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Gamble on Downtown Night Life Pays Off for Some Restaurants : Redevelopment May Improve Business

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Times Staff Writer

The night life has become the good life for several risk-taking entrepreneurs in downtown San Diego.

Gambling on a successful downtown redevelopment, they chanced moving into the area and now have a budding clientele that is just as good after 5 p.m. as it is during the day.

Some of the successes have surprised even the business people themselves.

Paul Dobson, 41, owner of Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant on 2nd Avenue near Broadway, said he had “every intention of closing” his restaurant each night at 8 o’clock when he opened late last year.

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It never happened.

Success a Surprise

“I thought they’d be dead downtown,” said Dobson, over the cacophony of customers in the background. “Nobody is more surprised than me.”

Dobson, a 20-year veteran of the restaurant business, credits his success to the restaurant’s proximity to the airport, the civic center and the downtown businesses. He said he is not offering anything out-of-the-ordinary, other than taking dinner reservations.

“There’s functions going on all the time (downtown),” he said. “The only night I’m really slow is on Monday when the Chargers are playing.”

Dobson said he serves about 110 lunches and about 100 dinners Monday through Saturday. “It’s been incredible,” he said. “We’re 100% ahead of where I thought we would be right now, and it can only get better.”

Dobson said he is generating about the same volume now as he did in his former La Jolla location, but he’s busier because the facility downtown is smaller.

Dobson said that finding the right location was the most important aspect of bringing his business downtown because “south of Broadway was a high-crime area.”

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Downtown San Diego encompasses the area bordered by the bay on the west, 16th Street on the east, Harbor Drive on the south, and Date Street to the north.

Harry Swintek, 35, owner of the Golden Lion Tavern at 801 4th Ave. in the Gaslamp district, said his 6-month-old establishment is doing well, and he expects business to increase as redevelopment progresses.

San Francisco Style

The restaurant, housed in a large, wholesome building that was the sight of the original men-only Golden Lion in 1907, is a San Francisco saloon-type eatery patterned after those that were popular around the turn of the century. It has a circular, stained-glass window from Italy set in the ceiling, marble-top dining tables and four-legged bar stools with foot rests.

“We’re in a landmark building,” Swintek said. And, “We are the largest recent investor of food and beverage in the downtown area,” he said, adding that $1 million has been poured into the restaurant.

“With (Horton) Plaza opening, downtown will probably be one of the premier development areas in the nation,” Swintek said.

The restaurant serves about 5,500 customers each month, near the level Swintek says he had anticipated. As more people come downtown next year, Swintek hopes he will begin to see a return on his investment.

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In spring, Swintek plans to offer a happy hour and live music on an outdoor patio behind the restaurant.

Don Brassfield, 46, one of the owners of Play Bill’s Restaurant at 329 W. Market St., said his customers followed him when he moved from 5th Avenue and Elm Street to his present location one year ago. “We brought a form of operating capital with us in terms of an established clientele,” he said.

The restaurant serves meals and cocktails to about 200 people per day, up more than 8% over last year.

“We were particularly interested in locating in or near (the redevelopment area) because it is the center of nighttime activity in San Diego,” Brassfield said. There is “a certain dynamism to being in downtown San Diego that you can’t find in the suburbs. Personally, I just like being in the city.”

Lured Downtown

Downtown is slowly becoming a destination for people because of the civic center, theater and other forms of entertainment. Brassfield predicts that people will be lured downtown because of the night life and because of the appeal of a historic district.

“My projections of course are to increase sales,” he said. “I see more people coming to downtown for one reason or another. The more people who come, the more chances I have to do business with them.”

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Frenchy Marseilles Side Walk Cafe and Oyster Bar, 801 C St., offers its patrons an assortment of daily happy-hour attractions and other enticements.

“We specialize in the holidays that come up and we rally our bar around that,” said owner owner Ron Zappardino. Next year the restaurant will rally its bar around the major buildings downtown and offer a prize on certain days to the people who work in the buildings, he said.

Frenchy Marseilles’ dining area has subdued lighting and long green vines climbing the walls that create an intimate atmosphere. The adjacent wooden bar has oysters, clams and shrimp on ice inside a glass display case along with several bottles of wine. The restaurant also has a smaller dining area in the rear.

“I think we’re the granddaddy downtown,” said Zappardino, in business for six years. Customer count varies nightly from 60 to 200.

“You never know how many people have been in or out,” he said. Zappardino said that business was up from last year but he would not give any figures.

While business is booming for some restaurants, others have had their problems.

Denise Jeter, owner of Morgan Restaurant, 515 5th Ave., blamed the Olympics for Morgan’s nearly one-third drop in business in 1984.

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“People say they don’t feel good about coming to the area” because the restaurant is located near the rescue mission, Jeter said.

She added that the area needs more restaurants and night clubs to encourage San Diegans--who are unaccustomed to entertainment downtown--to eat in the area. Pacific Wine Bar owner Barbara Engel also expects her business to increase after redevelopment.

To prepare for the influx, she is remodeling the kitchen to accommodate a grill. “Lunch was a very big business for a year and half,” she said, “but people didn’t want to walk down 5th and 4th Avenues to get to us.”

Engel said that the eatery, closed since late November, will reopen by the end of the month.

The Fish House on 3rd Avenue and C Street has been an on-again, off-again proposition since it opened in mid-1984. The restaurant will reopen tomorrow for lunch and dinner.

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