Great Escapes

08.17.14

Finding Food Heaven on the Cali Coast

California, particularly L.A., has become known for its fish tacos, but one cafe tucked into seaside La Jolla makes some of the freshest ones around.

On a quiet corner in the seaside village of La Jolla, California, through a flower-tangled trellised archway, hungry diners will find the Cottage, home of one of the best breakfasts anywhere. The restaurant attracts visitors from all walks of life: some customers sip coffee while leisurely gathering information the old-fashioned way—by actually reading newspapers. Others plan where to paddle into the surf off Black's Beach to catch a wave when the big breakers start rolling in. Some are pilgrims from out of town, come to savor the best granola on the West Coast. And then there are the five-times-a-week regulars for whom The Cottage is a culinary touchstone.

An early 20th-century bungalow that John and Laura Wolfe turned into a blissful dining destination in 1991, the Cottage gets a flood of patrons starting early in the day and extending into dinner during the summer months. For longtime locals, the restaurant is a reminder of an older era, when La Jolla still was a village where everybody knew everybody and southern California was the symbol of an optimistic future. 

“Here were fish tacos that were not heavy and lumbering. Neither were they fancy or overwrought. They were elegant.”

So much has changed since then, but the weather is still magnificent—flowers bloom year-round, and the sun really does shine 300 days a year. Having been regular visitors to the Cottage for several decades now, we have come to know it as a place illuminated by morning light, both outside and under the skylights of the dining room. For years, we thought of it only as a breakfast spot where one could count on freshly baked coffee cake, muffins, pancakes, stuffed French toast, and eggs Benedict.

It came as a revelation when we discovered how good lunch and dinner are, too. That happened several years ago during an expedition up and down the San Diego shore in search of the best fish tacos. Although they are now universal, fish tacos were once a signature dish of La Jolla, introduced to the city in 1983 after local college student Ralph Rubio discovered them down in Baja. Rubio brought the idea north and opened his first Rubio's Fish Tacos restaurant, which has since become Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, with locations throughout California and much of the Southwest. In those days, the standard configuration was a hunk of cod immersed in a thick coat of spiced batter and deep fried, then piled into a shell with cream sauce, cabbage, and a spritz of lime. After a steady diet of fried-cod tacos over the course of a week, we decided we needed culinary relief – an antidote to the fry-kettle, if you will. So we tried to think of the freshest, healthiest, brightest, cleanest restaurant we knew. The choice was obvious. We went to La Jolla for a meal at The Cottage.

There on the lunch menu we saw … yes, fish tacos. Duty demanded we sample them. What a shock! Here were fish tacos that were not heavy and lumbering. Neither were they fancy or overwrought. They were elegant. Chunks of mahi-mahi were grilled, not deep-fried, with a luscious crunch to their fire-seared crust that was ever so much more satisfying than the mire of dense batter on a common fried fish filet. Instead of thick white sauce, the tacos came adorned with cilantro-avocado puree and were accompanied by black beans and chunky papaya relish. That day we also forked up a gorgeous grilled chicken quesadilla and a classic Cobb salad, plus to-die-for banana cake with chocolate frosting and white chocolate bread pudding chockablock with fruit. We walked away realizing that not only were the fish tacos first-rate, but here was exactly the kind of restaurant we are always seeking: direct, unpretentious, and fairly singing of its place and region.

We have since confirmed that to be true time and again. In fact, we don't know a clearer rendition of Southern California cuisine at its most luminous than the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners we have eaten at the Cottage. It is always our first morning destination when we visit the San Diego area, because it is where we know the trip will start out right. And it is often the place we go just before we leave town, knowing full well that, no matter where else we travel, we will find no meals that evoke the joys of a bright day, bracing ocean spray, and clean Pacific air like those served at The Cottage.

The Cottage: 7702 Fay Ave., La Jolla, CA. 858-454-8409.