Tuesday, March 3, 2020

On the Cusp of Greatness: Cusp Dining & Drinks is the Coolest and Hottest Restaurant/Bar in La Jolla


From the late 1970’s to the early 1990s, Elario’s was San Diego’s coolest, hippest music club. Perched majestically atop the sun-baked, 11-story Summerhouse Inn at La Jolla Shores, Elario’s capitalized on the hotel’s unrivaled ocean views and the beachy “smooth jazz” movement of that era.

But to their credit, club management didn’t just cater to the purveyors of “smooth jazz,” the yuppie jazz-lite that was identified locally by the famous whispers of KIFM 98.1 “Lights Out San Diego” jazz radio deejay Art Good.

While not all of that smooth jazz stuff was bad, Elario’s thankfully featured such legit jazz greats as Chick Corea, Charlie Haden, Freddie Hubbard, Henry Threadgill and many more. The venue also featured blues, soul and rock legends such as Papa John Creach, singer-songwriter extraordinaire Kenny Rankin, and many others.

Most of these shows at Elario's were produced by legendary San Diego music promoter Rob Hagey, who also created Street Scene and other seminal San Diego music events. But in the 1990’s, as jazz began to fall out of favor as dismal grunge and cheesy pop reached their zenith, Elario’s was relegated to featuring only local acts, and the club sadly shut down for good in 1993. 

Since then, that enviable space with its panoramic views has had many names and vibes. But I stayed away. I held a dumb grudge. I just didn’t want to give them my business after Elario’s was shuttered, which I admit is irrational since those owners have long since sold the hotel and moved on. 

It’s no longer the Summerhouse Inn. It’s now Hotel La Jolla, and I had heard that it had undergone a needed makeover. But I stubbornly continued to keep my distance. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I was driving by the hotel on a sunny afternoon and my curiosity got the best of me.

I just wanted to take in that unrivaled view on the 11th floor again, and I wanted to see how the space was being used. When I stepped into the hotel lobby, I was immediately impressed and surprised. I barely recognized the place, which used to be, um, eccentric and old-school but not  in a good way. It’s much cleaner and more inviting than it ever was back in the day.

When I walked out of the elevator onto the 11th floor, I was greeted by that amazing view, along with a smiling hostess and a lounge, which leads you into a restaurant called Cusp Dining and Drinks

The place is visually stunning, and not just because of the view. I was virtually breathless as I looked out at the Pacific Ocean and La Jolla Shores and the La Jolla village up the hill. The views are even more accessible now since the club has been re-designed so that every seat points toward the ceiling-to-floor windows.

Sunset Dining at Cusp
I was getting very comfortable very quickly at Cusp, but was determined to withhold any final judgment until I had a drink and a meal. 

Check. And Check. Wow. As I soon discovered, the food and the service at Cusp are entertainment in and of themselves. 

Impeccable, delicious food. Sold! Terrific service from people who quickly seem less like servers and more like old friends. Sold! Add to all that the inspiring views, and Cusp has quickly become my favorite place for lunch, dinner and drinks with friends. The live music is long gone, but it still has a cool, welcoming vibe. Cusp is friendly and casually classy, never stuffy, which is refreshing in La Jolla, where things can sometimes get unbearably pretentious.

The echoes of all those jazz and soul artists I saw years ago still echo in my head as I sneak several peeks at the ocean below. But for what it’s worth, the music they play in the background at Cusp is a terrific blend of pop, rock, jazz and soul. Oldies and newbies. 

Part of what was once Elario’s is now blocked off for use as a conference room, so it is a much smaller space now. But I have nothing but positive things to say about Cusp and its staff. I'm a new regular. It's a perfect place to grab a quick  but tasty lunch or impress friends who have come from out of town or just a few miles away.

It's kinda shocking how few of my friends know about this place. Even a few who live in La Jolla and drive by the hotel daily were not aware of it. They are now. When I tell them about Cusp, I mention the view, the friendly staff, the tremendous food and brilliant chef, the many specials they have almost every night, the history of the space, and of course the ghosts. Yes, there are apparently ghosts.

Multiple employees at the restaurant have seen them. The main ghost is a dapper older gentleman, they say, dressed in a long black tuxedo. It’s a little creepy, but he’s evidently harmless.

When I spoke with the staff of the restaurant, they didn’t talk about the restaurant ghosts with tongue in cheek.  They just very soberly told me what they had witnessed with their own eyes. They’ve almost all seen him. Hmm. I’d like to think that perhaps he’s an old patron of Elario’s who’s just waiting, and waiting, for the jazz to return.

I hesitate to even write this story, as I do not want it to become so crowded that we can no longer get a table. But I feel compelled to share my discovery of Cusp with my readers and friends in the San Diego area, and beyond.

The vibe and decor at Cusp can best be described as warm, designer beach cottage. It’s simply one of the coolest restaurant/bars in town. Ideal for a romantic date, or just to meet friends for lunch or after work. We even spent New Years Eve with friends at Cusp after dining just a short walk away at our favorite new Italian restaurant Osteria Romantico on Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla Shores.

Cusp's Executive Chef Ingrid Funes
Cusp works equally well as a restaurant or bar destination. Or both. It’s not too trendy, but not too funky. While the views are breathtaking, it’s the food and the feeling that will keep you coming back. It feels like a San Diego version of Cheers. Tell Norm, but don't tell Cliff. 

Ingrid Funes, the hotel’s Executive Chef Hotel/Food & Beverage Director, was born in El Salvador, which is where a lot of her inspiration comes from when it comes to cooking with bold color and flavors. 

“I come from a lineage of talented cooks, including my mother who ran a small restaurant and instilled in me a sense of pride and passion for the craft,” she explains.  

“Because of this, I learned early on that being a chef required hard work, and that it required a passion for food and those you prepare it for.  
Ingrid’s cooking style is deceptively simple: She creates menus that focus on bringing out the true flavors of each individual ingredient in the dish, and uses the best product possible."

Ingrid likes to like to play with bold and colorful ingredients, bursting with flavor. "I often use my family’s recipes as inspiration in my dishes, and enjoy making guests happy with unexpected flavors. It’s what keeps me going,” she says. 

Some of our favorites include the Kale Salad, San Sebastian Flatbread, Gnochi Bolognese, BBq Shrimp Taco, Housemade Granola, White Chicken Pizza, Pan Seared New York Steak, Florentine, Apricot Glazed Crispy Cauliflower, and my favorite the Salmon Beurre Blanc.

Cusp serves what they call "new American food," focusing on sharable plates. 

“We have something for everyone, from steaks and pasta to vegetables,” Ingrid says. “But I love creating dishes with fresh seafood as the main focus. I have an ever-changing Chef’s Fresh Catch of the Day that allows me to serve what’s freshest. I also have Crispy Octopus on the menu that I love.”

Ingrid says that when someone who has never visited Cusp asks her to describe the restaurant, she describes it as a “beautiful restaurant with exceptional views and food to match. We strive to make you feel welcome and comfortable, as well as provide you with an excellent meal and memorable experience.”

Cusp’s  ocean view makes you feel like you’re dining out for a special occasion. But the approachable and reasonably priced menu and welcoming service provide the feel of a neighborhood restaurant you can visit often.

One thing I noticed my very first night at Cusp is the diversity of the staff, America to Russia to Nebraska to Florida. This, Ingrid says, is by design. 

“We all have some things in common:  we are a laid back, yet focused group that prefers to work in a place with one of the best views around. It makes work better. Some of the staff have become like family. I spend so much time with them just like my own family.”

As for the ghosts at Cusp, Ingrid is adamant that they are real. 
“I can say from my personal experience that I have seen two gentleman. The young guy I have seen in the back kitchen by the dishwasher area walking towards the door to go to the restaurant, and the older man, I have seen him during service hours in the back of the restaurant looking at the view,” she says.

Ingrid says the guy in the back of the restaurant is the one in the tux. “I know the previous night cleaner said he also saw a little girl in the middle of the night seating in the bar area,” Ingrid says. 
How long have these ghost sightings been going on? “Since I have started working here five years ago, I can’t say how long exactly,” she says.

I asked Ingrid if the older ghost in the tux was perhaps a longtime patron of Elario’s like me who is still waiting for the jazz music to come back.

“Maybe so,” she says. “That would be fascinating.”

Ingrid says that many of the restaurant’s guests still reminisce about Elario's, that venerable music club that once inhabited this lofty space. I’m not the only one who remembers. 

“Many of our guests have been coming to this hotel for decades. I love hearing stories about what Cusp used to look like, and who used to dine here. It was a very happening jazz locale that many locals flocked to,” Ingrid says.

Cusp tried out some live acoustic music. But it didn't work out so well. “We used to have live music, but we haven’t in a little over a year,” says Ingrid, who just wants you to know that Cusp is a beautiful restaurant with flavorful food and the best view in town.

“The combination makes it so romantic and special. There’s no other restaurant in La Jolla like Cusp, we are unique,” she says. “Some customers like to call us a hiding gem."

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Exclusive Interview: American Music Legend Tony Bennett Still Wowing Audiences Nearly 70 Years After His First Hit Single

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in 1926 in the rough-hewn New York City borough of Queens. Growing up during the Great Depression, Benedetto attended the High School of Industrial Arts in New York City, but dropped out to help the family. Working as a singing waiter, he then served in the Army during World War II and fought in the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
Like so many infantry soldiers, Anthony saw the very worst of humankind during the war, and he came home determined to spread positive feelings to an ailing world through his singing. That’s when Anthony Dominick Benedetto became Tony Bennett, who took some terrific advice from his vocal coach Mimi Spear, who told him not to imitate other singers but instead emulate instrumentalists.

The rest of course is American music history. Tony enjoyed his first hit single, "Because of You," in 1951. And he’s been wowing audiences ever since. Unbelievably, that's just about 70 years in the limelight. Sure, there’ve been ups and downs in his unprecedentedly long career (mostly ups). But he’s never fallen out of favor among those of us who love traditional American popular music: pop standards, big band songs, show tunes and, of course, jazz.

Tony to me has always been a jazz guy above all else. I think that is frankly where he will always leave his heart. But he has managed to transcend most of the fads and fashions and admirably stuck to his original plan. At times he has locked horns with record company execs and others over what he should be singing. But his musical choices have been spot on, and it has paid off. He's gained newfound fame among younger music fans with his hugely popular DUETS albums and his choice to sing with some of today's biggest stars such as Lady Gaga. 

Tony is arguably America's finest singer of jazz and pop standards. And even Frank Sinatra would agree. Frank often said that Tony was his favorite singer. Tony’s singing heals, calms and inspires. He has complete command of his voice, which indeed does often sometimes sound more like a musical instrument. The way he teases, manipulates and negotiates a melody is uncanny. He really has no rival.

Tony, who appears at Sycuan Casino in El Cajon, just east of San Diego, on Jan. 28 as part of his "I Left My Heart" tour, is also an acclaimed author and painter whose works are on display at the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other lofty locales. 

Not bad for a kid from Astoria, Queens. 

In an exclusive interview with The Reno Dispatch, Tony both reminisced and looked forward. He was spry, effusive and reflective. My interview with Tony revealed at least one sad and shocking truth: At age 93, Tony Bennett has far more energy than me!

The Reno Dispatch: Of all the shows you have done over the last 70 years, does one performance stand out as your very favorite?

Tony Bennett: “It’s so hard to pinpoint that, but I would have to say performing live at Carnegie Hall in 1962, which became a live album. That was a true highlight as it came on the heels of the success of my signature song, ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco. And the celebrating of my 85th birthday by performing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. It doesn’t get much better than that. But I have always said that my first job as a singing waiter in Queens was something I loved doing, and if I hadn’t made a career as an entertainer professionally I would still be happy doing that.”

As a member of the Greatest Generation, you fought in the Battle of the Bulge. How did serving in World War II change your perspective on life, and on your music?

“Well, being a foot soldier at the end of the war in Europe, stationed in Germany, I can say that my experience made me a life-long pacifist with the understanding that violence is the lowest form of human behavior. Years later when Ella Fitzgerald was my next-door neighbor she would say, ‘Tony, we are all here.’ So simple but so true that we are all on this planet together and we have to move forward with cooperation and not divisiveness. As to music, I was fortunate enough to perform in Army bands during that time, and we would perform blues and in particular jazz tunes all the time, so it was an incredible training ground. And then after I returned to the U.S. under the GI Bill of Rights, I was able to study at The American Theatre Wing which gave me an exceptional foundation as a performer.”

Why do you think that your singing transcends generations, why do you think you are you as popular now as you were 70 years ago?

“When I started out with Columbia Records in 1950, even at the very start of my career, I had it as my intention to stick with quality material and take the long view of establishing a ‘hit catalog, and not just ‘hit songs’ which often led to recording novelty songs that hit it big for a few weeks and then were forgotten. I had to fight for the opportunities to bring a jazz-influenced style to the popular standards. Eventually Mitch Miller and I came to an agreement that for every pop record I made, the next one would be jazz. The point is that I had to fight to record the material that I felt would stand the test of time by virtue of its quality, and looking back 70 years later I know it was worth that effort.”

Which of today’s singers do you enjoy the most and why?

“I think Beyonce’ is terrific and is an artist who has kept true to her creative vision and then of course ‘Lady’ [Gaga] is one of those rare authentic artists who had it all and does it all. She has a true understanding of herself but more importantly of her audience and I have never seen an artist with a more loyal following - not just fans but followers who feel very committed to her at all times.  That’s a very special thing to achieve and reflects back to the time and effort that she makes in everything she does. Sinatra once told me when I went to him for advice that it’s important to let the audience know that you care about them.  I have always felt that being an entertainer was a very noble endeavor, and if you can make people feel good and forget about their own problems for a few hours in the theatre and they walk away saying they enjoyed themselves, then you can hit the pillow at night satisfied. So, I appreciate performers who understand their audience and make sure that they have been entertaining - it sounds simple but it’s often forgotten.” 

Is there anyone you have not sung with that you would like to sing with?

“Although I have sung with Stevie Wonder on many occasions, I have always wanted to do a jazz piano album with him. I remember when he came into the studio to record with me on my DUETS album. We had a bit of downtime while they were setting things up and he sat down at the piano and did this jazz solo - completely spontaneously - that made me think I was listening to Oscar Peterson. I remember when we recorded the track of ‘For Once In My Life,’ I ended the song by calling him Stevie Wonderful. Which he is.”

What are you working on now, is there another recording in the near future?

I hope so. There are always a few projects in the mix.

Thank you, Tony.