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Dining with Monkeys

The Year of the Monkey had just rolled in, and after slogging through a rather dull Year of the Goat, we felt it was time to celebrate. Albert's Restaurant at the San Diego Zoo seemed like a natural choice. Perched in the Zoo's Treehouse complex and surrounded by simians, the Zoo's sole full-service bar/restaurant bears the name of the revered Albert, a long-departed, silver-backed lowland gorilla described in the menu as the Zoo's "most famous resident." (The menu also mentions Albert's "mischievous behavior," which is better unexplained in a restaurant review - but ask a local for the real poop.)

Summer diners prefer the cool outdoor patio hovering in the trees near a waterfall. Our winter visit during one of San Diego's rare cold spells found us indoors, unfolding the cloth napkins and gazing beyond orchid arrangements and African art to a portrait of Albert himself on the north facing wall.

We chose a bottle of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay ($25) from Albert’s reasonably priced selection of Californian wines. One of the microbrew selections from San Diego and Kona might have gone better with the Potstickers ($7), crispy won-ton shells stuffed with minced pork and vegetables on a bed of lightly sauteed onions and red peppers, all drizzled with sweet, Asian inspired sauce. A second appetizer, the day’s special Eggplant Soup ($4), dropped the bar a notch. "This could be Cream of Anything," remarked one of our party.

Our "spicy" version of the Jambalaya ($16), the Creole-inspired blend of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage, onions and peppers, seemed stingier with the spices than with the shrimp. It was just the opposite with the Blackened Chicken sandwich ($12). The Cajun-style chicken breast, topped with jack cheese and offered with a side of jalapeno mayonnaise and a mound of battered fries, tasted just right.

As the dieters at our table eyed their mountains of fries with skepticism, our charming waiter did his best to dispel our doubts. "This is a hilly park," he offered. "You'll work it off by the time you get to the exit." Sensing resistance, he proposed swapping the fries for a slightly less caloric side of garlic mashed potatoes, but after tasting a crispy fry our party quickly turned him down.

The garlic mashed potatoes were delicious, however, accompanying an order of pan-seared Alaskan Halibut. The large, thick fillet, cooked to perfection, arrived with freshly sauteed vegetables and a lemon beurre blanc sauce. At 18 dollars, the main course soared to the top of the price list -- but proved an excellent value.

Dining with kids? Don't let the cloth napkins scare you away. A kid's menu lists quesadillas, pizza, mac-and-cheese and an all-beef hot dog, all priced around $8 including beverage.

Albert's doesn’t dish out the Zoo's cheapest grub. But when compared to the $10 entry fee for a hamburger and large coke at the park's other eateries, $12 to $18 doesn't seem excessive, even if Albert tended in that direction from time to time.

Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: 619-231-1515
  • Name: Albert's Restaurant San Diego Zoo
  • Address: 2920 Zoo Drive