SAN DIEGO - San Diego has joined the ranks of Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia and other "foodie" cities, getting its own permanent market showcasing hyper-local artisanal food from Southern California producers and restaurateurs.
The Liberty Public Market set up shop right next to San Diego household name Stone Brewing Co. in the mixed-use Liberty Station community of Point Loma, on land once home to the one of the world's largest naval bases.
A short time in the making, Liberty Public Market was the brain child of David Spatafore, owner of San Diego-based Blue Bridge Hospitality. The project - from the conceptual phase to opening night - was completed in about two years.
Market general manager Joshua Zanow said Spatafore is a huge fan of public markets and was inspired by his international travels to open a permanent market in San Diego. Zanow said in his more than 20 years in the restaurant business, he's never seen an opening garner so much attention and foot traffic quite like what's happened at Liberty Public Market.
"San Diego really embraced this as its own. We had the busiest soft opening I've experienced in 20 years, which really made it a sink-or-swim mentality. Everyone had to figure everything out quickly," Zanow said.
In just under two weeks since the market opened, Zanow said they've had about 12,000 customers - more than what they were expecting.
While the market is definitely a "foodie" destination, Zanow said they want customers to have more than just a quick dining experience by trying out foods, buying quality ingredients to use in meals they cook at home and finding unique gifts from non-food venders like florist shop Ashley Tatum Floral.
Customers can even meander down the rows of restaurants, coffee shops and dessert bars with a cold beer or glass of wine in hand as they pick up groceries or scope out dinner.
For childhood friends Jacob Bartlett and Eric Gallerstein, co-owners of Mastiff Sausage Co., setting up their first brick and mortar shop at Liberty Public Market was a "natural stepping stone."
The pair grew up in the northeast San Diego community of Escondido and later moved to "food scene Mecca" San Francisco, where both men got involved with the restaurant industry while attending college. When the two moved back to San Diego, they noticed the world-famous craft beer scene was missing something: classic beer food.
Mastiff Sausage Co. was born in 2013, and the duo traveled from brewery to brewery in a souped-up food truck.
Bartlett said their customers - who named them "Best San Diego Food Truck" in 2015 - have since followed them to Liberty Public Market.
"We do get a lot of people at the market who followed the truck and we've become more aware of how many people have actually had our food and recognize our logo. Now that we're off the truck, the customers reference their other Mastiff experiences," Bartlett said.
Zanow said he's seen an uptick in San Diegans building relationships with their favorite restaurants, similar to Bartlett's experience at Mastiff. Since landing in San Diego seven years ago, Zanow has seen a huge transformation in the local food scene and diners' interest in connecting to where their food comes from thanks to the growth spurt of Little Italy.
"Little Italy really sparked the San Diego food awakening. And now we've got a ton of San Diego chefs coming to the market for our unique selections. San Diego is becoming a food Mecca and hopefully Liberty Station can continue what Little Italy started," Zanow said.
Zanow said he thinks the long-term success of the market hinges on a "balance" of support coming from locals and tourists alike.
"We need to make sure locals believe it was a staple built for them, and show tourists this is a place to embrace local San Diego artisans," Zanow said.
First-time market-goers Stephanie Chan and her daughter Shannon Dingivan joined their family to try some empanadas and other small bites. Chan was in town from San Jose visiting Dingivan, and said she thought Liberty Public Market was better than San Francisco's Ferry Building she visited a couple weeks ago.
"It's different than SeaWorld or the other tourist traps. You get more of a local flavor," Chan said.
That local flavor comes from restaurants like Mess Hall, a restaurant inside the market which utilizes products and ingredients from other market vendors in all their dishes.
The restaurant was originally slated as a test kitchen for market chefs, but the owners later settled on creating a collaborative dining experience, Mess Hall general manager Tami Wong said.
Wong said that pairing wine and beer selections with dishes such as Sunday roast and chicken and dumplings in mushroom tea broth highlights that their chef takes inspiration from everywhere and does not adhere to one cooking style. She noted the inspiration for the restaurant was "trust the chef, trust the som[melier]," pointing out that beverage choices are an important part of the dining experience they want to create.
A seasoned restaurant professional, Wong said the opening of Liberty Public Market signals that San Diego's food scene is "growing up."
"For me personally, I want to bring respect to San Diego's food scene. I want people to come here and have that world-class experience that has been somewhat latent in San Diego. There's a whole new crop of great restaurants that are paying attention and taking a new approach," Wong said.Follow @@BiancaDBruno
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