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G’NIGHT: Vagabond

Jerome Gombert has seen San Diego's future, and it's not for him

By Troy Johnson

“In France we take time for lunch. It’s a matter of priorities. That is not the way San Diego is going.”

Which is exactly why French restaurateur Jerome Gombert is selling Vagabond. He opened the South Park restaurant in January of 2006. The area had South Park Bar & Grill, plus iconic breakfast joint Big Kitchen. But there was no Station Burger or Smoking Goat. And neighboring North Park wasn’t yet the gourmet hipster-hovel it is now. Gombert was one of the area’s trailblazers.

And now he’s leaving. Pending approval from the ABC (which these days is about as speedy and efficient as the DMV on pain meds), Gombert has sold Vagabond to a fellow South Park resident who will open Brabant Belgian Beer and Cafe. The new joint will be casual, selling good beer and affordable gourmet nibbles—the exact trend that’s driving Gombert from the business.

“When I moved to San Diego 20 years ago, there were no restaurants,” says Gombert, who owns a house a few blocks from Vagabond. “Then one after another opened up. Now we’re going back to places like Tiger!Tiger! and Carnitas Snack Shack—simple, cheaper food. I love those places. But I think San Diego needs less of them now. This trend will correct itself.”

“I created a good life for myself here. Things have changed and I didn’t change fast enough. I probably should have changed. But I have a little French side of me that thinks things should be a certain way.”

I ask him if his kitchen or quality suffered. He gives me a very insulted, French silence.

“It was the casual food trend and the absence of novelty. When I started seven and a half years ago, I was the new kid on the block. In a one-mile radius, there are 20 restaurants now open. Look at Tracy Borkum. That woman is incredible. Laurel is going down and—boom—she turns it into Cucina Urbana. She completely changes Kensington Grill every few years. I just don’t have the focus and the energy to do that right now.”

What is his focus?

“Running naked on a beach,” he says. “I’m going to take some time off. My daughter is getting into high school. My wife is talking about opening up another Cafe Madeleine. Who knows.”

Vagabond will remain open until the liquor license officially swaps. Prioritize some time for lunch before he gets naked.

G’NIGHT: Vagabond

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