Cowboy Star is a glimmer of hope for the future of fine dining in the East Village . In 2008, it defied all odds and rode out a wild recession to the tune of old fashioned cocktails, bartenders that knew your name, and executive chef/co-owner Victor Jimenez's consistently well-executed contemporary American cuisine.
With Johnny Cash playing overhead and stiff cocktails flowing, the service and scene is guaranteed to make anyone feel special: whether it's a group of gussied up ladies celebrating a night on the town; dudes in jeans and ball caps craving a steak after the game; a group of suits who meet once a week; or the solo diner there on a power lunch.
Still, it's not uncommon to hear even "foodies" say that they've never heard of Cowboy Star, let alone eaten there.
Despite the numerous accolades it has won, labeling it a "steakhouse," Cowboy Star wasn't ever supposed to be one. But this case of mistaken identity could be worse for the restaurant's trio of owners, husband and wife Jon and Angie Weber, along with Jimenez.
After admiring their ambition from the start, I had the opportunity to sit down with the founders of Cowboy Star to talk about talk about East Village, and what it takes to run a successful, high-end business in a part of town still shaking its former, less desirable identity - not necessarily a place you'd think to buy a 65-day dry aged Wagyu steak.
"We always made a commitment to working with quality ranchers and farmers across the country, and we'll never compromise that," Jimenez said. "Once the ranchers realized we were serious; they were like, 'hey by the way we have this for you.'"
As such, the restaurant and butcher shop has become known as a place where you can score specialty proteins from bison to foie gras.
Farming is in Angie's blood. The San Diego native from Lakeside and 4-H Club Member for most of her youth laments the lack of connection between diners and their food - ideals that have formed Cowboy Star's character. She also describes the restaurant as a mix of Cowboy and Hollywood, and an unintentional, though welcome homage to her grandfather.
"He was the ultimate cowboy: incredibly honest to a fault, and so kind," she recalled. "He had a really interesting life but was so down to earth ... he had known John Wayne, and one time I remember asking him if he was an incredible guy, or what - and he said, 'you know, we all put our pants on the same way.' And that really stuck with me."
Humble ownership, and deciding to grow their business without the help of advertising or PR is one thing; but the real mystery about why Cowboy Star still isn't widely discussed has to do with the inauspicious East Village itself - a simultaneously fragile and brawny pocket of downtown where businesses have struggled to cope with the transience of conventioneers and sports fans, oft overlooking the most important crowd to please: the locals who call the urban village home.
Bar Basic, The Mission, Café Chloe, Neighborhood and El Dorado comprise a handful of establishments that have paid special attention to East Village denizens, and they're the ones still standing, and thriving. The significance is that each opened on the cusp of, or during, the second greatest economic disaster in American history.
Address: 640 10th Ave., East Village
Phone: (619) 450-5880
"In 2008, we were putting linen on tables when everyone was taking them off and going bistro style, and I thought, we don't have the history - we haven't been around long enough to make that leap and then try to go back to being a fine dining neighborhood restaurant. If we do, then we'll always be known as a discount place," Jon said.
Times may be on the up and up for restaurants with strong, hyperlocal followings, like Cowboy Star, but the East Village is still a turbulent part of town to open up shop; last year again saw its fair share of unexpected closures and chef departures; excessive delays for new opens; and gargantuan concepts whose success hinges upon luring locals in more than once a day.
"I think if you approach it like an athlete would - like, you decide you're going to do an Iron Man, and you train, get ready, set out for it, but then quit at the first hiccup instead of pushing through - no matter what, it's going to be painful," said Angie.
There is no blueprint for running a successful restaurant in this final frontier between downtown and Barrio Logan, but the key ingredient, it seems, is service that makes people want to come back.
"I get really excited for the next few years - hearing of chefs coming here and opening places," said Jimenez. "It doesn't scare me because I was here when tumble weeds were blowing down 10th Avenue. Plus, it's good to have friendly competition, I welcome it - that's what's going to keep me thinking about what's next and what to showcase to our neighborhood."