San Diego City Councilmember Todd Gloria serves as City Council President and represents District 3, where he was first elected in 2008 and then re-elected in 2012. His district, which encompasses eight metro San Diego zip codes, is home to over a third of the city's restaurants. In our conversation, a "palate cleanser" to a busy, legislative day, Gloria tells Eater about what the restaurant industry has meant to his district, how he works with food business owners and shares a few of his favorite eating spots.
In your time representing the district, how have you seen the area's restaurant industry grow and change?
It's really flourishing, and I think restaurants have been the drivers of some neighborhood renaissances, specifically North Park and South Park.
There are no really big anchors in South Park, but it's a combination of restaurants, from Vagabond to Alchemy and everything in between, that really has created some excitement and energy that's attracting people there.
In North Park, you had the big driver of the Birch North Park Theatre that really caused a lot of restaurants to come in; from Ritual Tavern down to Sea Rocket Bistro and Casa de Luz to URBN. That energy and the kind of stuff that we work on, and hope for, in a neighborhood is really coming because of restaurants.
If my job is about making neighborhoods better, the restaurants are really my partners in making that happen.
Is there a neighborhood in your district that could use more restaurants or different food options?
You have Bankers Hill, which is an amazing restaurant, and Bertrand at Mr. A's and CUCINA Urbana. The area a little south of that, between Bankers Hill and Downtown, could use some more but I think it's coming.
And course there are parts of Downtown where we still have islands that don't have restaurants but it's starting to happen. I think as I become more educated on how challenging it is to be in that industry, I appreciate all the more the fact that these folks are coming and making these investments, hiring the staff and making this happen.
I also think about my old district and places like City Heights, which have wonderful ethnic options, but you hear that a lot of those folks have to leave to community to find what they're looking for and obviously the issue of "food deserts" comes up often. I'm currently looking after District 4 and that's a very common concern. These are areas that are looking for new investment, and perhaps restaurants can be a good match for that.
Do new restaurant owners come to you and your office for help and direction?
One of the reasons why I like working with restaurant owners is that they're not shy about the help they need, and that's why I'm here.
You might have seen our new sidewalk cafe ordinance which stemmed out of an experience for a number of the restaurants in our district, but specially Sea Rocket Bistro. It's a great business, with wonderful people and importantly for me, they're very involved with the community; when they looked at that process, which they think would be really helpful to growing their business, they saw that the cost for just the permits would far exceed the actual cost of the improvements.
If you're activating the outdoor spaces and people are there, it's accomplishing my objective of improving the neighborhood and their objective to improve their business, and everyone benefits.
I really like working with the restaurant industry; in other industries, you sometimes hear about things after they've reached a crisis, but I think the restaurant association has been really proactive and that's helpful.
You recently came to the rescue of one of your restaurant constituents. How do you engage and interact with the restaurant owners and food business in your district?
I have a very ecumenical approach to constituent communication; it's everything from an old-school newsletter that we send out to social networking to my coffee with the Council President series. We're happy to help; I'm the customer service department for the city.
Since your district holds such a large proportion of the city's restaurants, do you feel a special obligation to eat out a lot?
Well, I eat out a lot because I don't know how to cook. The idea of district representation is that you have people get elected who are able to help represent those communities. I have a very urban, hip, young and diverse district and in many ways my personal profile matches with that.
When the district was we redrawn to include Downtown, Old Town and Mission Hills, we did end up with slightly more than a third of the restaurants in the city and as a result, you do have a responsibility to that community. And restaurant people are fun people to be around; it's refreshing to be around folks with that attitude.
Which eateries in your area do you frequent most often?
Ortega's is near my home, the guys who run the place are great, as is the food; it's walkable from my house so I'm sort of living what I preach in terms of trying to reduce your carbon footprint.
We've struck up relationships with people not just on a food level but also their commitment to a community. When you think about Sea Rocket Bistro or Alchemy, these are people who not only have wonderful restaurants but are also contributors. I think people can go to those restaurants and feel doubly-good, because they're not only getting a good meal but they're also contributing to that neighborhood.
I love Adams Avenue Grill; they used to have something called the Kickin' Chicken sandwich; it's probably 10,000 calories but it's so delicious. They took it off the menu a few years ago, but when you eat local and develop relationships with people, ordering off-menu becomes possible.
Is there a restaurant outside of your district that you'll travel to?
I love the Red Sea Restaurant in City Heights, that's really good.
Do you think San Diego's restaurant industry is getting more national attention?
What's interesting it seeing them go beyond San Diego with concepts that are started here but get exported out, like Brian Malarkey opening in other cities. The reality is that economic development is done by taking the locals and making them larger. I think that our restaurants are of such high caliber that there's no reason why they couldn't be exported out further, the question is whether or not they want to. You have people who are so deeply ingrained in the community that maybe they don't want to take their focus off of it. But the reality is that we have people of that caliber, and I think that's really exciting.
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