By Frank Sabatini Jr.
You don’t have to stretch your imagination to envision horse and buggies unloading passengers clad in Victorian couture when standing in front of Salt & Whiskey, the re-branded restaurant inside the historic Horton Grand Hotel.
Opened in 1886, the hotel was modeled after Vienna’s Innsbruck Inn, and its architectural splendor — inside and out — ranks among San Diego’s most precious Victorian gems.
Guests enter the restaurant directly from Island Avenue, initially encountering a handsome wood bar and cabinetry stocked with hundreds of whiskeys and other spirits. It’s fronted by a lounge area that sits beneath an imposing Italian-style fresco.
The space flows gracefully into a sizable dining room replete with ornate molding and metal chandeliers. In eyeshot is a charming courtyard with additional seating that’s surrounded by the hotel’s detailed window frames and wrought-iron balcony railings.
Prior to reopening this summer as Salt & Whiskey, the spaces were home to the Palace Bar and Ida Bailey’s Restaurant.
We opted for indoor seating on this quiet afternoon to soak up the dining room’s majestic trappings from a comfy tufted-leather booth.
The elegant atmosphere, however, was undermined by harshly lit Edison bulbs hanging over the booths and high-wattage chandeliers everywhere else.
Perfect lighting for announcing last call at a bar, but not so much for lolling over fabulous Welsh table bread speckled with carrots and celery, and a “dusty rabbit” made exquisitely with Hochstadter’s rye whiskey, maple syrup, sparkling cider and freshly roasted beet and carrot juices.
Service was cordially casual, striking an awkward mismatch to what feels like a fine-dining restaurant, albeit new to the scene.
It was minor things like being told apathetically the kitchen was out of ham well after we ordered Welsh rarebit, as though the appetizer couldn’t be made without it. Meat of any sort is a non-traditional enhancement to the dish. After insisting we wanted it anyway, it turned out stellar. We’re talking aged cheddar transformed into a silky sauce spiked with hoppy beer and cascading over thick slices of toasted brioche.
When we requested ketchup for steak fries and Parmesan cheese for spinach-sausage ravioli, both condiments arrived quickly but the runner attempted to grate the cheese over the fries while placing the ketchup next to the ravioli. Very un-Victorian.
The kitchen is helmed by Welsh-born chef Aaron Thomas, who hails from Avant Restaurant at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. He wasn’t in the day of our visit, which might explain some of the service faux pas, although his sous chefs did a fine job executing the dishes he authored.
My companion welcomed the absence of what she described as “hairy anchovies” in the Caesar salad. Thomas uses browned butter as a clever substitute, which gives the dressing a faint meaty essence and smooth consistency.
I restrained from gobbling up the Welsh rarebit only because we front-loaded our lunch with a “white pizza” as well. In spite of its plain appearance, we were immediately impressed by the thin, pliable crust and the toasted mascarpone and mozzarella cheeses on top. Hiding beneath the curds were sun-dried tomatoes and hints of oregano.
For our main courses we chose a chubby well-seasoned burger served with thick-cut fries, and house-made ravioli stuffed with spinach, cheese, sausage and just enough Calabria chilies to impart a sprightly zing.
The flame-grilled burger had everything going for it — smoked cheddar, pickled shallots, garlic aioli and crisp romaine lettuce, all crammed into a sturdy pretzel bun.
The ravioli, made with spinach pasta, were nestled within a cluster of whole, roasted cherry tomatoes. Their sweat essentially formed the pond of light, delicious sauce sitting at the bottom of the bowl.
Other lunch choices run the gamut from refined to substantial.
If guacamole containing pineapple or spinach salad tossed with strawberries seems too dainty a meal, the menu gratifies with Croque Madame and Reuben sandwiches as well as “Welsh meatballs,” which we were told equates to one giant orb of beef mixed with pork parts, including the kidneys.
Priced at $28, it’s served with onion gravy, heirloom peas and steak fries.
Salt & Whiskey also serves breakfast and dinner daily and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Live piano music is featured Thursday through Saturday evenings in the bar area, where happy hour is held from 4 to 6 p.m., Sunday through Thursday.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.