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Landmark waterfront restaurant in San Diego may be nearing end

Landmark waterfront restaurant in San Diego may be nearing end
Diners at Anthony's Fish Grotto have an unobstructed view of San Diego Bay and distant Point Loma. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Anthony's Fish Grotto, an iconic presence on the San Diego waterfront for seven decades, appears headed for ouster this week by its landlord, the Port District.

Port District staff is recommending that the Port Commission authorize negotiations with the owners of the Brigantine restaurant chain for a 40-year lease on the spot now occupied by Anthony's.

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Anthony's, in partnership with operators of the nearby Fish Market restaurant, has sought a renewal of the lease, set to expire Jan. 31, 2017.

But staff preferred the Brigantine bid over Anthony's and a third competitor, Sunroad, which has several restaurants in the region, including in the Gaslamp Quarter.

While Anthony's owners, the Ghio family, have long-been celebrated as pioneers in the post-World War II energizing of the waterfront, the restaurant in recent years has been dubbed "underperforming" by the Port District.

The Brigantine company "will likely activate the location and generate the most rent to the district over time," according to a staff report submitted to the Port Commission in advance of Tuesday's meeting.

The staff decision had been anticipated by Craig Ghio, Anthony's chief executive and the grandson of the founder.

"It's all about the money to the port," said Ghio. "Tradition means nothing to them."

All three bidders promised to renovate the property on North Harbor Drive with a modern design and construction estimated at $12 million to $13 million, and also to expand the menu.

Like Anthony's, the Brigantine is owned by a prominent San Diego family, the Mortons, which owns a dozen local restaurants, Brigantine Seafood and Miguel's Cocina, from Point Loma to Del Mar.

The chief executive, Mike Morton Jr., was named 2014 restaurateur of the year by the local chapter of the California Restaurant Assn.

"Brigantine has a proven track record as a strong operator that has redeveloped and rebranded underperforming restaurant locations," according to the staff report.

Although popular with the public, Anthony's is not a favorite of critics and foodies. Ghio takes delight in noting that many of the restaurants favored by the critics flopped financially while Anthony's has endured.

Anthony's did take a hit financially when the recession of 2009 forced the closure of that part of the restaurant called the Star of the Sea Room, which had a separate entrance and required reservations.

In recent years, Port Commission Chairman Dan Malcolm said, Anthony's "has barely made its minimum rent."

Staff estimated that the Brigantine, over a decade, will pay $10.5 million in rent to the Port District, which would be $1.5 million to $2 million more than Anthony's or Sunroad.

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As a restaurant location, the Anthony's site may be nonpareil for tourists and local residents, close to hotels, the Midway carrier museum and the Maritime Musem, the cruise ship terminal, and a short pedicab ride from Horton Plaza or Petco Park.

San Diego "deserves a world-class restaurant anchor at this prominent site," said Port District CEO Randa Coniglio.

Although the Brigantine chain has a strong reputation and following, any decision to remove Anthony's is not likely to be universally popular.

Hundreds of people, urged on by Anthony's, sent emails and made phone calls to the Port District calling on the commission to renew the restaurant's lease.

The staff initially did not include Anthony's among the finalists. Only when a Port Commission member, Robert Valderrama, protested was it included for the additional review.

"For decades Anthony's was San Diego's waterfront," said former city planner Michael Stepner. "I understand that things have to evolve, that San Diego has to improve its game, but change should be done by adding things, not by replacing landmarks like Anthony's."

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