Restaurant Review: Union Kitchen & Tap, Gaslamp


Fun fact: I have at least a dozen favorite restaurants in San Diego. So for me? The only difficult thing about having visitors in town is deciding where to take them out for food. 

It's even more difficult when it's one of your best friends from back home and this is her first time in San Diego and you're planning on using food as your secret weapon in convincing her to move here. 

That's a lot of pressure. 

For Marianna's visit last week, I had 4 dinners to plan and in the end, whatever neighborhood we were touring that day more or less narrowed it down. Until her final day when I had the biggest challenge of all: deciding on a dinner spot in the Gaslamp. 

We needed a place that had outdoor seating with a decent view, fun cocktails, a solid wine list, a tasty charcuterie board, nice ambiance (preferably with live music), and of course, great food. 

Solution: Union Tap & Kitchen

North County kids have heard of Union before: they opened their popular location on the 101 back in 2011 and it's been an Encinitas staple ever since. Last spring, owner Eric Leitstein decided to share the wealth and opened a gorgeous second location downtown on 5th and K, just a few blocks away from the Convention Center. 

The inside is covered in modern-rustic decor and features two ginormous bars, an event space, a main dining area, and outside, a dog-friendly patio. When Mare and I arrived, we had a perfect table waiting for us on the patio... prime spot for people watching. The sounds of the live acoustic singer/guitarist wafted through the restaurant and we decided to kick our final girl's night together off with a couple of glasses of wine and some appetizers. 

A little background: Mare and I met during our school's winter study abroad program in London back in 2007. We bonded immediately over British accents, pints of cider and a shared love of traveling. Which is how, several years later, the two of us ended up on an epic European adventure that took us back to London, down to Rome, up through Florence, Venice and Milan, across the South of France to Barcelona and back up to Paris.

On that note, two of the other things we bonded over should come as no surprise: wine and cheese. Not only just on our girl's nights back home in Connecticut, but in practically every European country.

At Union, we started off with two suggestions from Union's wine director, Miguel Vasquez. The red was good, but love at first sip came in the form of a 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from the Margerum Winery up in Santa Barbara, CA. That was definitely our wine of choice for the evening. And needless to say, the first thing we ordered foodwise was the charcuterie board.

Our wonderful waitress warned us that the gouda on this board was insanely delicious and I'm really proud of Mare and I for not ending our friendship right then and there over the last piece. But the rest of the board disappeared quickly as well: fig jam, candied raisins, port wine manchego cheese, brie, and two different types of salami.

Honestly? We probably could have just kept ordering this all night and been satisfied.

As a good host, I had to order one of San Diego's most popular apps: brussels sprouts and bacon

But to do so would have been to skimp out on all of Union's other incredible offerings. For instance: their cocktails. Like any good foodies, we had to take a break from wine to sample two of Union's most popular cocktails: Strawberry Fields and The Gardener.

Strawberry Fields features Ketel One, muddled strawberries, balsamic, lemon juice, and agave. I could immediately taste why it's so popular: this is an easy, breezy day time drink that would pair well with brunch or happy hour.

The Gardener is often boasted as their take on the Moscow mule, but to me the comparison is distracting. Enjoy The Gardener for what it is: a refreshing vodka and muddled cucumber cocktail with hints of lavender. For me, it was a bit too sweet to drink with dinner, but I could easily have taken down a few of these at happy hour.

After we finished our appetizers, we finally decided on our entrees: I opted for the Butternut Squash Ravioli, with crispy sage, brown butter and shaved parmesean. Mare went the seafood route and tried their Chia Seed Crusted Albacor with red thai curry and mango relish and a roasted shitake, suonomo salad.

My raviolis were gone in minutes. A bit on the lighter side, this is the perfect portion if you don't want to feel too weighed down by pasta or slip into a food coma before a night on the town. And even though the butternut and sage definitely reminded me more of fall and winter, I didn't feel like the dish seemed out of season. In fact, I was happy to enjoy such a cozy meal on a slightly chilly spring night.

Meanwhile, Mare's diner, the albacore, may have been one of the prettiest dishes I've ever seen. The presentation on this was really beautiful and I'm glad she thought it tasted as good as it looked!

Not ready for our night out to end or for her to leave, we decided to stay for a round of their homemade desserts. We ordered two to split: the Oreo Cookie Mud Pie with a layer of white chocolate ganache, homemade chocolate chip ice cream and Oreo cookie crust, and the Creme Brulee. Paired with a couple more glasses of that Sauvignon Blanc, this ended up being the perfect sweet treat to close out our dinner.

The verdict is still out on whether or not my foodie tour has convinced Mare to move here but at least with our experience at Union Kitchen & Tap, I gave it my best shot. I couldn't have asked for a better Gaslamp restaurant experience to show her what San Diego dining is all about.

Union Kitchen & Tap
333 5th Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 795-9463