SAN DIEGO SUPER BOWL XXII HOST : Eateries Cater to Diners Who Never Came to Dinner

Times Staff Writer

Like a well-trained Boy Scout, Rick Ghio resolved to be prepared. Anticipating an unprecedented deluge of diners during Super Bowl week, the vice president of Anthony's Seafood Restaurants pulled out all the stops in gearing up for the Big Event.

He beefed up the ranks of waitresses, bartenders and busboys.

He ordered extra fish, French bread, cocktail sauce and other staples.

He extended business hours to accommodate the ravenous crowds.

He even outfitted his staff in Super Bowl garb--T-shirts, visors, badges--and bedecked the dining rooms with celebratory banners and posters.

But guess what, sports fans? Nobody showed. For the first time ever , Ghio says, there was no wait for dinner at Anthony's Harborside Grotto this week.

"It's been absolutely deserted," Ghio said dejectedly Friday. "We were all excited, all prepared, all stocked up on food, and there's nobody here to show off to."

Anthony's experience is by no means unique. Throughout the county, restaurateurs are grumbling that the hordes of big-spending diners predicted to swarm San Diego eateries during Super Bowl week simply haven't materialized. On the contrary, business is actually down for a lot of establishments.

"In a word, it's terrible, a fiasco," said Darrell Denino, manager of Love's Wood Pit Barbecue in Mission Valley, who reports a drop in patronage of about 15% since Monday. "I hope they never have another Super Bowl in San Diego. It'll kill us."

At T.D. Hays in Pacific Beach, co-owner Charles Kahan said business has dipped almost 50% this week, forcing the restaurant to throw out fish, shrimp and other perishables: "This has been the worst week for this time of year in the history of our business," he said. "It's a disaster."

The Harbor House and Papagayo at the normally crowded Seaport Village also have felt the pinch. Jim Murphy, vice president of the company that owns the two popular dining establishments, said: "We were ready for a landslide, for booming business. So far, nothing's happened."

From Pacific Beach to Hillcrest, gloomy restaurant owners on Friday were abuzz with theories about the downturn. The most common explanation focused on "the Olympics syndrome," a phrase coined after the giant crowds expected to smother Los Angeles during the 1984 Games failed to surface.

"The hype scared the locals away, and the locals are our life blood," said Tom Fat, owner of China Camp and Fat City restaurants on Pacific Highway. "They're hearing all these reports about the crowds and the traffic and they're scared to come out. So all we're getting is a scattering of tourists, and that doesn't cut it."

Restaurant suppliers have been hit equally hard by the slump. David Ptak, vice president of the Chesapeake Fish Co., a wholesaler, checked with colleagues in other Super Bowl host cities and decided to order more than 50,000 extra pounds of fish to satisfy local restaurant appetites.

He's still got half of it in his freezer.

"I've got salmon from Canada, mahi-mahi from Ecuador, sea bass from New Zealand and scallops from Florida," Ptak said. "I guess people must be eating Vienna sausage, because they sure aren't eating fish."

Paul McIntyre, executive director of the San Diego Restaurant Assn., said his research indicates that "for 98% of the restaurants in town, the surge we were all expecting did not happen. It's been very disappointing. We're all just hoping like heck that things will turn around during the rest of the week."

Otherwise, he says, January will be a bust.

Although demoralizing, the phenomenon apparently has not played favorites, hitting restaurants ranging from the low-budget to the prominent. Interviews by The Times Friday suggested that only the most famous, top-of-the-line establishments and hotel dining facilities have been spared.

Lunch Traffic Heavier

At Top o' the Cove in La Jolla, for example, business is up, with dinner reservations made well in advance and lunch traffic heavier than usual. And at the San Diego Marriott, which has three restaurants and is the headquarters for the National Football League, patronage is over and above that expected from the hotel's full house of guests.

"We're getting walk-in traffic from people looking for all the celebrities," said John Campbell, director of food and beverage services.

As for other businesses, the reports were mixed.

There were 3,000 hotel and motel rooms available Friday, but an industry spokesman said that was not unexpected. What was a tad disturbing, however, was the number of no-shows for the 11,000 rooms reserved and allocated by the NFL.

"I'd guess we've experienced about a 15% no-show rate, affecting about 10 or 15 of the 38 hotels in the NFL block," said Jim Durbin, chairman of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Assn. "That's not too bad. We prepared for the max and I think if anyone feels let down, it's because the max didn't come. Reality's not always as great as you expect."

Mall Business Improving

Representatives of several major shopping malls, meanwhile, said that business had improved markedly on Friday, although early-week sales were lower than anticipated.

"To be honest, it was real slow on Monday and Tuesday," said Craig Pettitt, general manager of Horton Plaza.

But the downtown center experienced a surge in customers Thursday evening and Friday, as Super Bowl visitors began to arrive in strength, Pettitt said. He estimated that sales were up by 50% Friday afternoon compared to the same day in a non-Super Bowl period.

Officials at other malls also spoke of increased traffic Friday, although the hike in business appeared less dramatic than that at Horton Plaza. Sales representatives could provide no figures.

At Mission Valley Center, a spokeswoman said that Super Bowl shoppers were highly in evidence, although predictions that the city would be overrun proved exaggerated.

"Some people expected it to be like Christmas, which just isn't realistic," said Stephanie Campbell, assistant marketing director for Mission Valley Center. "Business is just more constant than it normally is at this time of year."

Attendance Below Par

At Sea World, attendance was slightly below the 3,000 to 5,000 normally expected during this time of year, hovering around 2,700, spokesman Dan LeBlanc said. But visitors to the San Diego Zoo were far more numerous than during the same period last year, largely due--officials speculated--to the popular panda exhibit.

"Today is the first day we've seen a lot of visitors wearing clothing, hats, jackets and T-shirts reflecting the two teams," said spokeswoman Jean Gertmenian. She said attendance for Friday was 9,103--up 81% over the same day last year.

Trolley ridership was also up, though it did not really swell until prior to Friday night's street party downtown.

Although decidedly down in the mouth about the absence of record-busting dinner crowds, restaurateurs were trying hard to be good sports about it all Friday. As one put it: "We don't want to cry in the middle of the party."

Still, most said that even if their establishments are flooded during the weekend--and some restaurants reported full reservation lists for Friday night--it likely won't compensate for the slump earlier in the week.

"There's no way we can make up for four days in two days," said Anthony's Ghio. "We made a sizable investment in staff costs and other extras, and if you don't get the business to compensate for it, then that means January is going to be a lousy month."

Times Staff Writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this story.

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