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The dining room by Philippe Beltran, known for his designs for CRG’s BO-Beau properties

Sea Change

by Amy Finley | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | April 28, 2014

During March Madness, in the pause between the triumphant round of 32 and what would be the San Diego State Aztecs’ heartbreak appearance in the Sweet 16, innocent of this fate and so still riding high on a wave of Aztec pride, my family and I pulled into the waterfront parking lot of the Pier South Resort in Imperial Beach. My 11-year-old son, Indy, immediately spied the basketball court just steps off the sand. “Can’t we play?” he pleaded, but I hustled everyone inside. I’d timed our reservation at SEA 180°, the new resto at the boutique hotel, to coincide with the sun’s dip into the ocean, and already the shimmering disk was mere inches above sea level. When we’d navigated the hotel lobby, stepped into the handsome wood-replete restaurant and made our way to our table, we could see the nearly full outdoor patio in suspended animation through the beach-facing glass wall, all eyes training north and westward over the fire pits, glasses of wine held aloft in expectation, and even servers pausing as collectively we all witnessed the last slivers of beaming light extinguish behind the waves. Scarlett, my 8-year-old daughter, let out a dreamy sigh and then immediately pounced on the menu. “I’m starving,” she announced.

It is indeed best to bring an appetite to the Philippe Beltran-designed restaurant. Executive Chef and partner Ken Irvine grew up on Coronado in a fishing family, worked tuna boats for 10 years himself and doesn’t do dainty cuisine. Instead, the die-hard surfer, an aficionado of the break below the I.B. Pier (he can track it from the dining room), favors rustic dishes served in ample portions. There’s smoked beer-can chicken on the menu and beef tongue taquitos, dishes that refuse to take themselves too seriously, even if there is a multimillion-dollar view out the window and a sea breeze ruffling the hair on the social hour crowd’s heads as they sip craft beer and cocktails on the spacious, heated patio.

It is I.B., after all.

But it’s the new I.B. Part of the joy of watching the Aztecs extend their run in the tournament came from the well-heck-who-knew respect their performance wrung from the naysayers and program dismissers, and there’s a similar glee in watching I.B. step out from the beach-town shadows. Surfers have always known (and cherished) its secret allure (and perfect sets), but after its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, I.B. slipped into ignominy. Growing up in S.D. in the 1980s, all I really knew about the town was that we didn’t go there. Like, ever.

The upshot, of course, of this bleak period is that I.B.’s waterfront retains an almost quaint yesteryear appeal, its beach bungalows as yet unrazed to make way for view-hogging McMansions. The building of Pier South was cause for both celebration and concern in the community. What effect would a high-profile boutique hotel have on the area? Like Leucadia lobbying to stay weird, could I.B., once rediscovered, stay true?

Irvine, an industry veteran of more than 50 restaurants who lives in the Coronado Cays and drives the Silver Strand to the restaurant each day, crafted a menu for SEA 180° that’s a good fit for this moment in the beach burg’s evolution (Coronado Brewing Co. is also soon to open a tasting room on the strip). It’s accessible and unintimidating, but also hints at a more elegant future, and in that respect, it’s prototypical of a Cohn Restaurant Group project (the eatery’s ownership), right down to the fire-roasted Brussels sprouts. The mac and cheese is truffle-scented and spiked with chunks of lobster. Seared scallops come dolloped with (too sweet) bacon jam and kumquats, and the calamari is flash sauteed, not fried, and served entwined with ribbons of zucchini and chunky green olive pistou. Like the Aztecs, though, there are still kinks in execution to be overcome before the resto’s a real contender. The (fried) goat cheese gnocchi served with the seven-hour lamb osso buco needed seasoning, and the menu’s standout dish, a grilled whole branzino—Irvine corralled a fishing buddy to supply the restaurant—is brilliantly prepared, but unwieldy, unless you’re adept at fileting your own fish. To boot, it also arrives trailing herb sprigs on an oversize platter that’s nearly the size of the tabletop. In fact, all of the servingware is strikingly oversized. There are even foot-and-a-half-long wooden planks used as underplates for some dishes, and with the menu emphasizing sea-, ranch- and farmcentric shared plates (think surf and turf reinterpreted for the farm-to-table movement), it all makes for some clunky maneuvering as food arrives and the table grows to resemble an upended china cabinet.

But then there’s that stunning, yet still humble, beachfront location, just begging for a little tolerance as the restaurant grows into itself. After all, just try to imagine this scene playing out in Del Mar or La Jolla: After dinner we step out into the night air, retrieve the basketball from the back of the car, step onto the empty court and play pickup while listening to the waves crash on the shore. We have the whole waterfront to ourselves. Indy drops back for a 3-pointer and sinks the basket. We go wild.

Score!

SEA 180º
800 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach, 619.631.4949
Mon.-Sun., 7am-11pm. Starters, $3-$19; entrees, $15-$29; desserts, $9

Social Habits
From 2:30-5pm, libations are half-priced during social hour. Order up that $45 DeLeón añejo tequila margarita!

It’s a Wrap
No, you’re not imagining things. Those are all matching throws draped over shoulders and laps out on the breezy patio. Pick one up on loan from the hostess station.

You’ve Got Mail
The iPad-based wine list includes an option to track your quaffs, then email yourself a bottle list for future reference.

Just Desserts
Opening chef Jack Fisher’s tenure at the resto was short, but sweet. And the acclaimed pastry chef’s desserts are still on the menu. Save room.