Thursday, March 5, 2015

Croce's Park West in San Diego: The Coolest Place in Town

Two iconic restaurants indigenous to their respective cities -- Tavern on the Green in New York and Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar in San Diego -- recently closed their doors. But not to worry, both of these venerable eateries have been happily resurrected. Tavern on the Green has reinvented itself in the same lofty Central Park West locale at 66th Street with a shining $15 million upgrade by owner and filmmaker Jim Caiola. Croce's, too, has reopened. Well, sort of. It's not in the same spot and doesn't have exactly the same name. Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar, which was located in San Diego's historic Gaslamp District, is now Croce's Park West on Fifth Avenue in Bankers Hill, just west of Balboa Park. 

Tavern on the Green has a more open, accessible feel now and has regained its buzz and legendary status. Croce's Park West, too, has a touch of urbane Manhattan, as you can see from the black and white pic above. But it still wisely reflects the So-Cal casual/classy vibe that defines everything for which proprietor Ingrid Croce is known.

Croce's Park West owner Ingrid Croce keeping the customers satisfied
Ingrid is a remarkable woman, and a singular pioneer of downtown San Diego's restaurant and live music scene. Her move to nearby Bankers Hill is good news for people like me who loved the old Croce's but didn't dig the raucous Gaslamp, which has been taken over by eternally annoying and typically drunk twentysomething hipsters.

Located a few miles away from the chaos of the Gaslamp, Croce's Park West is my new favorite destination in San Diego to eat (lunch, brunch, dinner) and hear live music with family and friends. It's near perfection. Without question the coolest place in town. 

The menu is upscale but very American. Nothing too foo-foo here, but it's all about quality. The Charbroiled Prime New York Steak, for example, is one of the best steaks I've ever consumed outside my native Iowa. It's topped with gorgonzola and served with crispy brussels sprouts, Bordeaux sauce, and Park West Fries. The yummiest fries you'll ever taste, they're topped with smoked sea salt and are served with honey roasted garlic-lemon thyme aioli, agave whole grain mustard, and sriracha ketchup. I can't pronounce it, either, but trust me it's delish'.

Ingrid instinctively knows how to run a restaurant and make every customer feel right at home. She's a warm, intelligent, perceptive woman who happens to be a foodie without being pretentious. I never thought that was possible.

Dave Scott & the New Jazz Ensemble perform at Croce's Park West
While the food and atmosphere at Ingrid's new place are nonpareil, it's the music that still reigns. Croce's Park West pays perpetual homage to the melody makers (check out the music art on the wall). It's a place where musicians love to play because they know the owner respects them. 

My wife and I recently caught a lively set in Croce's Expatriate Room by Eve Selis, the remarkable Americana singer with whom I was honored to have sung on "Settling Down," a duet I wrote the day I proposed to my wife. Eve is a dynamo, a powerful but also sensitive musical force of nature and crowd pleaser who's among the best singers San Diego has ever produced. If there was any justice she would be a superstar. But she has a very devoted following.

Every musician I've seen at Croce's Park West looks happy to be there. Tonight the place features sax' master Rickey Woodard, who's played with Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, among other legends. Ingrid loves and respects musicians because she is one. She was in a folk duo with her late husband, Jim Croce, who of course went on to become a hugely popular solo singer-songwriter who tragically died in a plane crash in 1973 at the height of his fame.

Talent runs in the family. Twenty years after Jim sadly died, I co-wrote a profile of Ingrid and Jim's son, AJ Croce, for People magazine. It was among the first national stories on AJ, a gifted jazz and pop singer-songwriter who still makes fantastic records. AJ was a baby when his famous father died. But he is proud of his musical heritage. 

Ingrid and Jim Croce
I was shocked when I heard that Ingrid was shutting the Gaslamp restaurant's doors. It was the result of a dispute with a landlord who simply had no clue how beloved Croce's is. The music of the basement club below was apparently driving Croce's customers away. And the landlord just didn't get it.

But the new place tops the old place. It's less hectic getting in and out of there, for one thing. It's in a not-so-rowdy neighborhood yet still in the heart of the city. It is above all else California cool, a great place to meet friends, entertain out-of-town visitors, or just chill and listen to the best live music in San Diego.

Ingrid has come so far. When she met Jim in the 1960s, she was a 16-year-old artist, gymnast and folk singer and Jim was a sophomore at Villanova. He asked her if she would sing with him, they became a duo and landed a record deal with Capitol Records. And yes, they fell deeply in love somewhere along the way.

When Ingrid learned she was going to have a baby, Jim wrote "Time in a Bottle," "You Don’t Mess Around with Jim," "Operator" and "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." All four of these songs have of course become American pop classics, along with several more of Jim's compositions such as "I Got a Name" and "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song." It's preposterous that Jim Croce has not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

When Jim and Ingrid moved to San Diego in 1973, downtown was mostly inhabited by drug dealers and other lowlifes. But defiantly, Jim told her that they should open their own place on the corner of Fifth Avenue and F Street. Jim died just a week later. 

Ingrid, suddenly a widowed, single mom, eventually opened that restaurant and music club to honor her late husband. And the rest is San Diego history. Ingrid's success story continues. She and husband Jimmy Rock, my friend and fellow Iowa native, are in the new Croce's club most nights making sure everyone is having a good time. 

They've both worked very hard to become arguably San Diego's best known restaurateurs. And the new place continues to honor Jim Croce’s legacy. Croce's Park West is the ideal venue for good food and live music for grownups: Jazz. Soul. Pop. Country. Singer-songwriters. It's all there. And I'd keep writing about it here, but I don't have time: I'm heading down to Croce's right now with my wife for dinner and some music. See you there?

1 comment:

  1. This is a great venue. I was here for a party and there was so much food and it was all done so well! The decor and food both were amazing. Personally, I think the space at venues in San Francisco is laid out really well and the size of the venue keeps pulling great parties.