By David Nelson
Photos by Sara Norris
If at first you do succeed, try again anyway. San Diego hospitality honchos Matt Spencer and Tyler Charman did so after taking a second look at the first version of the Firehouse they created nearly a decade ago. Deciding they had a better idea, they shut down the Pacific Beach institution, brought in Tecture design firm, hired kitchen heavyweight Jason Maitland to upgrade the cuisine and invested their own considerable insights and inspirations to remake Firehouse as a top-class destination.
As at Little Italy 's Kettner Exchange (KEX), Spencer speaks for the partnership... and wastes no words explaining his goals.
"When we opened Firehouse eight years ago, it was really hard to get good food at the beach in a classy environment," he says, leaning back into the comforts of a custom leather chair by the new Firehouse's new downstairs fireplace. "So our original goal was to offer high-quality food at the beach. The whole point of this remodel is to double-down on that original mission."
Never satisfied with the status-cool, Spencer aimed to elevate the already hot Firehouse brand.
"This is why we brought in Jason Maitland," he says. "We wanted an actual chef, a real chef. We met, I explained that we didn't want to be 'KEX at the Beach,' but do intend to be one of the better options. I told Jason to keep the spirit of the menu but to do his own."
Maitland, facing his boss from the plush chair opposite, took up the mission statement.
"Honestly, I've always been on the higher end of the spectrum in San Diego," he says truthfully, having been chef at Arterra in Del Mar and at the Gaslamp's short-lived but culinarily sweet Red Light District. "Now, I prefer things a little more casual and social."
With its ocean views, his new digs, for sure (and for shore) jibe with that mood.
"The soul of the old menu is still intact - there were good burger, sandwich and wrap programs in place, and I didn't abandon any of these," Maitland says. "I'm doing new and improved versions of the top-selling dishes here."
While maintaining its original Firehouse flare, for example, the famous "Strawberry Bleu" salad now benefits from Maitland's flair. And the polenta tots, which replace the restaurant's deep-fried mini corn dogs, are made of four fancy cheeses and served with housemade piquillo-pepper ketchup.
"I want [patrons] to be pleasantly surprised with the quality of the food, especially this close to the ocean," Maitland says. "And I want them to talk about the menu items they did not get to try and want to come back for."
In addition to his passion for food quality, Spencer also hopes everyone likes Firehouse's hot new look. He delights in the unique details, especially the "raise-and-roll" tables that, when he first mentioned them, had one person wondering what "raisin roll" tables possibly could be. Specially designed, these can be rolled through the new downstairs accordion doors onto the patio and adjusted from dining height to cocktail height. The ocean view from this new space is compelling and intimate.
The stylish new rooftop - Spencer told the Tecture design group that he wanted everything first-class - serves up the same view from underneath a retractable awning that shelters private cabanas, a spacious bar, a fire pit and banquettes of steel glazed with white powder. The inspiration for the venue's name, San Diego Fire Department Station 21, remains in business right next door. If you need a reminder, "Station Twenty One" is spelled out in shiny brass screws under the cabanas. To say this place's future is made in the shade seems like an understatement.
Firehouse American Eatery + Lounge
722 Grand Ave., Pacific Beach
Design of the Times
Firehouse's makeover mavens
There's something reassuring about the way Tecture partner Slade Fischer describes the panoramic door system his group has installed on the ground floor of the handsomely rebuilt Firehouse.
"It engages the street and the beach," he says. Given the restaurant's location on a busy stretch of pavement one-half block from the waves, the fully retractable doors create a new universe for the PB landmark.
Since Fischer and his Tecture co-partners David Michael and Kyle Preish graduated together from San Diego's NewSchool of Architecture & Design in 2011, they've developed a design/ build firm that's been awarded such important restaurant projects as Little Italy's Kettner Exchange and The Patio on Goldfinch.
On-premises during the last moments of the Firehouse remodel, Fischer and Michael showed off their handiwork.
"We're playing off the idea of what Firehouse was before," says Michael. "It's not a re-branding, we're keeping the bones intact. We studied other firehouses and tried to find nice little details we could incorporate in this specific location."
The most fascinating of which may be charred wooden boards that resemble embossed leather and alternate randomly with plank-sized mirrors above the rooftop cabanas. They seem like what firefighters are supposed to prevent, but Michael says this Japanese-style wood "protects against fire, water and pests," adding, "we're tweaking the Firehouse concept."
A building boom is remaking the westernmost end of Grand Avenue. A decade ago, this corner of PB was somewhat backwater, but all that changed with the openings of Pacific Beach AleHouse (2008), Pacific Beach Shore Club (2007) and Firehouse American Eatery + Lounge (2007). The games have already begun with the early May reopening of the new, improved Firehouse, which has been redone as an indoor-outdoor eatery with views of waves crashing onshore just down the block. New, lofty ocean views will be the rule at PB Shore Club, which has added a nearly 2,000-square-foot deck that can host up to 126 beer-hoisting patrons. Currently in "soft opening" mode, the deck will have a grand, Big Party/Luau opening during Shore Club's eighth anniversary weekend June 26-28. PB AleHouse, rebuilding, remodeling and reinventing beach fun in the wake of a fire, plans to reopen in mid-July.