croce’s Restaurant at table #21. His legal services rescued my favorite employee, and, best of all, we married the following year. We opened a second restaurant together and then launched Croce’s Top Hat Bar and Grille, located right next door to Croce’s and featuring rhythm and blues music, in the hopes of bringing even more diners downtown.
The new convention center started to bring in business. At the end of 1989, Fio’s Restaurant opened across the street from Croce’s and other Italian and ethnic restaurants soon followed. The Gaslamp culinary scene continued to expand, and then it eventually exploded into an excited dining and entertainment district. Over the course of the last decade, the scattering of restaurants in all of our San Diego communities has multiplied to more than 6,000 establishments. And we’re still growing!
In 2005, after the success of San Diego Restaurant Week, the idea came to me to create The San Diego Restaurant Cookbook. It would be, I believed, the perfect way to promote San Diego Restaurant Week 2006. San Diego was finally ready for an official regional restaurant cookbook.
This book is meant to celebrate the memorable San Diego dining experience, allowing you to re-create your favorite restaurant recipes in your own home. I have done my best to introduce to you many of San Diego’s most popular restaurants, as well as to the growers and vendors who keep San Diego healthy and strong. All San Diego dining establishments in the California Restaurant Association and the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau were invited to be a part of this book at no charge. The restaurateurs who participated in this project generously contributed recipes and stories and allowed us to take photographs to capture the ambiance of their establishments.
Restaurants are the hub of a community, and all of our San Diego communities are represented in this book: the Gaslamp and downtown, Old Town, Mission Valley, Balboa Park, Hillcrest, uptown and North Park, Mission Bay, Mission Beach and Ocean Beach, Coronado, La Jolla and Del Mar, East County, North County an North Coastal, Point Loma, Harbor Island and Shelter Island, Little Italy, Clairemont and Kearny Mesa, South Bay, southeast San Diego, and Chula Vista.
The journeys I took to visit the San Diego restaurants, producers, and vendors included in this book have proved to be more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. The open-armed hospitality with which I was universally greeted reminds me why I chose this city to be my home. There is a strong spirit of welcoming kindness in our San Diego hospitality industry, and I am thankful every day to be a part of it.
Please come visit us soon!
- Ingrid Croce
San Diego, September 2005