What an incredible meal! A warm spinach salad with poached figs, apples & grapes in a sweet, warm, vanilla bean dressing topped with toasted walnuts & crumbled gorganzola. Then an entree of spicy firecracker shrimp with chipoltle aioli. The wine was a wonderful savignon blanc from Nautical. The last time I was in this restaurant was 23 years ago; such sweet and funny memories. I’ll never forget the 18 year old kid playing the meanest piano I ever heard.
Amy and I are in the area called the Gaslamp Quarter. The streets and sidewalks are jammed with people having fun on a 71 degree Saturday night.
The first time I drove through this part of San Diego was in 1981 and this was the seediest and scariest part of the city. Streetwalkers were lined in front of the tattoo parlors that had first dibs on the sailors before the bars and girls grabbed them. I worked in San Diego County about 4 or 5 days every month for 16 years. I always read the local San Diego Tribune and they were beating the drum for a big restoration project of this blighted area. There was a huge plaza that covered about two blocks downtown, and I thought every homeless person in the world must have been there in 1981. Just a few months later I saw the digging start for the magnificent Horton Plaza, one of the most beautiful shopping centers ever built. It was finished in 1985 and was adorned in bright colors over five twisting floors all exposed to the sky sitting just a few blocks from the ocean.
That same year, 1985 was when Ingrid Croce opened this restaurant I’m vising again. Back in the 80s, she was here every night, greeting and seating diners. After the restaurant stopped serving, she would go next door to her Jazz bar where live music played every night. It still does today and they also have live bands for Saturday and Sunday brunch too.
Ingrid wanted to be a singing star since she was a small girl. When she was in high school her band won first prize in a “Battle of the Bands” contest. The main judge for the contest was a college student who fell in love with her at first sight. He waited for her to graduate and then married her and took her on the road singing together as a duet. After a few years they were broke and road-weary, so they sold their guitars and moved to Pennsylvania, had a son in 1971 and grew their own garden. They continued to write songs and record in their music room. Ingrid enjoyed cooking their fresh veggies and preparing meals for fellow musicians passing through their part of the country. They fed Jimmy Buffet, Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, James Taylor and many others. When the traveling musicians listened to Ingrid’s husband play some of his original tunes, they encouraged him to record them and get them to the public’s ears. He followed their advice and put out 4 gold albums in a row. Jim Croce became a household name when he sang, “You don’t mess around with Jim,” “Time in a Bottle,” and “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.”
Ingrid, Jim and their son moved to San Diego in 1973. They dreamed of opening a restaurant at this very spot at 5th and F that first month they were in town. Jim Croce saw this seedy area and thought a new restaurant might start to bring about change. One month later, at the peak of his career, he was killed when his plane crashed after a college concert in Louisiana. His son, AJ, was 2 years old.
In 1985, this building was for rent and Ingrid opened “Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar.” She had always kept Jim and her dream alive. Since day #1, the food has been magnificent and the nightly music great. They have won best restaurant, best live music, best service, best wine, etc. dozens of times. Croce’s just won again this year for “Best Restaurant of 2012” from both “San Diego Magazine” and “Open Table.”
A quick flashback to 1989: I sat alone at a table listening to a young kid pounding the keys and sounding like a combination of Ray Charles and Dr. John; a bluesy New Orleans feel. I complimented Mrs. Croce on the food and the music as I was leaving. She said, “That’s my boy, AJ, and I think he’s going to have a great music career. He’s just turned 18.”
Later I found out that AJ had a brain tumor at age 4 which caused him to go blind. He started playing the piano at age 5. When he was 12 he regained partial sight in his left eye. He also developed a great singing voice.
While I’m enjoying my Spicy Firecracker Shrimp with chipotle aioli, you may enjoy listening to the son of Jim Croce, AJ, sing and play for you.
Have a great, fun and HAPPY JULY 4th. http://youtu.be/tjd4f6FCnXQ