One can sense pulses of power walking downtown, past state and federal courthouses and administration buildings, past tall office buildings where lawyers, bankers and businesspeople grind out work product behind desks and computers.
That's because decisions are made here daily that affect the lives of thousands of San Diego's residents -- decisions that are often forged not in the heat of legal contests but in the coolness of chilled drinks and savory meals. Better deals, they say, emerge from power lunches than power plays.
Webster's Dictionary defines power lunch as "a luncheon at which businesspeople or others of influence discuss work or issues in an informal setting." While the setting may be informal -- that is, outside of a court of law or official office -- it nevertheless must be conducive to meaningful, goal-oriented discussion. The motto used to be "dress for success." With power lunches, today's motto is "dine for success."
Two dining rooms have long been recognized as great places for power lunches because of their proximity to local offices and courthouses and because of their unique ambiance and quality of cuisine: Dobson's Bar & Restaurant and The Westgate Hotel. They can be referred to as "power points" because of the people who can be found dining there: judges, politicians, bankers, lawyers, businessmen and celebrities. Though they both satisfy the needs of a similar clientele, they are distinctly different.
Dobson's Bar & Restaurant is a hidden gem located on Broadway Circle, a short street that runs off Broadway in front of Horton Plaza. It is worth the search. After entering the narrow, wood-paneled downstairs bar up a slight inclined ramp, owner and host, Paul Dobson, usually greets his guest. He's been doing it for over 23 years and "knows everyone."
"Many politicians come here. In fact, we have a special table for them that is quiet, secluded and near the rear entrance, so one can get away quickly," Dobson said. "I'm into second and third generations now. When I started this restaurant, the fathers came. Now the movers and shakers are their children and grandchildren. The important people still come here." Dobson was once a well-known bullfighter and, though he isn't wearing a suit of lights, he still displays flash and grandeur when he speaks with his guests. He often can be found sitting at their tables, a participant rather than an observer.
Dobson's has a new chef, Michael Davis. Davis learned to cook the hard way: He taught himself. But he also mentored with some of the local greats, such as Susan Sbicca at Meritage and Jeffrey Strauss at Pampelmousse. He's learned a lot about cooking good American food with French overtones that promises to be healthful and wonderful at the same time.
In time, Davis will incorporate more of his own ideas into the menu, but some items probably will never change. They have been there since the restaurant opened and are solid favorites of Dobson's regulars: the mussel bisque en croute and the bar room burger.
Dobson enjoys telling the story of how he nabbed the recipe for the bisque; a two-star Michelin chef sat with him on a rainy afternoon in Europe and wrote out the recipe because Dobson liked it so much. The bisque comes in a bowl crowned with an overflowing bread crust from which mouthwatering aromas emerge when pierced. It is simply delicious. The bar room burger is a huge sandwich that has excellent ground beef, accompanied by a plate full of fries. After all, who would know beef better than a bullfighter?
Dobson's Bar & Restaurant has a full menu and good wine list -- though there are few wines listed by the glass, and the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. "We didn't start off to be open for dinner, only lunch," Dobson confided. "But demand was so great that we had to stay open at night."
Dobson's is warm, clubby, dark and intimate -- in contrast to The Westgate Hotel, which is grand, impressive and authoritative. The glinting chandeliers, comfortable lounges and highly polished wood evoke a sense of majesty. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Mayor Dick Murphy were visitors. Celebrities such as Gene Hackman, Naomi Judd and Cindy Crawford have stayed there. It is the venue for the annual Bravo event, which highlights the arts in San Diego. And it is THE PLACE where lots of business gets done.
Le Fontainebleau, the hotel's chic dining room, recently closed for lunch and is now open for dinner only. So the action has shifted to Café Westgate and the Grand Lobby Café, both located near the main entrance. Café Westgate is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but the most dynamic period is between 12 and 2 p.m. That is when well-dressed men and women can be found talking -- and negotiating -- over sumptuous salads, sandwiches and even sushi. Executive Chef Fabrice Hardel has created an extensive lunch menu but promises that quick service can get diners out in an hour. Of course, many linger much longer than that over excellent coffee and desserts.
I ran into Georg Hochfilzer at the entrance to the Café Westgate. He is the urbane, sophisticated general manager of the hotel. He was happily surveying a room full of satisfied diners and ensuring that food and service were excellent.
For comparative purposes, I sampled the Sirloin Burger. It was served on a Kaiser Roll, with cute condiments in sealed little bottles of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. It came with a large plate of fries. It was excellent, juicy and moist, full of flavor.
"I recommend you follow with a dessert," the friendly hostess suggested. "My favorite is the Vanilla and Orange Zest Crème Brulee." She was right on!
For excellent lunches and the possibility of rubbing shoulders with celebrities and power brokers, try the "power points." Dobsons is located at 956 Broadway Circle. It has a happy hour and is open late for after-theater meals. Call (619) 231-6771 for reservations. Westgate Café is in the Westgate Hotel, located at 1005 Second Ave. Call (619) 238-1818 for reservations.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.