Shakedown Cruise: Jimmy's Famous American Tavern, Dana Point, CA

Since the economy's hubris-driven implosion, desperate journalists have been pointing out that "premium casual dining"/"gastropub dining"  are where the smart money has been going in the restaurant, and particularly the restaurant chain, business. "Premium casual"/"gastropub" is buzz-speak for a "giant expensive hamburger". It's a hamburger so big that it is meant to satisfy your "foodie", ugh, urges/bragging rights, and fill your belly, all for the price of a home in Detroit. It's American cuisine all over again, folks. Oh, and you can get drunk enough to forget that a few people still have all of the money while everyone else is ... well ... eating giant hamburgers.

After the economic downturn took his Casual Adventures high-end empire, including Chat Noir and French 75, David Wilhelm opened a premium casual restaurant in San Diego with backyard cook Jimmy Duvall and the design team of Jeff and Todd Hatch called Jimmy's Famous American Tavern.

Recently I experienced dinner during the opening week of Jimmy's sister restaurant near the Dana Point  harbor with five of my favorite humans. Here's the breakdown:

Space: Spacious. Comfortable. Woody. Glassy. Huge Bar. Leather Booths and seats. Plus: The most comfortable restaurant seat I have ever plunked my bad back into that wasn't a booth. Seriously. Minus: No one at our table could hear anyone else unless we were right next to them. I get it, you want the lively pub atmosphere, but I shouldn't have so much trouble describing my satisfaction with the food on my plate. There are a variety of fixes for this that shouldn't make the place morgue-quiet, or ruin the aesthetic, and I hope that it can be fixed.

I should also mention that Jimmy's, (I won't call it J-FAT), is certified green in its construction, appliances, and take-out containers. They also make an effort to source their meat and seafood sustainably. I appreciate the effort and I know others do too.

Service: Courtesy under fire. The place was packed and the staff still managed to be attentive and friendly. Our server even engaged some constructive criticism and praise of our meal afterward. There was a comically-long, Jerry Lewis-worthy, dropping of silverware at one point, but it was away from the diners and everyone I saw just had a chuckle. Bravo.

Menu: Chef Tommy Ferguson has done a great job putting together some American regional classics in some refreshing ways. It's a good sign when, at a glance, I want to eat more than half of the menu items at that moment.

Lemonade: So fresh that I had to wait. So fresh that I didn't mind.

Nest of JalapeƱo "Bedeviled" Farm Fresh Hen Eggs (6) $9: Tasty. Fresh tasting. Didn't feel like Aunt Edna just pulled them out of the fridge for the pot luck, nor did they have that squashed under cling film for the drive over look. Delightful. Not as hot as I'd like, but I understand.

Pear, Black Fig Jam, Gorgonzola, Fontina, Prosciutto, and Arugula Fire-Grilled Flatbread $14: Flatbread is usually not my thing, just give me a pizza, but this was actually one of the better things that we tried.

Rosemary Charred Castroville Artichoke with Meyer Lemon Aioli and Parmesan, Seasonal $10: No. Damned near inedible. Just. No. I've had this same thing-ish elsewhere and it was great. Not so much here. When I've had it with the same people I was dining with that evening the artichoke disappeared. There were significant leftovers here. Pulling blackened strips of artichoke from my mouth ... no.

Fish and Chips: Eaten nearly in its gigantic portion entirety by a small child. Looked good from where I was sitting.

Parmesan, Garlic and Thyme French Fries $6: Yummy.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken $18: Wow. Wow! As a platter of giant burgers wafted by my mouth began to swallow itself until this pile of food arrived before me. Well-fried, breaded chicken boobs crash-landed in chive mashers and covered in thyme gravy with little roasted Brussels sprouts scattered about. YES!

Papparadelle Pasta $17: You made my MIL unhappy. You don't make my MIL unhappy. I didn't try the dish, but from where I was sitting the noodles looked dry. Fix this dish or replace it.

Pan-Roasted Local Halibut $26: FIL was happy with it. I'm happy with it.

Giant Burger (Various, $14-$16): Didn't try one, but as I mentioned when a plate full of hugeness wafted by I wished that I had ordered one myself. That is, until I tasted the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Until next time, Giant Burger.

Overall: I wanted to give it an A- for restaurants of its type, because it's just the kind of place that I should loathe but it even topped places like it that I've been a sucker for in the past. Wave that American cuisine under my nose and I'm a drooling mess, Mr. Pavlov, er, Wilhelm. That said, I have to give it a B- based on the number of failed dishes and acoustic problems. Why so forgiving? As the title says, it was obviously a kitchen and restaurant trying to get it together. The apps and entrees showing up at the same time would have told me so if I hadn't already known.

Walking out into a warm summer evening and a courtyard of happy people dancing to a local band who were playing a Steely Dan cover only made the experience better. I'm sure that Jimmy's didn't set it up, but it kept that smile on my face.

Dialing down the noise and dialing in the food will go a long way to raising my grade for this restaurant. Jimmy's may only be as famous as their marketing, but to have had such a good experience even when things went wrong tells me that I need to go back and try that "famous" burger.

I regret nothing.


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