Laila Said

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San Diego's Local Food Finds its Mess Hall

San Diego's new market houses artisans and a restaurant.

It’s one thing for a restaurant to work with local vendors, it’s another to bring them under one roof and create a symbiotic relationship. Opened in March, San Diego’s 25,000-square-foot Liberty Public Market unites nearly 30 food vendors through the vision and efforts of the Blue Bridge Hospitality group. The culinary centerpiece is Mess Hall, a combination bar and restaurant that serves up tasty delights made mostly from ingredients provided from its artisan neighbors.

The restaurant is divided into three sections: The Bottlecraft craft beer shop and tasting bar features everything from local fare to rare brews and is the third location for San Diego beer expert Brian Jensen’s concept; the main Mess Hall cocktail bar, which allows customers to come in from the Public Market with food and drink procured there; and the 38-seat restaurant, with an open kitchen and a wood-fire oven. Mess Hall serves lunch daily, brunch on Sunday, dinner Wednesday through Saturday, and a three-course menu on Sunday nights.

Every Tuesday, Blue Bridge executive chef Tim Kolanko meets with Mess Hall’s chef de cuisine to plan the menu for the week. The chefs purchase from seven to 10 vendors within the Liberty Public Market, including the core group of FishBone Kitchen, Liberty Meat Shop, Pasta Design, Venissimo Cheese, and Baker & Olive. The wine shop in the market, Grape Smugglers, run by Blue Bridge beverage director Greg Majors and certified sommelier Tami Wong, is the source of Mess Hall's wine inventory.

Mess Hall gets its name from its location in the former Naval Training Center, which was built in 1923, and the new venue boasts murals of warships of the 1940s and 1950s. However, the food offerings are decidedly more gourmet than stereotypical commissary fare. Recent examples include duck confit, cauliflower steak, and escarole salad.

“In other cities where you have a stronger dining culture, you can be a little pretentious, and that actually works,” Kolanko says. “Here, there are a handful of people who will gravitate toward it, but if you want to have a successful business, I think you’re better off leaving that at the door and just pleasantly surprising people with things that are approachable, but still interesting without being intimidating.”

Helping San Diego progress was one objective, as was creating a public market. Kolanko explains, “When we decided to do a restaurant and focus on the 38 seats with the full menu, it gave us the ability as chefs to really focus on doing something unique. The fact that we have the bars and the other revenue-generating things in the market puts a little less pressure on us to be a financial success. Obviously we don’t want to lose money, but it gives us a little more wiggle room than we would have otherwise if we were an independent."