A shout out today to my neighbor Greg who upon hearing that my wife and I were going to be spending time in the San Diego area for our 20th wedding anniversary earlier this year told me that, in no uncertain terms, we had to go to the Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Escondido. We were spending our last night in Carlsbad, about a 20 minute drive from Escondido, so we went over to the Stone Brewing World Bistro for dinner.
There are a large number of great micro/craft breweries in the San Diego area. Ballast Point is one of my favorites, Karl Strauss is a legacy brewing company, and AleSmith was one that I was turned on to during our visit to the area. However, Stone Brewing may be the most well known of any of the San Diego breweries. In the early 1990's, Greg Koch and Steve Wagner began to fool around making beer in Koch's condo in Solano Beach, CA, just north of San Diego. The two had casually known each other before they met up again at a one day beer making class at the University of California-Davis. Wagner went off to work at the Pyramid Brewery in Washington state, but kept in touch with Koch.
The two decided to start their own brewery and it was Wagner who had the recipe for their first beer. But they needed seed money and they found an investor who was willing to put up money toward a brewing facility in San Marcos, CA, a small city next to Escondido. The investor - Koch's dad - gave the pair $500,000 to buy a 30 barrel brewing system and they made their first beer - a pale ale - in 1996.
Wagner was the brewer, Koch was the salesman. He took off with jugs of the original Stone Pale Ale to give out free samples at bars around the San Diego county area. However, the hoppy and bitter taste of their pale ale was ahead of its time causing many people to reject the taste of their beer.
Initially, Koch and Wagner were losing as much as $30,000 a month - they were making more beer than they were selling. A cash infusion from Koch's dad kept them going for awhile longer until the summer of 1998 when they finally turned a profit. Stone Brewing never looked back.
Today, Stone Brewing is the largest craft brewery in the San Diego area, and the 9th largest in the United States (as of 2014). It brews eight year-round beers and a nearly equal number of special releases during the calendar year.
In 2005, Stone Brewing opened their new brewing facility in Escondido, a 55,000 square foot facility with two 200 barrel capacity brewing systems. Nearly a year later, Stone Brewing opened the World Bistro and Gardens next door to their brewing facility. The restaurant part was 8500 square feet with a seating capacity of 425 persons. The restaurant was one of the first sustainable restaurants in Southern California featuring a number of "farm-to-fork" foods long before it was fashionable to have that type of dining.
And unlike other breweries that sold only their brewed beers, Stone Brewing World Bistro features three dozen specialty beers on tap and over 100 varieties of bottled beers to choose from. They also have an extensive wine list at the World Bistro with a number of bottles of white and red wines from California vintners.
(In 2013, Stone Brewing opened a second World Bistro location in the Point Loma area of San Diego. The Stone Brewing World Bistro Liberty Station features similar "farm-to-fork" and eclectic beer offerings as the Escondido location.)
We had made reservations for 7:30 on a Saturday evening, which was good until we realized that it was going to be a spectacular sunset and we wanted to enjoy it one last time while we were in Southern California. I made a call back to Stone Brewing World Bistro late in the afternoon to see if we could push it back to 8:00 p.m. I left a message and they called back shortly to tell me it was no problem. Even though it had turned somewhat cloudy about a half hour before sunset, the scenery was still worth the wait.
It was about a 25 minute drive from where we were watching the sunset along a beach in Encinitas to the Stone Brewing facility. (see map) Actually, we drove past the entrance and had to do a U-turn down the street to make it back to the parking lot. As we entered the parking lot, well, there were a LOT of cars. I mean, there had to easily be well over 200 cars in the parking lot. I sort of wondered what we got ourselves into.
We found a pathway that was covered with vines that took us to the entry way and the host stand for the World Bistro. There was a small wait before I gave the young man our name. I figured that we'd have to wait for a while, but he grabbed a couple menus right away and said, "You can follow me, folks."
We wound our way through the main dining area, past a large stone wall that had the etched Stone brewing logo in it, past large windows that looked into the brewing facility, past a large rectangular stone-topped bar and up some steps to an upstairs dining area that overlooked the main dining floor. We were seated at a table and it wasn't long before our server for the evening, Braden, came over to greet us.
Personable, outgoing and sure of himself, Braden was a great help in navigating both the food and beer menus that evening. Cindy had ordered up the Stone Pale Ale. Braden said, "Hey, we still have the original Pale Ale, but we've got a new Pale Ale - the Stone Pale Ale 2.0. It's smoother, yet more flavorful - I think - than the original." He did such a good job selling it that not only did Cindy change her beer order, I got one, as well.
The food offerings at the World Bistro were, well, interesting. With most of the food geared toward the "farm-to-fork" concept, I found items such as rigatoni with kale and locally made Portuguese sausage. Duck confit tacos with a green papaya-jicama slaw sounded interesting enough, as did the Peruvian-spiced chicken. For appetizers, they featured hemp seed pretzels, fried olives with roasted almonds, fried quail legs in a Sriracha sauce, and fried Brussels sprouts in a sweet and sour sauce. For a guy from the Midwest, it was very Californian to me.
Cindy started off with a bowl of the cheddar/garlic/Stone Ruination soup. It was an unusually strong smelling - and in a good way - cheddar cheese soup with a good amount of garlic mixed in with a portion of the Stone Ruination Double India Pale Ale giving the soup a sort of hoppy and bitter taste. She shared some with me after taking a few bites and declaring it to be delicious. It was very good, but also very rich. One person could have had the soup as a main course.
For our main entrees - which came out very quickly after we had ordered (Cindy still had about half her soup in the bowl) - I ended up getting the Arrogant Brisket. It was slices of brisket braised in Stone Brewing's famous Arrogant Bastard Ale and served on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes. Only I don't think they were sweet potatoes as much as they were mashed garlic potatoes, which was fine with me. The beef was tender and the beer-braising brought out a lot of interesting flavors to the meat. Crispy onion straws and blanched kale came with the brisket. It was a good hearty meal.
Cindy got the chicken schnitzel that consisted of two flattened chicken breasts breaded and fried, then served with a medley of grill veggies such as broccoli and cauliflower. The chicken schnitzel was sitting on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes. Cindy immediately said that it was too much food, but did a good job in getting one of the chicken schnitzels down along with a number of the grilled vegetables. She declared her dinner as very good, but there was too much of it. Braden asked her if she wanted to box up the rest and she explained to him that we were traveling and it would just go to waste if she were to take it.
As most servers are wont to do, Braden tempted us with a series of desserts. I was full from my very good brisket and Cindy was just about stuffed from the soup, chicken schnitzel and grilled veggies. But she had him run through the list. I stopped him when he said he had a blue cheese/jalapeño/blueberry cheesecake. He enthusiastically said, "Oh, yeah! It's great. You get all the tastes - sweet, tart, bitter and spicy. I like to eat it with some leavened bread and Sriracha sauce."
And that's how he presented it to us. The combinations in the cheesecake were interesting. Yes, you did get a bit of a spicy taste from the jalapenos, there was a noticeable blue cheese taste and the fresh blueberries helped hold everything together. I didn't quite get the leavened bread and Sriracha connection with everything, but I gave it a try. The intense taste of the Sriracha was a little too overpowering with the rest of the dessert. But, then again, I have a colleague who puts Sriracha on everything. And I mean everything - he carries his own bottle with him wherever he goes.
After dinner, we walked out into the garden area that featured a bar area, meandering stone walk ways that were engulfed in vegetation and illuminated with hanging lights that led to alcoves - some with fire pits - where people could sit and enjoy a beer over conversation. Babbling brooks crossed under and beside the walk ways. I would have liked to have seen the garden in the daylight, but at night it seemed sort of cozy and comfortable. We walked around the garden for a good 20 minutes just looking at the stone formations that was the architectural base for the garden.
Our visit to the Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens was a memorable experience - not only for the interesting and good food that we had, but for the architecture and lay-out of the garden area. Braden's service was forward and efficient, and the overall vibe to the World Bistro was laid back, yet professional. This was a great place - and a great meal - for our last night on our Southern California vacation.