Herb & Wood and The Grass Skirt: 2 of San Diego’s Hottest Restaurants of 2016

Herb & Wood, San Diego-based celebrity chef Brian Malarkey’s newest project, is in Little Italy; The Grass Skirt, from the SDCM Restaurant Group, is in Pacific Beach

Two of San Diego’s hottest new restaurants are fired up about their success as they continue to vie to be named the “Best New Restaurant” in the country.

Herb & Wood in Little Italy – the latest project from San Diego-based Celebrity Chef Brian Malarkey – and The Grass Skirt – a hidden tiki lounge in Pacific Beach from the SDCM Restaurant Group – are both in the running to be named the “Best New Restaurant” in the country, as voted on by travelers in a “USA Today” Reader’s Choice 10Best poll.

As of Dec. 22, the contest showed The Grass Skirt holding on to No. 4 and Herb & Wood at No. 6. Online voting is open until 9 a.m. PT on Jan. 2; the winner will be announced on Jan. 6.

The Grass Skirt

The Grass Skirt, located at 910 Grand Ave., has been open for less than two months but the buzz around the cool, quirky spot is palpable. Matt Spencer, of the SDCM Restaurant Group, told NBC 7 the positive response to the tiki hideout in such a short time has been overwhelming.

“I’m shocked. Honestly, I was terrified when we built this place because it’s a little kitschy, it’s a little campy,” Spencer explained. “It was a little bit of a gamble, frankly, but so far it’s going really well. We have a lot of locals coming.”

Spencer said he thinks the elevated, Polynesian-inspired , Asian-fusion menu created by SDCM’s corporate executive chef, Brian Redzikowski – known for his work at Kettner Exchange – is what sets The Grass Skirt apart from other tiki lounges. He also thinks the eatery’s over-the-top tropical décor also grabs the attentions of patrons.

“I think the fun kitschiness of the tiki bar, matched with an elevated food menu, somehow is really resonating,” Spencer said.

The exotic cocktails help, too.

The bar lineup includes quirky creations from beverage director Stephen Tuttle, a mixology master on the forefront of the tiki trend. For example, there’s the “Boozin’ Susan’s World Famous Chi Chi,” which combines vodka, lime, pineapple, coconut, demerara and cinnamon. The drink was actually named after Tuttle’s mother which, in Spencer’s words, “I’m sure she loves.”

“Cocktails – I think for the last 5 or so years – have been too serious. So, the cocktail quality is really high here, but the drinks are fun,” said Spencer.

Getting inside The Grass Skirt is an interesting experience. You don’t exactly enter through a front door, but rather a secret door inside a poke restaurant next door, which leads to a hidden hallway designed to looks like a path inside a little cave.

After a very short walk, you find yourself inside the tiki lounge, which is bursting with colorful décor, including a mural of a volcano and ocean scene and bathrooms plastered in flamingo and palm leaf motifs.

The bells and whistles continue when you order certain drinks and dishes off the menu.

“When you order a drink – and you don’t know what drink that is – the lights change, the thunder goes. There’s a volcano hologram; lava comes out. If they’re sitting at the fire pit, the fire actually shoots up,” he said.

Spencer said a menu item getting a lot of attention is the Big Eye Tuna Ribbon, which includes kaffir soy, avocado, radish, chive and chili oil plated in a very unique manner.

“It comes in what looks like a small fish tank, and then there’s a glass piece that sits in it – with the tuna ribbon and avocado, and you can eat it with chopsticks or whatever – but underneath it, obviously separate, are some rocks and a little goldfish – a live goldfish – swimming around,” Spencer explained.

“Because we’re a tiki bar I think we can do a lot of weird things and get away with it,” he added.

Spencer described the vibe at the restaurant as fun and whimsical – staying true to the tiki culture’s concept of “that eternal sunset.”

“We’re not taking ourselves too seriously. It’s fun to have a nice meal and have a nice time,” he added.

In 2017, Spencer said the restaurant plans to host a pig roast in the parking lot – complete with fake grass and a “Miss Hula” contest.

Herb & Wood

Herb & Wood, located at 2210 Kettner Blvd., has been open since the spring. Over the past seven months or so, Malarkey said the eatery has enjoyed much success as patrons let their inner-foodies flourish right before his eyes.

“It’s been a phenomenal ride. It’s a special building; it’s a special place – an incredible team,” the chef told NBC 7. “We’ve just had so many great things happening here.”

Both Malarkey and Herb & Wood recently topped the 2016 Eater Awards in San Diego, winning chef of the year and restaurant of the year.

“I’ve never been so proud in my culinary life to walk up to a table because guests are in awe of everything – the service, the atmosphere, the food, the cocktails. This restaurant hits on all senses,” said Malarkey.

After opening a slew of restaurants including Searsucker, Herringbone, Green Acre and Farmer & The Seahorse, Malarkey said he and his team took everything they learned and threw all of that combined knowledge into opening Herb & Wood.

“We’ve really just absorbed everything,” he explained. “Herb & Wood is all of those ideas coming together into one great facility, one great experience, all of our culinary years of knowledge being put together and it just came together perfectly. I’ve never been so proud of anything.”

Much of the food at the restaurant is cooked in a custom-built, wood-fired oven. Malarkey described the dishes as “explosive,” with every bite more memorable than the last.

The menu includes foodie fare like chicken liver on country wheat toast with pickled onions, pistachio and bitter greens and a bone marrow and escargot pizza – one of the menu’s best-sellers. While the dishes are outside the box, Malarkey said that’s exactly the type of culinary experience patrons want at this place.

“Here, people are relaxed, they’re comfortable and they’re trusting. They’re experimental and they’re ready to take the journey with us,” Malarkey told NBC 7. “People what to have an experience; they want to get out and have some great food.”

With Herb & Wood up and running smoothly, Malarkey recently opened the restaurant’s “little sister” and other passion project right next door – a small, casual restaurant and market called Herb & Eatery.

The display cases there are filled with pastries, croissants, bagels, salads and more, all made fresh daily in-house. The chef’s market also sells high-end ingredients like whole rabbits, caviar and foie gras, as well as wine.

In the New Year, Malarkey plans continued growth for his corner on Kettner Boulevard, including the opening of a 2,500-square-foot space next door to Herb & Wood that will be used as an events and private dining center. He also said Herb & Wood – currently open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday – will soon begin to open earlier on Sundays for brunch.

Both Spencer and Malarkey told NBC 7 they’re flattered by the buzz around their businesses and excited to see what the future holds for their ventures – and for San Diego’s dining scene, which seems to be hitting a high note.

“I think that San Diego has literally turned into a culinary hot spot, almost overnight,” said Spencer.

“I don’t know why everyone isn’t here in San Diego – all the chefs. We have amazing produce, we have the bounty of the ocean, we have the great Baja culture, right there. It’s a hot bed; it’s happening,” added Malarkey. “I think that we [chefs and restaurateurs] should all continue to push ourselves a little bit farther. I like it.”

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