A year in dining

The faces behind 2010’s most memorable places

“It’s like mounting a Broadway production with a cast of amateurs” is how a co-owner of a restaurant near the Lucas Family Test Kitchen describes the daily challenge of operating a restaurant. His remark encapsulates the risky, high-wire synergy that constitutes an eatery to which a diner actually wants to return. And thinking about that, it’s readily apparent that it’s people who make the difference.

Not to get too schmaltz-and-pepper Hallmark here, but whether it’s a loved one, a family member, a pal or a religiously laid-back supervisor, people—metaphorically speaking—are the spice that makes a meal both memorable and marvelous. In the interest of public health, diabetics are hereby warned to stop reading further.

Scads of wonderful people were encountered this year either out front, in back or behind the scenes. Consider San Diegans Stephen and Sharon Tokuhama, who must have dropped at least $750,000 to tear Kupros on 21st down to the studs. Probably necessary just to remove 40 years of Cheap Thrills purple paint. As a result, there is a festive neighborhood bar and creative bistro residing in a building restored to its full Craftsman glory.

In praise of other owners, although he’s infinitely more visible, is Jon Modrow, half the team at The Golden Bear on K Street. The jovial, bearded Modrow makes the dining experience out front nearly as extravagantly enjoyable as the eats prepared in back by wunderkind Billy Zoellin. If this is how hard he rocks at his craft around the quarter-century mark, imagine him five years hence.

Even more visible as owners are the Afghan couple of Kabob House in Elk Grove, who cook and serve and maintain the community space next door where mullahs call the faithful. Same with Abel Milan and Margarita Chang, who make it happen at Sol Cubano in North Highlands and affectionately paper the walls with snapshots of their customers.

Out front a lot but master in his kitchen is David English of Midtown’s The Press. He’s created a variety of Mediterranean vittles that swiftly turn a first-time visitor into a habitué. This tip of the toque comes despite envy over not being able to spend a few months in Italy and Greece like English to hone my cooking groove. Also lighting up Carmichael’s more-than-a-pizza kitchen, Matteo’s Pizza & Bistro, is Matt Woolston and his wife, Yvette, also of the Supper Club on Del Paso Boulevard. And The Waterboy’s Rick Mahan lays it down pretty hard at East Sacramento’s OneSpeed. Less visible than English, the chefs at Bombay Bar & Grill on 21st Street and the reinvigorated Amarin Thai that is Bangkok@12 have some nifty moves, particularly on extensive menus that don’t make it any easier on them by offering, say, a lunch buffet.

But on the front lines are the servers, the hosts and, sometimes, the managers. There are dozens of fantastic folk who were the decisive factor between a “nah” and a “yeah.” No particular culinary style has cornered the market on swell service: Fiona, the tart but solicitous manager of dim sum behemoths King Palace and Happy Garden on Stockton Boulevard. Cameron, the conscientious, grace-under-pressure bartender at downtown’s Cafeteria 15L. The bespectacled, brought-easily-to-a-smile matriarch of Pho Xe Lua, also on Stockton. Arika, at the otherwise pedestrian Good Eats; and the buoyant Carrie is the only endearing quality of Lumberjacks on Howe Avenue. Jaime, who always lets a customer do it their way at Hoppy Brewing Company on Folsom Boulevard. Wavy-haired Tifenny—that is how I recall the spelling and apologize if wrong—at Heat Shabu Baru just off Broadway. There are many others whose names can’t be mentioned for want of space, but their accomplishments are enshrined in SN&R’s archives.

And finally, just to go that extra maudlin mile, some kisses have to blown at those who accompanied me on this year’s adventures, thereby enriching them. It’s an honor and a gut-busting pleasure to share this space with all of you. Let’s tee the ball up and hit it long in 2011.