As someone who can lay claim to La Mesa (the quiet, East-county town served as mi barrio for the first years after college), there is no shortage of cool antique shops, book stores and stylish boutiques that line its streets—but until now, the city has never had the primo restaurant destination that would reel in folks from other areas, and designate La Mesa as a dining hot-spot on San Diego’s culinary map.
Enter GIO: the 7000 square-foot restaurant, café, and wine bar that has transformed the old Village Garden Restaurant located on La Mesa’s one-mile stretch of downtown. GIO aims to inject new life into La Mesa by providing a chic, sophisticated bistro for local and regional foodies alike, while preserving the homey feel that downtown channels through its annual Oktoberfest and Thursday night Classic Car Show.
I met with marketing guru Laurie Ohnesorgen who runs the show at GIO, and along with her brother-in-law owner Gabriel Giordano, was raised in La Mesa and understands wanting to bring something new to their beloved neighborhood.
“We all grew up here, so we wanted to give La Mesa an upscale, hip place to hang out. Maybe start to turn downtown La Mesa into a Little Italy or a Kensington,” smiles Laurie.
GIO’s décor is elegant and trendy, but still retains the corner-pub ease that seems to get lost in many upscale restaurants. The two-story wine bar is light and open, with white brick walls, scaling studio windows, black leather bar stools seated around wine barrel tables, pressed linens, streaming jazz, and an upstairs lounge—all housed under a 25-foot wooden barrel ceiling.
Patrons can dine/sip at the bar’s windowsill and overlook downtown’s busy sidewalks, or enjoy live jazz/flamenco/bossa entertainment every Friday and Saturday night on GIO’s sprawling corner-side terrace that seats up to 266 guests. GIO’s covered patio provides a more intimate setting with a decorative water wall and fireplace.
GIO can also accommodate private parties, receptions, and has the technology available to equip business seminars.
The Wine. GIO offers 60 varietals of boutique wines including selections from Australia, South America, France, and domestic (Oregon and California, specifically). “We are keeping our wine selection limited, as we would like to go retail in the months ahead,” explains Laurie.
Selections such as the Terra Rosa; an Argentine Malbec with hints of green chilies and a roasted macadamia finish, provides a delightfully hot nose and pairs lovely with GIO’s Lamb Lollipops: gamey and succulent New Zealand chops broiled and marinated with demi-glaze.
Other tapas (appetizers) include jumbo prawns, scallop and lime ceviche, and tender kabobs. GIO’s signature World Tour plates contain cheese and wine from various regions, as well as fruits and meats to compliment the characters of the wine.
Executive Chef Manny Perez loves interacting with his Spanish-infused menu, and bringing fresh and inventive additions to GIO. In fact, tapas change weekly, the lunch menu usually changes daily, and GIO has a turbo printer in the back to keep up. “We designed our menus on paper, which has a nice contemporary feel to it, but it also helps us keep up with the changes,” laughs Laurie. “Our menu will never be boring.”
The Food. Menu highlights include Mesquite Kissed Wild Salmon: line-caught, lightly smoked, and drizzled with lemon-dill cream sauce. Traditional dishes such as seared, fresh seafood and earthy cuts of filet-mignon are also available, as well as selections of rich desserts to satisfy the sweet tooth.
The Events. Events happen nightly at GIO, usually those of a charitable nature. Recent events include Fishing for Freedom: an organization that treats wounded special-operation soldiers to sponsored fishing trips in Cabo. Always making it a priority to give back, GIO routinely donates food to The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Center, and is an active member of the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce, as well as other community organizations.
Beginning in October, GIO will host a tryout for local bands, vocalists and songwriters to be featured as live entertainment at the restaurant. The Grand Prize winner will receive 8 hours of free recording time at award-winning Track Star Studios in San Diego.
GIO’s hours are Mon-Fri, 11am - 10pm, Sat-Sun 9am - 10pm, and breakfast & brunch—offering dishes such as omelets, biscuits, and southern chicken fried steak—is served daily 9am until 2:00 pm. GIO’s lunch menu offers a variety of fresh salads and sandwiches, and is also available daily for dine-in or on-the-go.
For more information about GIO’s Happy Hour and other specials, or to find out more about the band competition, visit GIO Restaurant and Wine Bar in La Mesa.
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Main photo by Timothy L Green