In the world of cool, it seems the worst sin of all is trying too hard. Cool is about being unselfconscious and inventive. In the restaurant context, it's about giving people what they want without them knowing they wanted it in the first place. What it's not about, is making people uncomfortable. (This is still the hospitality industry is it not?) It's not about plucking design trends from Portland, LA and San Francisco and plopping them down in San Diego, and it's not about gimmicks.
None of this is to say the food at Craft & Commerce isn't good. If you're willing to wait an hour or so for one of the approximately 12 tables in the restaurant to open up, and another hour for your food to arrive - I daresay you will enjoy it. During those two hours, you'll have plenty of delicious cocktail options to choose from. We especially enjoyed the Pomelo - a champagne cocktail made with white tequila and grapefruit infused Aperol, served in a flute, and the Carolina Cross - a mixture of gin, watermelon and lemon lime soda served over crushed ice in a tall glass. The service isn't bad either - the staff is competent and polite enough, even when you're left vaguely wondering what's taking so long. The problem is that - though it's hard to put your finger on exactly why - it all seems a little too cool for school. Like the restaurant thinks it's the prettiest girl in the class, and shouldn't have to work for your affections.
It's located in a small open-front space on Beech Street, between India and Kettner -a little off the beaten path but convenient to downtown and Little Italy (about 5 blocks from my office, in fact.) In theory, it should be a great addition to the neighborhood, which is otherwise saturated with mediocre to dismal dining options.
The first problem is that they don't take reservations. This policy might make sense in places where service is relatively quick and the tables turn over consistently. But here, it's not and they don't. When I arrived at 7 PM, every table was occupied - save the one large party booth. I put my name on the on the blackboard on the wall - the first and only party of four, ordered a drink and settled in to wait for my girlfriends to arrive. During the hour that followed, a couple of two-tops turned over and they seated one large party at the booth. Not one party of four was seated. At the end of the hour, many of the tables still didn't have food and people had started to stack up around the bar - crowding the people who were eating there. (It must be the only place regulars can reliably find a seat.) By that time, we were considering Burger Lounge.
Finally - a table opened up. We put in our order almost immediately, and our server suggested some snacks or starters since the kitchen was a little backed up (surprise, surprise.) We chose the "Cracker Jacks" with bacon, marcona almonds and fried hominy, and a side of their house made pickles - watermelon, cucumbers and jicama. It never occurred to me that the Cracker Jacks would actually be Cracker Jacks straight out of the box, but lo and behold they arrived with one of those little paper prizes tucked inside. How... quaint... To be fair though, they were pretty good - especially with the bacon chunks, salty almonds and crisp fried hominy kernels. The pickles were sweet, sharp and refreshing.
The menu is limited but appealing, featuring gastropub standards like a burger and mussels with fries, a brisket sandwich, duck cobb salad, and fried chicken served with garlicky green beans, warm potato salad and cole slaw. The chicken was mine and I was glad. My two piece order - a breast and a thigh - was juicy, well seasoned, and hot from the fryer, and the cup of sweet chili vinegar on the side was a nice touch. The mussels are served in a large bowl with a small pool of "uni butter" in the bottom instead of broth. The butter was rich, but lukewarm by the time it arrived at the table. When Jora asked for ketchup for her shoestring fries, she was told, "We actually don't have ketchup, but I can bring you some malt aioli or Sriracha aioli instead." She asked for both, and they were good, but really? No ketchup? Come on. I know this place is owned by the folks behind Neighborhood, where the no ketchup policy is a point of pride, but why not just give the customer what she wants? If I'd ordered the burger made with juicy, flavorful meat, pickled onions, cheddar cheese and a soft bun - like my friend Elizabeth did - all I'd be able to think about is how much more I would have enjoyed it with some ketchup to cut the richness. Another friend, Heidi, ordered a citrus and avocado salad and we had a panzanella salad for the table. Both were good, though I did find some overripe tomato in the panzanella. There are only two desserts on the menu, both gelato based - but we were not only too stuffed but too sleepy for dessert by the end of our meal, having been there for nearly three hours.
The decor is a curious mix - it seems like they're going for a Clyde Common-esque industrial Portland vibe - and it works pretty well up to a point. I like the dim lighting, the filament light fixtures, the rough woods, and I love the pink neon sign out front. I don't, however, think much of the open shelves filled with generic leather bound books and broken mirror shards, the Kool Aid photographic mural, or the giant DEMAND LESS carved into one wall. (Demand less what? Pretension?) Those things, for me, fall into the category of trying a little too hard. For the menus, they've laminated the first several pages of a moleskine notebook, and you're encouraged to write little notes on the rest. A silly gimmick or a fun idea? I'm leaning toward the former since mine was a little sticky. The rough hewn wood tables are tough on the elbows, but I guess you're not supposed to put them on the table anyway. Worst of all though, are the red metal chairs. They're stylish, to be sure. Stylish torture devices. My tailbone hurts as I sit here right now. If you're going to whip people in and out of a place, uncomfortable chairs might be part of your business plan - but I don't think that's what's going on here. Assuming whomever picked them is not a sadist, they must have been chosen with guest comfort a distant consideration, far behind appearance.
All that aside though, as I think about whether I would go back for the very good cocktails and food (which, after all, should be the whole point of the endeavor) it all comes down to the long wait and the no-reservation policy. As good as that fried chicken was, I'd feel like a chump waiting an hour for a table and another hour for food to arrive, and I'm pretty sure my friends and husband would too. Sitting at the slightly cramped bar is an option, but seating is catch as catch can, and it only works for a party of one or two in any event. Taking reservations (or at the very least turning the tables over more quickly) wouldn't just be a courtesy to guests, it would also benefit the staff by allowing them to pace their service better. If you ask me it's a no brainer, a win-win for everyone involved. But then, I'm not the one who opened a restaurant and made "Demand Less" it's motto.
675 W Beech St
between India and Kettner in Little Italy
San Diego, CA 92101
dinner only - 5PM - 12AM weeknights, and 5PM - 1AM weekends.