By Kai Oliver-Kurtin
With so many new restaurants opening Downtown, we’ve seen several eateries cycle through within a matter of months — opening and then promptly closing their doors before most people have a chance to dine there.
Rest in peace: Acme Southern Kitchen, Comun Kitchen & Tavern, Encore Champagne Bar & Dining Room, Table No. 10 and The Counter, among others.
To see how others have stood the test of time in this high-rent district, we talked to a few restaurants that have managed to maintain success for decades.
Blue Point Coastal Cuisine opened on the bustling corner of Fifth Avenue and Market Street in 1995. With a consistent seafood-focused menu, the restaurant has changed its offerings drastically over the years. Their previous chef was Filipino and brought a Pan-Asian flair to the menu, but the new French chef Samuel Geffroy brings more classic cooking techniques to the kitchen.
“We’re able to evolve enough to stay current with certain trends, but we’re really timeless,” said Charles Schmidt, the general manager. “Our dining room is completely timeless as such — we remodel ourselves after that 1920s supper club style seen in New York and San Francisco — the big plush booths with dark leather, dark wood and brass.
“It’s beautiful now, and will be beautiful forever,” he said.
Schmidt noted that the restaurant draws from two distinct sets of clientele, including the Downtown locals and tourists staying Downtown for events at the Convention Center.
Being part of the reputable Cohn Restaurant Group also provides an advantage. The Cohns own six restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter that all support one another.
“We can pull from each other’s ideas and utilize that depth of knowledge,” Schmidt said. “Unlike the standalone restaurants that don’t have that buddy system to fall back on.”
Dobson’s Bar & Restaurant has been a mainstay on Broadway Circle in front of Horton Plaza since 1984. With a French-inspired menu, Dobson’s is known as the go-to spot for a power lunch among the city’s lawyers, politicians and other executives. When the restaurant was sold in 2014, Dobson’s was remodeled with new tables, booths, carpeting, bathrooms and decor, and a few healthier menu options were added to the menu.
“We have adapted to the times,” said Marcos Luciano, a co-owner. “We’ve added vegetarian and vegan options, but Chef Martin San Roman continues to make many of our original favorites including our mussel bisque en croute and duck a l’orange.”
If you’re looking for a rowdy place to watch the game Downtown, Dobson’s isn’t the venue to do it.
“Except for special events, we do not have a television in our bar,” Luciano said. “Rather, Dobson’s is a place where people come to talk and socialize after a long day’s work.”
The restaurant has benefitted from its location inside the Spreckels Theatre Building and its close proximity to the San Diego Civic Theatre, Balboa Theatre and Lyceum Theatre.
“Dobson’s is often completely booked before and after theater shows,” Luciano said.
Located inside The US Grant on Broadway between Third and Fourth avenues, Grant Grill has been a San Diego institution since 1951.
Over the last 65 years, the restaurant’s offerings have evolved to match dining trends, leaving only the turtle soup as an original menu item. Since the use of green sea turtles on menus was eventually banned, a mock turtle soup was created years later with insight from the original chef who put the soup on the menu.
“Dishes that wouldn’t sell 30 years ago are now staples on many menus throughout the city,” said Mark Kropczynski, the executive chef. “Thirty years ago, every plate at Grant Grill would have been built on featuring a protein, starch and vegetable component, but now there is so much opportunity for chefs to be more creative.
“For today’s diners, we have found that sometimes the more obscure an item, the better it will sell,” he said.
Having constant patronage from hotel guests has been a valuable asset to the Grant Grill, but the drawback is that the restaurant’s entrance is not visible from the street. But much like Dobson’s, their proximity to several nearby theaters also helps with business. Grant Grill’s history, too, was built on providing a power lunch to professionals working nearby.
According to Michael Trimble, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association, a good reputation and a strong local following add to the success of these and other restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter.
“You have to stay relevant to what is happening in the marketplace to have longevity,” Trimble said.
According to Trimble, the Gaslamp Quarter is a very desirable place to own and operate a restaurant since it’s the gateway into Downtown San Diego.
“We host over 8 million visitors a year and continue to be the neighborhood that people will always talk about and remember,” he said.
For more information and a full list of restaurants, visit gaslamp.org.