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Dispatch from the Pandemic

As of January 2021, San Diego County remains under an indefinite regional stay-at-home order, and restaurants and bars may offer take-out/to-go sales only. Visit the San Diego County website for an up-to-date list of business and services open around the county.

Cardellino’s fried chicken

There’s a new restaurant in Mission Hills without an indoor table in sight. Instead, the simmering hum of weeknight service—a cacophony of disparate conversations, clinking glasses and silverware—disperses into open air. At Cardellino’s slender patio for dinner one July evening, I smile at staff beneath my mask, wider and longer than usual so my eyes crinkle in the way that I hope says, “Thank you so much for serving us in this weird and risky time.”

Since March 2020, San Diegans have been sheltering in-place in some restrictive capacity or other, with March and April experiencing a near-complete stop to indoor business, unless business was considered an essential service. The county eventually allowed some businesses and public areas to reopen in May, only to see many of them, including restaurants and bars, again shutter—partially, or completely—shortly after the July 4th holiday. In September, indoor restaurant dining remained closed, although take-out and outdoor dining was available (which included bars that were able to serve food). As of this publishing (January 2021), indoor and outdoor dining is once again closed under a statewide, regional stay-at-home order.

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our culture—from how we travel, shop, and connect with others. Dining culture is no exception. Ahead is a brief summary of some of these changes, which at once offers new ways to support our local restaurants in this current moment, as well as a glimpse of how we’ll dine in the months to come, and beyond.

Say Hello to the Restaurant/Upscale Market Hybrid

As of January 2021, San Diego County remains under an indefinite regional stay-at-home order, and restaurants and bars may offer take-out/to-go sales only. Visit the San Diego County website for an up-to-date list of business and services open around the county.

With the state of indoor dining here one day and gone the next, restaurants have been forced to reimagine their spaces to keep their doors open. One result is the hybrid cafe and market, which isn’t a new concept, but has been sprouting up all over the county during the pandemic. What is most interesting to me, is the range of upmarket, specialty offerings from North County to Downtown. 

In North County, consider Homestead in Solana Beach, where guests can now pick up fresh produce, eggs, canned goods, and deli meats alongside their menu of sandwiches and salads. The Gluten Free Baking Co. in North Park went a similar route, offering gluten-free pantry items, locally made hot sauce, and dry pasta, to pair with its sweet and savory baked goods. All-day cafe Herb & Eatery in Little Italy expanded their shelves to include more cookbooks, glassware, and condiments, as well as a curated selection of boutique spirits, canned and batched to-go cocktails, and bar tools to complement their pre-covid wine selection. As of January 2021, their Instagram account says they are currently closed for renovations.

Sit-down Restaurants Try Take Out

The pandemic has also highlighted all of the take-out options available, especially from restaurants you typically wouldn’t consider partaking in this format. These are the restaurants you go to specifically for the entire culinary journey, from pre-dinner cocktails and appetizers, to the main course, and dessert because maybe you’ve planned for a night beyond the usual surroundings—read: monotony—of your home. And maybe, for one evening, you’d like to peel off your work-from-home uniform of yoga pants and actually slap some make-up on your face (and when I say you, I really mean me, but maybe you can relate). And as much as you might enjoy cooking your own meals, it’s always a joy to be served in a welcoming space and not have to contend with dishes afterward. 

For now, sit-down restaurants like Blade 1936 in Oceanside, Barbusa in Little Italy, and Jeune et Jolie all offer menus you can enjoy at home. 

Al Fresco Dining—Here to Stay?

In a move to keep businesses open during the second shutdown order, while maintaining social distancing during, then-Mayor Kevin Falconer signed an emergency executive order in July 2020 allowing restaurants to expand onto sidewalks, parking lots, and on-street parking spaces. As a result, cities including La Jolla, Downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy neighborhoods have intermittently closed their streets to vehicle traffic to allow for expanded, open air dining. 

I’ve also seen businesses sharing patio space, like Dija Mara in Oceanside, whose Balinese-insipred dishes were, for a time, served next door at neighbor Exhale’s covered patio. In North Park, French bistro The Smoking Goat expanded outdoor dining thanks to neighbor Blue Foot Bar. And in University Heights, Madison’s new patio parklet takes over on-street parking stalls with enough room to accommodate guests at Parks & Rec. With ideal weather nearly year-round, I hope this European-esque, convivial sidewalk dining culture that’s emerged is here to stay, long after the pandemic has gone.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, we are, at best, doing what we can to adjust—our routine, mindset, future plans—amid a rapidly shifting landscape. Imagine trying to cook a dish when the recipe instructions keep changing every other step, or running a marathon without a finish line, or (in keeping with the culinary theme) firing up the grill using damp charcoal. That the world can again change in an instant perhaps heightened the experience of the evening out on Cardellino’s patio. Maybe it made the fried chicken crispier, the pizza cheesier, the tender meatball even more savory. Or maybe it’s because the hospitality team at Cardellino, like the rest of San Diego’s food makers, growers, wranglers, and producers are doing what they’ve always done. After all, everyone’s gotta eat, pandemic or not.  

Photos: Ligaya Malones for The Curious Passport // Cardellino restaurant, Mission Hills, San Diego

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Sometimes, it’s less about where you’re going than who you’re with. Unless you really got to pee, then it’s all about that bathroom. Melina, Shannon, this one’s for you—Merry Christmas and cheers to 2020!

Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California

By the time we groaned across the border into San Diego, a welcome stretch of U.S. highway open in front of us like a first spring bloom, it was 5 p.m. At 9 a.m. one hot summer Sunday in Tijuana, our 4Runner pulled into a line leading up to U.S. border control that snaked around street corners and across bridges. And then we stopped, completely. We were optimistic, naive rather—maybe we’ll have time to squeeze in brunch before some of us continued north, we thought. After eight hours, interminable stops and starts, time wore us down, but not enough to wipe away weekend memories created just days before. While we waited, and waited, we dipped into this fresh well of memories from a long weekend in Baja California—the eponymous state and peninsula that slices through the Pacific and Gulf of California—to sustain us.

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A classic car in Havana, Cuba

Update: June 5, 2019—Yesterday, the Administration reversed a number of exceptions that have encouraged increased travel to Cuba by Americans in recent years. NPR reports that cruise ships and other recreational vessels will not be granted travel licenses, as are most people traveling under the “people to people exchange” allowance. However, those traveling for educational purposes are exempt. Since the news is still fresh, most reports quote sources who say that they will continue to monitor the ruling to better understand how these tighter travel restrictions will play out. Currently, national media outlets like Time are reporting that travel under the “support for the Cuban people” visa category is possible, provided your itinerary includes “meetings with the local Cubans, attending cultural events and staying at a Cuban family’s home, a “casa particular,” instead of a hotel.”

Cuba is a complicated country. Before traveling to Havana in 2018, I consumed anything that would provide even a fraction of context to help me understand a place worlds and decades away from my life in southern California. Inspired by the format of a recent travel guide I wrote for New York magazine, and the steady stream of questions from friends, family and acquaintances about my experience to the communist island nation, I’ve compiled a list of articles, a Netflix documentary and a podcast episode worth listening to as a (mostly food-focused) primer to Cuba.

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