The new establishment is currently rising out of the skeleton of Ocean Avenue Seafood, the 27-year-old bastion overlooking prime Westside beach.
Ocean Avenue closed on St. Patrick’s Day this year, worn down by a post-recession slump in tourism and the eatery’s dated Art Deco atmosphere, King said. When it first opened, there was a single competing restaurant on the now-bustling 3rd Street Promenade shopping area nearby.
“Recently, it just wasn’t doing justice to this location,” he said.
So King is pouring $3.5 million to update the space, double the amount he spent on its downtown sister. He’s tripling the size of the staff, hiring 150 workers compared with the 45 who worked at Ocean Avenue.
The Santa Monica outpost is inspired by antique ships and vintage fish markets.
Wooden beams, walls and flooring come from barns built in the late 1800s in states such as Kentucky, Virginia and Ohio. The pricey koa wood used in Ocean Avenue is being sold for reuse.
Dark steel borders the doors and windows. The LED lighting will be hoisted by an antique pulley system. Detailing includes what King calls “ridiculously expensive” white tile used in New York subways. The oyster bar will be topped with copper and whole fish will be laid out on ice.
In the private dining room: a wine cabinet with up to 500 bottles.
The front of the restaurant was demolished and a waterfront outdoor area will take its place, expanding the space to 8,700 square feet from 6,700 square feet. Inside, the kitchen will be visible to the more than 200 guests seated at the eatery’s 60 tables.
The restaurant will be more casual than the downtown original, which caters largely to professionals. In Santa Monica, King hopes to attract the huge tourist clientele with a generally similar menu but a larger beer list.
He said revenue at the first Water Grill is up 70% in the year since the renovation. But he expects the new location to double the sales previously hauled in by Ocean Avenue.
Eventually, King says the second Water Grill may become the most successful restaurant of the more than a dozen eateries in his company.
That is, if supply issues and competition don’t get in the way first.
King notes a recent “proliferation” of oyster bars and seafood-centric restaurants such as Fishing With Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, Connie & Ted’s in West Hollywood and L&E Oyster Bar in Silver Lake.
“It’s cool to see these guys do so well,” he said diplomatically.
He’s less enthused about seafood prices. Atlantic salmon costs have soared 40% since February, while spiny lobster supply has also been short, he said.