By VINCE MEEHAN | Downtown & Uptown News
Restaurants in San Diego have had to take a crash course in survival during this pandemic and outside dining has become an absolute must for our eateries. During the first shutdown, many restaurants adapted by offering to-go options or curbside service for its customers. But that only accounted for a small percentage off their original sales and that meant only being able to keep a small percentage of the staff working. That shutdown was lifted and restaurants began to bounce back from the edge of failure. Then, the State of California slammed a second shutdown on the industry and it was back to square one all over again.
Through it all, the City of San Diego has fought for its business communities, especially the restaurants that make up so much of our economy. In this process, the city made it exponentially easier to expand outdoor dining options for our restaurants, even if those options were extremely unorthodox.
Bankers Hill has restaurants scattered throughout its boundaries, but has recently established a “strip” if you will, located along Fifth Avenue from Ivy to Upas. The hub of this strip is located at the corner of Fifth and Laurel anchored by The Corner Drafthouse, Civico, Cucina Urbana and Hachi Ramen House. Many of these eateries were designed with outdoor options for their patrons before the pandemic, and these places had an easier time adapting to strictly outdoor dining. But they still needed the city’s help in allowing for the expansion of those options. This came in the way of the city allowing metered parking spots on the street in front of the businesses to be used for outdoor dining as well. And just like that, people were eating in the street.
Azuki Sushi is located on Fifth Avenue and has taken advantage of this opportunity to help get its business and staffing back up, and is currently running at about 50%. Kevin Alvarado is Chef de Cuisine at Azuki Sushi and has been keenly involved in the outdoor seating option. He notes that the first shutdown was hard, but the second was even harder to cope with. He is thankful for the outdoor option, which he says works in favor for Azuki Sushi because they can offer more tables at a safe distance from each other than they could inside the building. He said that after the second shutdown fell, the Bankers Hill restaurants went into survival mode and basically began to set up outdoor dining without waiting.
“For the first couple of weeks I think it was just a means to survival,” explained Alvarado. “Initially, we started seeing people throw their tables out onto the sidewalk on the first day of the second shutdown when they said outdoor seating was ok. So we followed suit, but we also went to the city to make sure everything was right by the books. We now have permits for both metered and sidewalk dining.”
With their new permits now approved, Alvarado is looking at contractors to get the build out finished. He looks to other restaurants for inspiration, especially in Little Italy where he says they’ve got it nailed down.
“I worked at Kettner for four years and I helped open up that restaurant, so I go down there to see what they’re doing a lot just to sort of guide what we can do and how we can adapt.”
Pure Project Brewing is relatively new to Bankers Hill and was in danger of closing before it had a chance to take root. They too offered take out service, which included its ample collection of local craft beer. But that only amounted to half the usual revenue and so half the staff was put on hiatus. Mat Robar, one of the Managing Partners of Pure Project Brewing, found a unique way to use the outdoor dining policy to his advantage. Directly across the street from his tasting room is an empty lot, which is only used as a Christmas tree lot during the holidays. Robar was able to reach out to the property owner and gain permission to create a beer garden on the lot. It was fairly simple to do, and now his business and staffing are back up to 100%. The ground was covered with wood chips, and the garden was supplied with wooden picnic tables and market lights. To adhere to the food mandate, URBN Pizza is onsite with a mobile pizza oven to provide fresh hot pizza for the beer lovers — a match made in heaven.
Barrio Star has been a highly successful Mexican restaurant in Bankers Hill for years, and featured a small number of outdoor seats. But by utilizing the sidewalk area around it to add seating, it is now operating at a much better capacity than before. The same goes for Hane sushi and Parq, which has taken advantage of the new normal. On the West end of Bankers Hill, Hob Nob Hill has created an outdoor patio complete with wooden picnic tables, a deck and market lights. Even the infamous Cherry Bomb dive bar located on the same block in a strip mall has transformed itself into the Cherry Bomb Burgers and Booze via an outdoor corral built in their parking lot.
The restaurants of Bankers Hill are surviving the pandemic and serving as a micro chasm example of what every other hospitality community in San Diego is having to do as well. Adjust and adapt, is a credo for survival at the United States Marines instill in their recruits here in San Diego as a mechanism to survive, and this advice goes well heeded in Bankers Hill.
— Vince Meehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.