Three weeks ago, Urban Solace chef/owner Matt Gordon came to my house and we had a real conversation about the restaurant industry. He told me, in confidence, that he wasn’t sure he could stay open. Costs are skyrocketing, especially labor. Low margins are getting even lower. There’s a glut of restaurants. Websites have created a “cult of new,” where diners chase the hot new things across cities, and don’t repeatedly support local standbys.
Still, I didn’t believe him. Urban Solace couldn’t close. It’s a city icon, the revivalist who was one of the first to preach in the tent of North Park, making it into one of the city’s top eating and drinking destinations. If a canary of that stature died in the coal mine, that’s real bad news for the less sturdy canaries—and that’s most of the city’s restaurants.
Today, he proved me wrong with this:
“It is with a heavy heart that I write to you today. We have come to the very difficult decision that Solace Restaurants have run their course here in San Diego. We are so grateful to all of you who have supported us all these years and who helped us by believing in our mission of using the best, most natural and sustainable ingredients possible. It has been an uphill battle for quite some time now, and it’s just time to move on. We love you all and thank you and San Diego in general for the wonderful 12 years that we were able to live out our dreams. We will be doing our last dinner service, tomorrow night, Wednesday at both locations and would love for you to join us tonight or tomorrow to help us empty the bar and pantry! The Gordon family will be at Urban Solace tomorrow night from 5 to 7 or so and Encinitas from 7:30 to close, so if you are so inclined, please join at one of those locations and celebrate the incredible run we’ve had. Tonight and tomorrow night we will be offering 25% off your entire bill so come party with us! (I will be personally be at urban solace tonight if you want to come share a cold one with me).”—Matt Gordon, chef/owner
While closing both restaurants, they will keep their catering operations.
That watermelon salad. That duckaroni. The sticky buns. The beef cheeks. Yes, all those. But that husband-wife duo, that staff, those people, mostly. When Urban Solace opened in North Park 12 years ago, the neighborhood was in need of more than a couple saviors. Gordon and his wife Young Mi took over an old building with old bones. Old bones were in heavy supply in North Park at the time, but no one wanted to paint them. Urban Solace did, and it became an icon of renewal.
Matt built a slightly elevated, but not stuffy, neighborhood joint near the corner of 30th and University. He had a good patio and twinkly lights. His food was some southern comfort with a California soul, with biscuits and beef cheeks and, yeah, that watermelon salad that lasted way past summer thanks to San Diego’s obscenely long growing seasons. One night they had a surplus of duck confit leftover from New Year’s, so he threw the luscious meat into mac ‘n’ cheese. It became one of those dishes people remember in San Diego, that they talk about by name. North Park, quite literally, grew up around Urban Solace.
They didn’t always do organic. They did it when it made sense. They bought local, when it made sense. Matt was never a crusader. But he was an honest, ardent, practical advocate of healthy food not loaded with chemicals or hormones or antibiotics or bullshit. He got rid of high fructose corn syrup in their sodas.
He doubled down in Encinitas with Solace & The Moonlight Lounge. Built a pretty place with a good architect in a modern shopping center that promised to bring some life to Encinitas’ main drag. It did well, but eventually the Whole Foods that anchored the center shut down. Traffic trickled.
And now Solace is done. Both of them. All of the good they made is warm memory. This was a very good operator, one with a conscience and a talent and a passion for his neighborhoods. After the closure of Cafe Chloe last year, dozens of restaurateurs have told me in confidence that they’re close to the same end.
I’ve screamed it for a while and am tired of screaming it, but California’s decision to raise minimum wage without letting restaurants count tips as wages is a blunt instrument that’s missing its mark badly. It’s misguided, unfair to local business owners who helped build their neighborhoods. And it was absolutely part of the reason for Urban Solace’s closure. Those tipped employees are now out of a job.
There needs to be a better, more attenuated solution that’s fair for everyone. Without it, this is going to be a tough, tough couple of years.
Good night, Urban Solace.