Long before “pivot” became a silver-lining buzzword, Tracy Borkum made a career out of it.
For instance, the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla recently spent $105 million and tapped one of the top architects in the country to recast its iconic building into an ocean-facing art compound. And Borkum—a San Diego restaurateur who years ago got her BA in art history from UC Berkeley—became a big part of it.
It was a dream, really: a merger of what she loved and studied (art) and what she made her name doing (restaurants). She and her chef-partner Tim Kolanko created an outdoor dining concept around the edge of the museum called The Kitchen.
“We opened it, and now it’s been raining for three weeks,” Borkum says, with a roll of her eyes, on this week’s Happy Half Hour episode.
Borkum has adapted, dealt with things, rethought, reconfigured so many times. She started with Kensington Grill in the ’90s, a charming-as-heck bistro (she still has the space; it’s now Cucina Sorella) where Troy served briefly as the world’s worst bartender (a story he tells over and over, to Borkum’s chagrin). When she took over beloved Bankers Hill eatery Laurel, it was a grand, refined, pre-theater restaurant. She gutted it, selling the furniture on the street outside the building.
“We got in a bunch of trouble with the city,” says Borkum. “They came by and said, ‘What are you doing?’ We said we were having a garage sale, they said, “You can’t do that.’”
This was 2009. The economy was still reeling, so she pivoted to a rustic Italian concept—Cucina Urbana—where everything was under $20. It boomed; is still booming.
Later, when she couldn’t afford to purchase furniture for a new restaurant of hers, she convinced a local furniture store to use the space as a showroom, selling the pieces to diners who said, “I really love that lamp.”
Recently, she and Kolanko have been shifting into non-traditional restaurant and catering spaces. They opened a kiosk at the Rady Shell, the now-epochal $98 million outdoor music venue that looks like a giant, hollowed-out Airpod.
“Olivia Rodrigo has her first show there, and it’s like 8,000 19-year-olds,” says Kolanko, who made his name as the chef de cuisine of A.R. Valentien for over a decade. “So we had all this food ready to go. And none of them ate. None. We had all this food left over. We’re used to making food to order. But this is a wholly different thing. So we’ve had to relearn.”
Borkum and Kolanko recently opened a modern Jewish delicatessen, Gold Finch, and are working on finalizing their next prix-fixe dining concept—in the center of MCASD, La Jolla, with two entire walls made of glass overlooking the Pacific. They join Troy and David this week to share stories from frontlines of a radically shifting restaurant culture.