Riviera Supper Club and Turquoise Room gives do-it-yourselfers a reason to eat outside the kitchen. Like a classy backyard without the tuxedo-clad bug zappers, the restaurant serves platters of raw filet mignon, pork spare ribs, and bratwursts for diners to cook up on an enormous, indoor communal grill. Yet much of the guesswork is taken out of the equation: every steak is USDA Choice, every rack of ribs comes pre-seasoned with a dry rub, and every side dish takes shape in the kitchen under the eye of skilled chefs. And those same culinary masters can also handle the rest of the cooking if guests desire to stay away from the heat—the menu also includes entrees of slow-braised pork and roast chicken.
This family-style grilling experience is just one facet of a two-sided coin. The Turquoise Room stirs up a different sort of nostalgia, harkening back to the age of lounge singers and strong cocktails with a mid-century bar. There, glasses of Pimm's Cup and martinis served with blue-cheese-stuffed olives offset bacon-fat popcorn and garlic bread topped with sauteed onions. To further the club experience, live bands of every genre play in the space throughout the week.
Though at least 130 miles and 80 years of history separate golden-age Hollywood from modern-day National City, Cafe La Maze bridges the gap. During the 1940s, this steakhouse served as a playground for movie stars headed to Tijuana, Mexico. Here, they could tuck in to prime rib and lobster on the lower level, or gamble the night away with card sharks such as the Marx Brothers and eponymous restaurateur Marcel Lamaze in a hidden room upstairs.
Today, diners soak up auras of these legends in the same tufted booths where Bing Crosby and Clark Gable most likely lingered at the eatery's grand opening. Candles, chandeliers, and a golden ceiling cast a warm glow across tables as groups savor shrimp cocktails and slice into juicy cuts of top sirloin, new york strip, and filet mignon. Some evenings live music scores meals, and on karaoke nights guests can harmonize with friends as the portraits that line the damask-print walls try to remember the words. Those seeking a more low-key gathering can book the banquet room, which teems with enough red-vinyl seats for up to 70 close friends or cardboard cutouts of their likenesses.
Nico's Steak & Chop House is an upscale steakhouse owned by retired NFL pro Robert “Griff” Griffith and his wife Amethyst. Huddle inside cozy booths to sneak a peak at the new Griffs Smokehouse menu and kick off consumption with small plates of Korean short-ribs ($9) and hand-breaded calamari ($9). Sandwich earls can majestically munch on a turkey club ($10), while more adventurous carnivores can try the 12 oz. New York strip steak ($27) and herb-crusted lamb loin ($28). Feed fish-or-feather urges with the pan-roasted salmon ($26) or the Cajun chicken breast ($19), or try the roasted eggplant burger ($12) to send a message to potential vegetable uprisings. "Griff" Griffith is often around the restaurant to sign autographs and call audibles on orders—bring a pen and a Refrigerator Perry-esque appetite and tackle the satisfyingly smoky fare of Nico's Steak & Chop House.
Puerto La Boca captivates its guests with a menu of complex Argentinian wines, fresh seafood, and tender Argentine steaks. Nestled in the heart of San Diego's Little Italy, the restaurant takes its name from Buenos Aires' own Little Italy. Inside, they serve fare such as Entrana, the signature skirt steak, Picana, and Churrasco, a classic sirloin steak-cut. Diners can begin their meal with freshly-prepared empanadas filled with their choice of a variety of fillings, including beef, spinach & cheese, and chicken. The sounds of live classical guitar music reverberate off the linen-clad tables, as glasses of Argentine malbec enhance bites of tender lomo filet mignon and housemade chimichurri.
Once the home of Wyatt Earp's gambling hall and saloon, Georges on Fifth also holds the distinction of being the most photographed building in the Gaslamp Quarter. Today, the venue casts off the sounds of tinny pianos for the aromas of Zagat-rated dishes, each painstakingly crafted by executive chef Jose Kelley. The flavors of certified Angus beef, Snake River Farms Kobe beef, and USDA Prime cuts heighten beneath port-wine and Jack Daniel's demi-glaces, and fresh, flaky seafood in the form of scallops, halibut, and salmon don equally delicate notes from herb-infused oils. With Chef Kelley's wine list made up of more than 50 West Coast and international varietals, diners can find a pleasing accompaniment to any dish.
Inside the celebrated eatery, romantic lighting emanates from ornate chandeliers and dances on exposed brick walls, wood accents, and the piano player's solar-powered hands. Portraits of San Diegans dot the interior walls to showcase the work of artist John Wismont, who held the Guinness Book of World Record’s title of “Most Prolific Portrait Painter” for nine years.
Before any cuts of corn-fed Nebraskan beef grill above The Steakhouse on Broadway's mesquite coals, Executive Chef Ramon Gomez ages them himself for 28 days. Between the aging and the cooking, each juicy cut of steak arrives infused with smoky flavor, complemented by locally sourced veggies and sauces such as chimichurri or sweet apple creamy horseradish. Steak isn't the only culinary card up Ramon's sleeve. He serves succulent crab legs by the pound, crafts housemade pastas, and carves up to 32-ounce pieces of mouth-watering prime rib from a 20-pound Nebraska rib roast.
Manning the walnut-paneled bar behind a granite countertop, barkeeps complement Ramon's meat-focused entrees with a wide selection of beer and wine. Honoring the steakhouse’s roots that date back to 1968, bartenders stick to tradition cocktail-wise, making libations such as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned with top-shelf spirits.
The old-school drink menu meshes well with the red leather booths of the 1960s-era dining room, whose ambiance has changed little since the steakhouse opened. Back then it was a hotspot for celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Jack Lemon, Jack Lemmon’s pet lemon. Today, it hosts live entertainment almost nightly, including crooner Ray Correa, who the San Diego Reader praised for his "crafty guitar playing and alluring voice."
From inside The Vintage Steakhouse, it would be easy to pretend that a passenger on the trains passing just outside the window is engrossed in a pristine early edition of The Sun Also Rises, smoke swirling off the Chesterfield perched absentmindedly between his fingers. Without much effort, you might conjure a woman in the bar car, gratefully sipping a Southside and sending up a wordless celebration of the reversal of Prohibition.
That’s because restaurant resides inside the historic Capistrano Depot, which, despite its 1894 build date, bears an unmistakably art-deco vibe evocative of the 1920s or ‘30s. A trio of arched windows is the focal point of the main dining room; when trains aren’t sliding past their decoratively gridded glass, diners can peek through bougainvillea and willow trees to the 200-year-old adobes planted behind them. Inside, knotted wood planks run across the 18-foot ceilings, a near match to the hardwood floors glistening beneath.
A smaller dining room sits in the adjoining Dining Car, a fully restored 1927 Pullman train car upholstered in warm reds and golds. Candlelit tables for two line each side of the car, under which couples’ intertwined feet rest softly upon the regally patterned carpet. The ambience is a bit more social in the Chef’s Alley room, an 1887 freight house with its own cocktail bar and more contemporary décor.
No matter where parties choose to dine, they’re presented with a thoughtful menu of hand-cut steaks and seafood accented with local, organic produce. The chef prepares all dishes over an open-flame mesquite grill, giving everything a juicy, so-that’s-what-fire-tastes-like flavor. A chef’s selection of veggies and the patron’s choice of potato accompany the entrees, which range from filet mignon in a cabernet demi-glace to prawns sautéed in a sauvignon-blanc sauce.
These rich sauces pair perfectly with the more than 150 varietals that populate the restaurant’s wine list. Though heavy on French and Californian selections, the temperature-controlled wine cellar also has a few Spanish, Australian, and Italian bottles tucked away. The cellar also stores a few cases of bubbly for the prix-fixe Sunday brunch’s bottomless champagne special, ensuring a festive follow-up to the smooth live jazz that plays every Friday and Saturday night.