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The rustic dining room at Campfire is a renovated Quonset hut

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Where There's Smoke

By Jackie Bryant

Photography by Tim Melideo | Charred octopus dish courtesy of Trust Restaurant

01.02.18

A string of recently opened camping-inspired restaurants channel all the rustic glamour of a bygone era without the commitment of cooking your own food. It’s glamping for diners, and San Diegans can’t get enough.

DINING ROOMS ARE channeling campsites, and chefs are ditching the gas flat top and harnessing live fire to cook their dishes. The idea falls perfectly in line with the way we love to entertain in Southern California, without having to scrape a grill later. Campfire, which debuted in September 2016 in Carlsbad, has been packed to the gills and receives rave reviews for its dishes, like roasted broccoli with chermoula and candied peanuts, manila clams and smoked pork belly with green tomato dashi and poblano chili, and the ever-changing roasted whole fish with jerk vinaigrette, charred onion and caramelized onion, all cooked on a 12-foot hearth powered by a Grillworks wood-burning grill. If it all sounds very throwback, well, that’s the point, explains Campfire’s owner, John Resnick. “In the last few years you’ve really seen two different trends taking off: live-fire cooking and camping. Cooking with wood is both an answer and is a bit of a pendulum swing coming off of trends like molecular gastronomy,” he says. “Chefs are now excited to use forward-thinking and modern techniques coupled with the ancient and primitive cooking that occurs when you try to harness a live fire.”

The design for the restaurant, which was inspired by camping on the California coast, was completed by Bells & Whistles, which has installed other San Diego spots Starlite and Sycamore Den, and Broken Spanish in Los Angeles. Think Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom: Camping gear adorns the walls throughout, and a 12-foot custom teepee sits just outside the hybrid indoor-outdoor, modern dining areas. Wood, copper and other natural elements round out the space. “I think the camping comeback has something to do with the inclination from all of us to get away and seek adventure, if even for a night,” Resnick muses. “A moment to turn off the phone and get back outside.” 

The wood-grilled octopus at Trust is dotted with salsa verde and served with tangy Castelvetrano olives.

The style continues at Fireside by the Patio in Liberty Station, which opened in March 2016 and is oriented around multiple outdoor fire pits and grills that span its sprawling patio. Executive chef Michael Ground thinks the concept is the most unique in the neighborhood. “Fireside is built on history, with two large outdoor patios—each embracing the artistry of fire-inspired fare, using custom pieces that range from yakitori grills to a wood-fired pizza oven and wood-powered Santa Maria-style grills fueled by red and white oak.”

Dave Warner, the executive chef of Decoy Dockside Dining at the Lakehouse Hotel & Resort in San Marcos, which opened in August 2016, says cooking with fire is anything but a trend. The restaurant features large windows overlooking the lake and a wood-paneled ceiling, evoking an upscale lake house. “I like the heat and intensity of cooking with live flame. Wood adds a depth of flavor that’s unattainable from any other cooking source,” he explains. “And really, who doesn’t want to play with fire? The food tastes homey and recognizable [think wood-fired steaks, cast-iron cornbread and the lobster mac and cheese that might not have made an appearance at your own campsite, but is perfectly at home here]. It’s the type of meal that makes you want to linger around the table and tell another story. I’m not sure I would call this a trend; it may have gone out of style in restaurants, but this is the way people having been cooking and eating forever.”

Various other restaurants around San Diego have zeroed in on either the decor or the cooking technique, like Trust, in Hillcrest, which has been credited with breathing new life into the neighborhood’s waning dining scene. Executive chef and owner Brad Wise calls his style “urban rustic” and cooks ingredients like octopus, lamb meatballs, branzino and a rib-eye for two on a wood-fired grill. One Door North, opened in summer 2016, doesn’t practice live-fire cooking but installed actual tents in its dining room, which guests can reserve for group dining and order items like cast-iron fried trout and grilled broccolini. Restaurant trends are ever-changing, but good food, the great outdoors and a little bit of escapism is a combination that never goes out of style. To enjoy it as you truly should, leave the phone in the car and bring a few tall tales to the table.  

Campfire guests roast homemade marshmallows on rosemary skewers over tiny cast-iron coal pots.