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Loving and loathing Best-Of lists

By Troy Johnson

Our annual “Best Restaurants” issue has hit the streets of San Diego with a thud. It’s a monster. It is one of our most popular issues. You people like food, and I respect that about you. This issue is our recollection of the best places we’ve eaten over the last year. Our restaurant bible. A step-by-step guide to mouth rapture. A lot of talented people—San Diego Magazine’s editors, art directors, writers, photographers, videographers—put a lot of their creativity, care and extramarital time into creating it.

It’s also an issue that, as restaurant critic, I equally love and loathe.

I love that it’s a celebration of the restaurant culture that I deeply care about. These salty, precious, midnight oil-burners with scars on their hands are my people.

What I resent are lists. Lists suck at storytelling. When lists become our only source of information, the story loses those its emotion and humanity. It’s like trying to judge a movie by only watching the credits.

For every restaurant listed here, there are dozens of San Diego locals working their butts off to build its narrative every day—breaking down proteins, carving fruit into cute shapes, burning fingers, scraping eggs and your spit off dishes, directing their entire creative mind at your dinner, taking half-drunk abuse from the half-sentient person at Table 3.

In naming something “best,” there’s an implication that all other restaurants aren’t also best. That’s just not true. For every restaurant named “Best,” there are about ten that are also phenomenal. But there’s only one slot. That’s how this game works. Sometimes it’s a six-way coin flip.

The bigger question for me is: Why do we love lists so much?

From Guttenberg up until the early 1900s, long-form writing was the form of American storytelling. Taking a half hour to read epic, well-reasoned pieces of writing was its own art form. But art exists in the casual spaces of life. It exists in our disposable free time when we can detach and immerse ourselves deeply enough to really be moved, inspired or lost. It exists when we have time not only for a thought, but two thoughts, three thoughts, a hundred thoughts, all strung together like a suspension bridge to—who cares? Somewhere, anywhere.

Now we have movies, radio, Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, our endlessly fascinating phones. We have more knowledge in our pockets than previous generations had in all the libraries of the world combined. We are literally pelted with information every minute of every day.

That wouldn’t be so bad if our disposable time had also increased over the last few decades. At this point, weren’t the robots supposed to do the work while we muddled something in a rocks glass? Unfortunately, be it a miserly economy or a population boom that’s forced us to scratch harder and faster for a dwindling supply of resources, our disposable time is next to nothing.

Over-busy and over-fed information, we have asked for smaller and smaller serving sizes. Instead of taking our time to go deep into a singular, compelling story, we prefer tapas of information. We beg media to cut up stories into tiny bites so that we can manage, if not chew it for us like a mother bird.

It’s similar to how Americans approached nutrition in the ’90s. Instead of taking the time to cook well-balanced meals with all the necessary nutrients—we popped a single multivitamin and went for a pizza. As consumers of modern media, we’re popping info pills.

That truncation of our cultural narrative scares me a little. You could chalk it up to me being old. But I enjoy a good Tweet. Maybe it’s the recent death of very gifted food writer Josh Ozersky. It’s just that the soul of a story—or call it the meat, essence, whatever moves you—isn’t revealed in fragments. It exposes itself in long-form experience, whether direct or narrative.

Don’t get me wrong. This “Best Of” list in this issue is a hell of a pill. It might even un-recede your hairline and play ball with your spirit animal. It’s a rolodex of awesome San Diego food things.

Just know that the list portion of our “Best Restaurants” issue is merely the credits. To get a deeper appreciation of how San Diego’s restaurant culture really impacts the city (and, don’t fool yourself—restaurants are where friendships, families, companies and cities themselves are built), pick a few of these places and just go there. Turn off your phone. Talk to chefs, cooks, dishwashers, servers, bartenders and regulars.

Let someone muddle something in a rocks glass, and listen a good while.

Popping Info Pills

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