By Claire Harlin
Mark Urquhart, owner of new Solana Beach restaurant Real Food & Spirits, literally puts the “hospital” in hospitality. Of his years working in medical sales, he said one of the biggest lessons he learned was that simple comforts, such as good reading material and snacks, provided for women in the mammography ward translated into more business throughout the hospital.
“Easing pressure and stress, and understanding women are taking time out of their day to do something for themselves, that’s what resonates,” said Urquhart, a Solana Beach resident who was born and raised in the Del Mar area. “The woman is the decision maker in families and social circles. When you appeal to a woman’s senses, she brings her friends and family in.”
After four years of planning and location-searching, Urquhart and his brother, 25-year-old Colin, opened the restaurant’s doors at 124 South Solana Hills Drive, Solana Beach, on Jan. 19, and the family-focused, female-centric business model has already gained a following of repeat local guests.
“There’s no greater compliment than repeat business. In such a short time already, we’ve had people return, sometimes even twice in one day, and it’s all by word of mouth,” said Urquhart, 35. “The menu was written so that people can keep coming back.”
The brothers offer something for everyone — a robust salad menu and light wood-fired pizza, artisan-style pizza that’s great for take-out, gelato for the kids, and house-ground burgers with applewood smoked bacon in the meat.
“As much as we are trying to bring light pizza fare to the women, we wanted to contrast that with something for the guys,” said Urquhart. “Our burgers are a spin-off of the Slater’s 50/50 with chuck shoulder and bacon, not overly heavy with tons of flavor.”
Every aspect of the menu and design of Real Food & Spirits had a lot of thought put into it, Urquhart said. For example, a big screen TV plays vintage black and white films instead of sports, in order to encourage connection and conversation, and an eclectic mix of French, Italian and big band music from a bygone era adds to the nostalgia.
“We aren’t trying to dominate the atmosphere or people’s attention with a TV,” he said. “We will play sports on big days like the Super Bowl, but 95 percent of the time we will have vintage movies on to set a certain ambience.”
The pizza selection was also given a great deal of thought. The brothers sampled pizza shops all around San Francisco for years while Colin was studying economics there at Santa Clara University and Mark frequented the area on business. They also attended Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza, where they learned the art of authentic Napoletana-style pizza, which is characterized by a light, delicate dough fired in 90 seconds under a hot flame. For years Mark returned to the San Francisco pizza school to assist Gemignani, a two-time Food Network gold medalist and author, with his classes.
The restaurant is equipped with a high-temperature wood oven for the Napoletana-style pizza, which is best served in house, as well as another commercial gas and wood oven for the artisan-style pizzas that the brothers recommend for take-out. Being situated within walking distance of St. James Parish, Skyline Elementary, the Boys and Girls Club and many homes, the brothers wanted to be sure to cater to families with their menu and take-out offerings.
“We are right in the epicenter of it all,” said Mark Urquhart. “This really is very much like an urban setting where families can walk to the neighborhood restaurant.”
And not only do the brothers want to cater to families, but they want their own business to grow on their own strong family values.
“We have an intrinsic trust which can be scarce in any business,” said Colin, a Torrey Pines alumnus and Carmel Valley resident. “We have very good communication, and one thing that’s great is that even if we have disagreements, we know we are coming from the same place and have the same goals in the end.”
Being family-focused and flexible in their offerings is what Mark said makes the restaurant “real,” just as the name suggests.
“We aren’t a chain and we aren’t a commodity product,” he said. “Real Food & Spirits is something that encapsulates buying local, tasting as food should taste with nothing shipped from overseas. It’s also the brand identity — real authentic, real sincere, real service — it holds us to a standard.”
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