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Hardly retiring

Today's seniors are serious about their dining experience

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The Del Oro Grille at La Vida Real is a full service restaurant which also offers a special menu for visiting grandchildren.

Every guest plays restaurant reviewer at Del Oro Grille, which is virtually the only San Diego County eatery to invite diners to critique the cuisine every time they sign the check. Located in Rancho San Diego's new La Vida Real, this airy, high-ceilinged restaurant freely borrows concepts from other segments of the hospitality industry, to the point of resembling a carefully arranged smorgasbord of details. As at fine-dining establishments, a sparkling fire casts dancing shadows across the dining room, and napkins folded like orchids blossom alongside vases of fresh flowers. The no-tipping policy common on deluxe cruise ships simplifies guest-server protocol at Del Oro Grille, too. And like the "American Plan" dining typical of grand resort hotels in the last century, guests enjoy two well-presented meals daily. With all these similarities, one striking difference hides diffidently behind the plush wine cards and dessert trays. While Del Oro Grille resembles a traditional restaurant in amenities -- from the smiling hostess to full bar service, extensive a la carte menus and a cozy separate dining room for private parties -- it restricts service to residents of the La Vida Real retirement community, their families and friends.

Promoting wellness and choice By endorsing the concept that social dining strongly promotes wellness, Del Oro Grille purposefully avoids the regimented ambiance typical of institutional settings. That some diners accompany a prime rib dinner with Cabernet Sauvignon makes clear that this is not their grandpa's retirement home. As baby boomers segue uneasily into senior-hood, they might be relieved to know that residents of La Vida Real's 210 independent living apartments average an active 83 years in age. They have the option of baking brownies or preparing four-course meals in their own full-sized kitchens, rather than dining in the spacious Del Oro Grille. But since two daily meals are entitled by monthly rents that run from $2,295 for a 498-square-foot "alcove" unit to $6,000 (and up, plus a flat $500 per month for a second resident) for a spacious two bedroom-plus-den apartment, most guests leave the cooking to professionals hired from the kitchens of leading American hotel chains and European culinary institutes. Del Oro Grille operates on a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule, and most patrons ignore lunch in favor of a breakfast and dinner routine. Menu prices apply only to those who eat three squares a day (one of which must be purchased; residents get two meals daily as part of their rent), and to guests, such as grandchildren, whose specialized $4.95 menu lists such gems of juvenile gastronomy as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

A true restaurant experience That the martinis at La Vida Real are shaken or stirred or even swirled -- it's the guest's call, as is the brand of liquor poured -- owes to Michael Grust, founder and CEO of Golden Triangle-based Senior Resource Group (SRG), which also operates the 105-unit La Vida Del Mar in Solana Beach, and 11 other retirement communities in Western states. "Our residences become the guests' homes," said the native of Chicago's tony North Shore district. "People like the social aspect of dining, and tend to judge retirement communities by the food service. This is a business that has to give people a compelling reason to leave their own home." Reliably good meals strongly argue that point, dictating two-page menus that range from chocolate chip pancakes in the morning to specialties like chicken breast chasseur and poached King salmon in red wine sauce. Comfort foods reinforce the just-like-home mood, and as many as 30 percent of guests daily request one of the two always-available "signature dishes" -- chicken potpie with mashed potatoes, and meat loaf with brown gravy. Personable and in his late-40s, Grust is committed to offering residents "the dignity of choice." "We created a 12-hour dining program that allows guests to come and go as they please," he said. "We felt this would communicate to them that they haven't gone back to camp. And the many choices provide a very dignified and independent style of living. Our restaurants are intimate, they're not dining halls." Health concerns challenge some guests, but even so, noted Grust, "When you're 85, you get the mindset that, 'If I want to eat meatloaf or fried chicken, that's what I'm going to do.' For people with diabetes or heart issues, we provide the opportunity to eat as healthily as possible, but what they choose is up to them."

Chef's chat keeps residents in touch In truth, Del Oro Grille and its sister eatery, the Calypso Room Restaurant at La Vida Del Mar in Solana Beach, respond much more immediately to consumers than most free-standing, for-profit establishments. "Each restaurant has the ability to shape its food program in response to resident feedback," Grust said. "At the end of the day, the residents drive our menus." Tenants of La Vida Del Mar cite the monthly "chef chat" feedback sessions as a feature nearly as attractive as the cuisine, which former Woodland Hills resident Edith Barfus describes as "sometimes too pretty to eat." Don and Thelma Blanche, respectively 91 and 90, moved a very short distance from their Solana Beach condominium when they retired to La Vida Del Mar. The management is "very solicitous of how you like things," said Don Blanche, adding that he and his wife still dine frequently at local restaurants, but find the food at home equally appealing. "They have a nice selection to choose from, and the only problem is eating too much," he added. That the Blanche's children enjoy joining them in the dining room seems a common situation. Fourteen-year resident Millie Bush reports that she once tried to prepare a meal for her family in her residence, "But they wanted to eat in the dining room. They always want to eat there, it's a big treat for them." Freda Lev, 92, admits that she herself finds meals in the Calypso Room a big treat. "There's so much choice: prime rib, salmon, jumbo shrimp, halibut -- that's something different from other places," she said. "Once a month, the chef meets with residents and outlines what's going on and what we can look forward to. If there is something you want, you let him know and you are bound to see it within a week." "What keeps us on the cutting edge is assuring that nothing ever grows stale for our residents," said Ali Ben Abdallah, the Tunisia-born, Italy-trained chef at La Vida Del Mar, who creates two new recipes weekly and has inspired guests to join him on bold culinary forays marked by tofu-stuffed enchiladas and other creative cookery. The chef says that the comment cards written nightly by residents determine whether new specials "will be inserted in our revolving bill of fare." The lunch and dinner menu always features 21 entrees, of which seven are specials, including heart-healthy catch-of-the-day and "chicken breast du jour" selections. The standing menu lists favorites like Cobb salad, which the kitchen embroiders with devil-may-care quantities of crumbled bacon and blue cheese, and deli-style "mish-mosh" chicken soup jammed with carrots, noodles and plump matzo balls. "We invite guests to decide for themselves whether they want traditional, gourmet or heart-healthy cuisine," said Abdallah, whose community houses independent seniors only. At the new La Vida Real, 101 "assisted living suites" provide a more traditional retirement setting, and these guests dine on custom, nutritionist-designed menus in their own dining room, the Club Real Grille.

Maintaining a healthy appetite But whether designing gourmet fare for the Del Oro Grille, or a more restricted cuisine for residents with special dietary requirements, La Vida Real food planners are well aware that nutritional needs change with age, and that adults over 70 often have special requirements. Because of declining metabolism rates and decreasing physical activity, seniors generally require -- and desire -- a lower calorie intake. Complicating factors, notable especially among older men who live alone, include a loss of interest in eating because buying and preparing food can come to seem monumentally difficult. For those who can afford residence in communities like La Vida Real, such problems become manageable. In fact, guests who have trouble finding an appetite can work one up with a wide-ranging activities program than includes enormously popular Tai Chi exercise classes. Any sense of isolation is banished by Friday "Happy Hours" with wine and hors d'oeuvres, and by monthly "group" birthday parties that make sure everyone's special day is noted and observed with cake and champagne. "It's a very complex business, and we're inventing it, without any question," Grust said. "We make the experience of residing at La Vida Real exciting, stimulating and enjoyable by positioning our food service at the forefront."

Percival is president of Scribe Communications.

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1 UserComments
Ann McNabb 5:35pm April 12, 2012

I loved the article and it certainly made me want to consider moving, BUT it is 8 years old. Now that you've been at it that long what may have changed? An update would be interesting.