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The marble-topped bar gets bustling on weekends.

Open-Door Policy

by Amy Finley | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | December 26, 2013

A week before my birthday and the night after some lug broke into my car, my dinner date canceled on me. It goes without saying that this was in poor form. But I rolled into The Red Door Restaurant & Wine Bar anyway, solo, because the Mission Hills corner resto has a rampant neighborhood following and a new chef, Karrie Hills, who’s been making the rounds of the foodie circuit and charming the pants off of, I swear, everyone she meets.

With a light rain falling outside, causing stoplight reflections to glitter and wink on a slickened Washington Street, I tucked into my window table. Perusing the menu and scouting the tiny room from that perfect vantage point, I soon realized the only thing weird about my dining alone was that I wasn’t the only one at the restaurant doing so. The woman behind me read The New Yorker on her Kindle while sipping wine and eating short ribs, and across the way, waiting for his flatiron steak to arrive, a silver-haired gent in suspenders used a pencil to scribble notes on his papers. Mollified, I decided to treat this less like a meal alone, and more like a chance to dine with an imaginary friend, one with an equal passion for French-inflected wine-country cooking, Hills’ specialty. I ordered for two.

And so, first off, kudos to Scotty, my server, for not blinking an eye when I requested—to start—the house-cured salmon crostini and the smoked fontina and mushroom tart and the garden chard and kale salad. In fact, the only indication that anyone in the restaurant found my setup at all unusual came later, when every inch of the two-top table was covered with dishes, and a different server, arriving with my lamb meatballs, finally asked, “Are you waiting for someone?”

“I’m eating for two,” I answered, high on the luscious veal demiglace puddling around my flaky mushroom pastry. And though he must have misunderstood—offering me a high-five and an earnest “Congratulations!” before depositing my dish and departing—I didn’t correct him. Because that impending birthday was my big 4-0, and I was happy that my Grüner Veltliner glow could be (mis)interpreted for an expectant flush. That he nevertheless didn’t question the aforementioned Grüner just reinforced the European atmosphere, bringing pleasantly to mind the corner cafe I used to haunt in my Paris days.

If some restaurant locations can be cursed, others must be blessed with good karma. And this is one of those. Critically acclaimed Parallel 33 was beloved during its tenure on this corner. Dark and moody, in design it was the tastefully cozy, whitewashed Red Door’s mirror opposite. But in culinary aptitude, there are, er, parallels.

Hills’ predecessor, Miguel Valdez, could be accused of overthinking his food. The Red Door sources produce from the owner’s own Mount Helix garden, and that earnestness always seemed to creep into Valdez’s cooking, which was sometimes better intentioned than executed. Hills, on the other hand, grew up on a Central Coast farm and cooks with an informed nonchalance that is the culinary equivalent of a little black dress—you can dress her very able menu up or down. There’s a standout burger, for example, and when a trio of teens sat near me for dinner with their mum, two of the three of them ordered it. But mum took the freeform butternut squash lasagna, with supple housemade noodles draped over dollops of sweet squash puree and herbed ricotta. My salmon crostini were buttery, sophisticated mouthfuls. The fatty vodka-dill-and-pomegranate-cured fish was balanced in texture and flavor by crisp, green olive toasts. And Hills uses sauces with intelligence. There’s a peppery chimichurri to cut the full, round flavor of the excellent lamb meatballs. On the Duroc pork schnitzel—which I also ordered (Why not!?)—a classic lemon-caper brown-butter sauce is the creamy counterpoint to the panko-crusted meat and sweet-sour braised cabbage.

When you dine alone, I discovered, the desire to dialogue inevitably mutates into an argumentative interior discussion, so that I found myself inwardly quibbling with Hills over a handful of her choices. But these were largely miscalculations of style rather than technique. Like the flavorful chard and kale salad—confettied with quinoa, ribboned with pink pickled onions and studded with bacon—which lacks artistry in its presentation. Or that the whole-grain mustard spaetzle was snaky and tubular, like it had been extruded from a meat grinder rather than attentively hand-formed. And when my mini banana cream pie arrived (Skip dessert? Heavens no!), there were inexplicably two not-particularly-mini pies on the plate, and both could have used a touch of salt to counter their abundant richness.

When I could eat no more, Scotty packed up the remains of my meal in kraft-paper boxes and sent me out into the night. The suspendered gent had put aside his paperwork, donning headphones, and was finishing his creme brulee. The Kindle reader waved goodbye. “Congrats again!” said the errant server.

I just smiled.

The Singles Scene
Pickup bar? Hardly. But regulars do favor the marble-topped bar or a cozy two-top for weeknight solo meals.

The Best Seat in the House
Pillow-topped banquettes line the walls and up the stay-awhile factor. Couples canoodle at a crescent-shaped corner table that screams date night!

The Drinks
A fun and approachable wine and cocktail list has options for both safe and adventurous tipplers.

The Red Door Restaurant & Wine Bar
741 W. Washington St., San Diego, 619. 295.6000

Mon.-Thu., 11:30am-3pm, 5-9:30pm; Fri., 11:30am-3pm, 5-10pm; Sat., 5-10pm; Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm, 5-9:30pm. Starters, $7-$12; entrees, $14-$24; desserts, $8