The Fleetwood sits on the corner of 7th and J Street downtown, gleefully defying categorization. Part restaurant, part sports bar, part sleek lounge, the open, versatile space seems equally ready to host a formal dinner as a night on the town.
This is what sets the Fleetwood apart—its versatility. The restaurant is one large, open room, with loosely defined areas that seem to encourage flowing from one into the other. The large, circular bar is the room’s commanding feature—no surprise considering the owners are all former bartenders. One side of the bar offers a comfortable, lounge-like setting, with large booths and plump leather couches that seem like they belong in someone's living room. An array of flat screen and projection TV’s pepper the walls—they fade into the background during dinner hour but take center stage on weekend mornings to broadcast necessary sports games. The private back room—which is available for private events during the week—even transforms into a Vegas-worthy sports lounge on weekends.
The other side of the main room is devoted to dining, with modern, high-backed chairs surrounding black-clothed tables that are formally set for dinner. With no walls to separate this space from the bar and lounge, a meal here offers fine-dining-caliber service and food set amid a hip, happening scene. This is not the space for a quiet meal; its high-energy vibe seems best-suited for first dates, groups of friends, or even dining alone. The Fleetwood seems an ideal launching point for a night out on the town—in fact, after dinner, you don’t even have to leave the premises. Around ten p.m. nightly, what during the days serves as an electronic fireplace is pulled from the wall, its mantel's true purpose revealed: to hold turntables for a rotating lineup of local DJ’s. The Fleetwood stays open until 2 a.m., serving food as well as drinks into the late night hours.
The food is as versatile as the space, with an array of selections that runs the gamut from bar food to gourmet fare. The defining theme is clearly comfort—Executive Chef Mark Bolton describes his guiding principle as serving “the food that people grew up with.” The menu proudly includes classics such as fried chicken, grilled cheese, mashed potatoes, and mac & cheese. But Chef Bolton isn’t content to let guests dine within their comfort zone—he adds an element of discovery to each dish, with unique twists on the traditional that elevate the dishes from comfort food to creative fare.
The Fleetwood's menus are short and sweet—one page each for the wine list, dinner menu, and lounge menu. The wine list is peppered with reliable selections, including the tasty 2006 Fleur Pinot Noir from Los Carneros and the multi-vintage Evolution blend from Skol Bolsser, both which proved elegant accompaniments to several courses.
We were first enticed by the Ahi Poke, one of many colorful and playful starters. A wide-rimmed bowl held a generous mound of pale green and purple cubes of creamy avocado and raw ahi. Scallions and white and black sesame seeds crowned the form, while a ring of glistening fried wonton triangles fanned out across the bowl’s rim. The tangy ahi and lush avocado were an ideal marriage of flavor and texture, while the wontons added a surprisingly sweet crispness, a burst of comfort in an otherwise classy dish.
The Grilled Lamb Chops featured three petite lamb chops laid in a tee-pee like structure over a generous bed of dressed arugula. Blackened grill marks enticed us to dismantle the frame, lifting the chops by their rib bones to eat. The tender meat easily pulled off the bone, each bite offering a burst of earthy savoriness. I’m an arugula fiend, and was enticed to find a generous bowl of greens below the lamb, although perhaps because it was mid-January, the peppery leaf was not at its best. Yet the sweet, tangy tomatoes hidden among the greens were fresh and vibrant, and the vinaigrette light and refreshing.
It’s tough to get more comforting than a creamy bowl of Tomato Bisque, but the Fleetwood’s version went over the comfort top: accompanying the soup were finger-sized, crustless grilled cheese sandwiches. One bite of the grilled cheese sent me back decades; as the buttery toast gave way to creamy cheese I found myself sitting at my parent's kitchen table as a child. I snapped out of it when I turned to the glistening rust-colored soup, whose velvety texture proved surprisingly sophisticated. Fresh tomatoes lent the soup an acidic tang, while glistening drops of basil oil offered a sharp freshness and a lingering complexity. The dish was luscious but light on the cream; by the time we reached the bottom of the bowl our mouths were tingling with flavor, but we were not overcome by heaviness.
The Pan Roasted Halibut was impeccable. A thick cube of glistening, moist fish was unadorned, unsauced, and unseasoned, save for a garnish of micro parsley resting on a slightly browned top. The result was eye opening—rather than commanding the plate, the pale, milky flesh took the role of a blank canvas, poised to showcase the acute flavors of its bold accompaniments. A pale ring of lemon butter sauce ringed the plate, while spilling out from beneath the fish was a medley of halved Brussels sprouts, diced pancetta, and softly sweated leeks. It’s as if chef Bolton was toying with his guests, proving that obscure ingredients like Brussels sprouts and leeks can offer astounding flavors. The pancetta was deliciously salty, the caramelized leeks sweet and resonant, and the browned Brussels sprouts just barely tender and bursting of earthiness. Each forkful was a new experience as we sought the perfect ratio of tender fish, creamy sauce, and intoxicating pancetta medley. It was proof that elegant fare can indeed be comforting.
The Fleetwood’s Fried Chicken was another take on playful, this time proving that comfort food can spin elegant. The breast had been flattened prior to frying, which allowed the long, slender piece of chicken to drape across a bed of buttermilk mashed potatoes like a chaise lounge. The accompanying creamed corn was brilliantly plated as a sauce rather than as a side: a pale gold, creamy ring swept across the plate, studded with vibrant yellow kernels. The corn became a tempting addition to every bite, adding resonating notes of creamy flavor to the tender, crispy bird.
And then it was time for the Braised Short Ribs, the triumph of the meal. Braised for six hours in red wine, the short ribs were fall-apart tender—no knives needed here. Each bite was velvet—velvet that dissolved on the tongue, permeating it with rich, savory flavor. The meat sat atop a bed of garlic mashed potatoes, which served as an island in a bowl of thick, almost caramelized red wine reduction. The sauce seeped into the potatoes, ensuring each bite gloriously resonated with deep, hearty flavor. Baby carrots studded the mashed potato bed, and with their innate sweetness, subtle variation in color, and imperfect crookedness, it was clear they were straight from the farm.
Halfway through the dish, I realized I was so absorbed in the flavors and texture that I forgot to notice something major. Where were the bones? Then I spied a tell-tale sign that revealed the brilliance of the dish—a thin horizontal imprint that ran around the outer rim of the meat. Mark had not only cooked the meat to perfection, he had transformed the awkward boned meat into an elegant filet. He later confirmed my disbelief. "We buy the full rack. I remove all the meat from the bone, then tie the meat together in small medallions.” It was the most elegant presentation of short rib meat I'd seen.
By the time dessert arrived, we had been won over by Chef Bolton; we gladly let ourselves be wooed by Pastry Chef Shaio Sheng. Like the rest of the meal, our desserts were a mixture of high brow and lowbrow, elegant and playful, refined and no-holds-barred decadent. The Banana Tart was pure elegance—a house-made tart shell filled with Frangelico cream and topped with caramelized bananas and caramel sauce, accompanied by a dollop of crème frâiche. Thick slivers of banana burst with resonant flavor, the thick bed of Frangelico cream contrasted the crisp sweetness of the pastry shell.
But when it comes to dessert, refined elegance is no match for gratuitous decadence. The Chocolate Chip Cookies were hands-down the way to end the meal. Three baked-to-order cookies were topped with an oversized scoop of vanilla gelato, all of which were drizzled with a gloriously excessive amount of chocolate sauce. It was childish and playful, and a dessert that every adult should relish in. As the gelato slowly melted, it retained a gooey thickness in its center, which made each viscous spoonful inherently satisfying. Flecked with specks of vanilla bean, this was no generic ice cream—it offered a freshness and flavor that was unrivaled. Soon the cookies were coated in a tantalizing layer of melted cream mingled with gooey chocolate sauce—it was bliss in every bite.
Perhaps the best part of this childish revelry was the moment we were brought back to the present, finding ourselves in an elegant space abuzz with a lively, jovial crowd. Looking around our sleek surroundings as we savored the last bites of cookies and cream, we were struck by the refreshing reminder that even as adults, there are still things that can provide us with glorious moments of unabashed pleasure.
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I visited The Fleetwood for a Valentine's Day dinner after reading some very nice reviews. It was the first time there for me and my girlfriend. We are not unfamiliar with San Diego cuisine and were eagerly anticipating a new adventure in dining. What we got was not a disappointment!
The hostess was very nice and seated us immediately. The tables were well appointed with nice linen and dinnerware. The chairs were more like occaisional chairs that were very comfortable and unique. Our server- and all the staff, were delightful, and very attentive. A sigh of relief came over me as we looked over the special menu for the prix fixe dinner ahead. We ordered cocktails and discussed what we wanted to have for the appetizer. Since this was a prix fixe dinner, the choices were limited, but there was enough to choose from for each of us. I must note here that the wine list seemed a little sparse, but really, I had no problem finding good choices to go with our meal. Also, if you don't see something listed, just ask!
Our server was marvelous at fulfilling our requests from the bar without hesitation. We chose the Ahi Poke and the French Onion soup to start. The soup was rich with onions and very delicious. The Ahi was tender and tasteful. For the main course we chose the Braised Short Ribs & Grilled Salmon. The ribs were boneless and so tender they melted in your mouth. The Salmon was also cooked to perfection. This meal was becoming everything that I had envisioned. Desert was as delicious as the previous courses. The Apple Cobbler was just like grandma used to make, if not better.
During dinner, the circular bar at the center of the space was abuzz with activity. It was obvious that this was a place for lots of people to get together and have a good time. The music was good, not overpowering and an enjoyable part of the evening. To sum it all up, we had a very good dinner at a resonable price and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Take a shot at The Fleetwood. You won't regret it.
The food, service and overall experience was excellent. We will definatley revisit during our next visit to San Diego!
good food & service. Try it!