Randall Robinson once said “People need their history like they need air and food.”
Surround food by history and somehow it just seems to taste better. And so it was with our visit to Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant in San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, where history oozes from every corner of this classic eatery.
Historic San Diego Gaslamp
San Diego Gaslamp covers 16 ½ fun blocks with beautifully restored 19th century architecture. Listed in the National Register of Historical Places, Gaslamp celebrated its 150th birthday this year. The 1880’s brought booming prosperity to San Diego. Even Wyatt Earp ran three gambling halls in an era where saloons and brothels were common fixtures here.
Today San Diego Gaslamp Quarter is a fun, buzzing and energetic part of downtown with hotels, theaters, shops and restaurants. On one end sits a massive open-air shopping mall known as Horton Plaza. One incredible restaurant with its own fascinating history is an experience not to be missed.
Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant was opened in 1984 by Paul Dobson, America’s professional bullfighter. Like he courageously faced the bulls, Paul threw his hat in the ring and opened an eatery in a downtown area where no other restaurants existed.
Paul believed San Diego needed a place where lawyers, politicians, newspaper editors and the city-hall crowd could “power-lunch” in a neighborhood-friendly atmosphere. And 33 years later, the place hasn’t stopped buzzing and the bar is still filled with its faithful urban patrons.
Entering the restaurant, we’re immediately drawn to the colorful stained-glass windows and San Diego’s oldest warm rich mahogany tiger-oak bar. The bar was brought around the horn of Africa from England when Spreckels Theater was built in 1912 commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal.
The classy wood-paneled walls and massive chandelier, give the place an old-fashioned gentleman’s club and speakeasy feel. The original white-tiled floors of this veteran establishment still show cracks from an old earthquake that shook the downtown years ago. An enigmatic clock on the wall across from the bar at first appears somewhat amiss, but it’s inverse rather than broken.
The bar, once called the Press Room, was long filled with cigarette and cigar smoking reporters from the Union Tribune. Seated at the bar, these stalwart newsmen could view the correct time reflected in the mirrored wall straight ahead. During renovation of the restaurant in 1983, builders discovered a secret passageway connecting Spreckels Theater men’s lounge to the Press Room bar. One wonders how many times theater goers used that tunnel. Today’s theater patrons still reserve their tables and enjoy a sumptuous meal and a drink or two prior to show time.
Reservations to belly up to the bar have to be made at least a week in advance due to its immense popularity and faithful patrons. There are no TVs in the restaurant. People come her to mingle and chat putting us in the mind of a Boston Cheers bar “where everybody knows your name.”
The most-requested bar table is the downstairs Hollywood Booth. Celebrities like Maria Shriver, Sean Penn and Yo-Yo Ma have dined here. It happens to be the owner and chef’s favorite table as well. With a perfect view of what’s happening at the bar from its own tucked away little corner, we totally understood why after being seated there.
Tables 201 and 202 overlooking the first floor give diners a spectacular view of the restaurant. Then there’s the table located in the rumored haunted alcove where employees and patrons have reported bizarre occurrences like the light swinging above the table, and even a few ghost sightings in the late-night hours. Rich chandeliers and tied-back Victorian curtains lend an air of early 1900’s sophistication to Dobson’s balcony dining.
The Food is the Star at Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant
Aside from the history and the supernatural, the show stopper at Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant is the food. Chef Martin San Roman is an absolute culinary wizard. Born in Mexico, the chef graduated from Paris’ prestigious École Lenôtre. Chef Martin has since won over 250 awards from 12 different countries.
His innovative creations for Dobson’s beautifully and artfully combine the best of Baja, French and American cuisines. He and owner Paul have known each other since childhood. Their “melding of the minds” has resulted in an incredibly popular and unique dining establishment with an ardent following.
While awaiting our first entrée, we savored the restaurant’s famous Sourdough Bread served butler style with whipped butter. It takes self-control to stop at one warm and savory slice.
This magnificent award-winning dish has received rave reviews by many, including both the Food Network and New York Times. It has been on the restaurant menu now for 33 years. One taste of this delectable delight and I understood why over a million of their many patrons have ordered this dish. After piercing the fluffy, buttery pastry crust, our server poured a generous portion of sherry into the rich bisque. To describe the flavor as sublimely divine doesn’t do it justice. Dobson’s signature California Central Coast Chardonnay was the ideal accompaniment.
Our second course, Salad de France offered a tantalizing blend of flavors to the palate. It featured crisp prosciutto, poached pears, Jamon serrano, Roquefort cheese, baby spinach and arugula greens with caramelized walnuts and homemade sherry vinaigrette.
A surprise from the chef, San Diego’s Best Ceviche, celebrates the availability of fresh sea bass. This ceviche won first place last spring in San Diego’s Food Festival. For us, it transported us to Baja, Mexico where ceviche is king!
Speaking of kings, diners here are treated like royalty. It matters not who your main server is. The entire staff is here to serve you. Like Antonio, a 15-year veteran waiter who’s intimately familiar with every dish and provides guests with consummate service.
Topped with escargot, tomato and garlic, not sure we’ve ever had one this good. Paired with Dobson’s Cabernet Sauvignon, this was nothing short of culinary heaven.
Pan-Seared Sea Scallops served with oven-dried tomato, spinach, caramelized onion and an herb sauce were meaty and flavorful while letting the succulent scallops speak for themselves. And we’re glad they did.
The Perfect Ending
Sure our tummies couldn’t hold another bite, Michele Escobedo, our attentive, personable and most knowledgeable server (who also functions as the restaurant’s event coordinator) insisted we share the Vanilla Crème Brulee. The excellent finisher, light and caramelized, provided the perfect caramel crunch. Accompanied by a luscious, creamy Italian cappuccino, there was no better way to end our unforgettable dining experience at Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant.
San Diego Gaslamp District continues to grow, change and improvise, with dining establishments entering the foodie scene with their new takes on what constitutes the ideal dosing of magic the locals and visitors will flock to. One thing, however, is certain. It’s hard to compete with the perfect combination of history, customer loyalty, proven quality, and award-winning cuisine. Especially when you add a chef and owner always willing, as famous chef Emeril Lagasse calls it, to “kick it up a notch.”