The (restaurant) empire strikes again


They are San Diego’s restaurant royalty, two families and two groups that own more than 50 eateries between them.

These homegrown culinary empires span from National City to Oceanside and encompass everything from take-out taco joints to hyper-hip hotspots and fine-dining enclaves.

And while Blue Bridge Hospitality (Leroy’s, Liberty Public Market), Consortium Holdings (Ironside Fish & Oyster, Polite Provisions), the Cohn Restaurant Group (The Prado, Bo-Beau) and the Karina’s Group (Karina’s Mexican Seafood Cuisine, Savoie) might not have much in common in the kitchen or the dining room vibe, they share some fundamental similarities.

At the helm of these flavorful federations are leaders who embrace change - ever-evolving with new concepts and rejecting the cookie-cutter chain approach. They know their market and tailor their ventures to it while also branching out to a wider audience. And they are always growing because, well, that’s what empires do.

Clearly, San Diego is a restaurant family friendly place. Throughout the county, groups are proliferating in number and expanding in size - Rise & Shine Breakfast Group (Fig Tree Cafe, Breakfast Republic), The Patio Group (Fireside by The Patio, Bao Beach) and 3 Local Brothers (Brothers Provisions, Urge San Marcos) are just three examples.

But Blue Bridge, CH Projects, Cohn and Karina’s lead the pack with some of the most iconic restaurant locations and innovative approaches to diversifying their portfolios. Here’s a closer look at San Diegos’ most dynamic dynasties.

Blue Bridge Hospitality

This Coronado-centric group has gone from casual ice cream, pizza and barbecue shops to one of the most glam high-end steakhouses in San Diego and a bar-raising, foodie paradise public market.

Year founded: 1998

At the helm: David Spatafore

Current roster: MooTime Creamery (two); Village Pizzeria (two); Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q; Coronado Coffee Company; Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge; Stake Chophouse + Bar; Liberty Public Market; Maretalia Ristorante

Iconic dishes: Filet mignon Rossini, with foie gras, summer truffles and truffle-Madeira sauce (Stake); Poke tacos with Napa slaw, spicy cream and crispy wonton (Leroy’s); ice cream treats (MooTime Creamery)

The mission, in their words: “Rooted in scratch-made, locally sourced and seasonal cuisine, Blue Bridge Hospitality aims to continue to open creative new concepts that push San Diego’s hospitality landscape forward.”

Empire turning point: The opening of Leroy’s Kitchen and Lounge signaled a shift from casual eateries to chef-driven, full-fledged restaurants. Stake, Coronado’s first steakhouse, reached for - and attained - its most ambitious wining and dining heights. And venturing out of Coronado to Liberty Station, with the game-changing Liberty Public Market, solidified Blue Bridge’s place in the empire big-leagues.

Key collaborators: Tim “TK” Kolanko, executive chef, and Greg Majors, executive wine director, an impeccably-credentialed and versatile food and drink duo.

Latest project: Maretalia Ristorante, modern coastal Italian fare in the former Coronado Vigilucci’s. The menu has been upated; the dining room will be refreshed after summer tourist season on the island.

What’s next: West Pac Noodle Bar, a noodle and Asian dumpling house on Orange Avenue.

Consortium Holdings

The region’s undisputed purveyors of hip, CH Projects started with an uncompromising high-end hamburger house (no ketchup for you!) and grew into a family of creative, cocktail-driven, trendsetting spots and superbly styled A-list restaurants.

Year founded: 2007

At the helm: Arsalun Tafazoli

Current roster: Neighborhood; El Dorado Cocktail Lounge; Craft & Commerce; Noble Experiment; Underbelly (two); Polite Provisions; Soda & Swine (two); Ironside Fish & Oyster; False Idol

Iconic dishes: Lobster roll (Ironside); Belly of the Beast Ramen (Underbelly); meatballs (Soda & Swine); burgers (Neighborhood)

The mission, in their words: “We’re not interested in trends, importing or recreating another city’s ethos or becoming ‘the next big’ anything; our vision is neither rented not revolutionary. Our goal is deceptively simple: to contribute to the dynamic and culture of the city, elevate communication and cultivate memorable experiences.”

Empire turning point: While Tafazoli contends that it was when San Diegans started embracing “our somewhat wonky approach of challenging the status quo,” the 2013-14 openings of Polite Provisions and Ironside Fish & Oyster took CH to a new level of sophistication.

Key collaborators: Paul Basile, Jason McLeod and Erick Castro, who create artistry in the dining room, on the plate and in the cocktail glass, respectively.

Latest project: Born & Raised, the $6.5 million, two-story Little Italy steakhouse that’s destined to be - whether they want it to or not - 2017’s buzziest restaurant opening. It opened last week.

What’s next: Plans are underway for a third Soda & Swine to open on the campus of U.C. San Diego, co-founder Tafazoli’s alma mater, in mid-2018. Several undisclosed projects in the works, all in San Diego.

Cohn Restaurant Group

The region’s largest and most prolific restaurant group has evolved into an institution that’s part of San Diego’s social fabric, with restaurants spanning every culinary corner and an unwavering commitment to philanthropy.

Year founded: 1981

At the helm: David and Lesley Cohn

Current roster: 333 Pacific; Analog; Blue Point Coastal Cuisine; Bo-Beau (four, including one in Long Beach); Coasterra Modern Mexican; Coin Haus; Corvette Diner; Draft Republic UTC; Gaslamp Strip Club; Indigo Grill; Island Prime; C Level; The Plantation House (Maui); Sea 180 Coastal Tavern; Libertad; Tea Pavilion; The Prado; Vin de Syrah; Vintana; ZigZig Pizza Pie; The Melting Pot Gaslamp

Iconic dishes: Brussels sprouts (Bo-Beau); Chef Deborah’s Pipian Crusted Brie (Indigo Grill); Rory Burger (Corvette Diner)

The mission, in their words: “People celebrate their lives in restaurants. It is our job to create an experience worth remembering. ... Our aim is not simply to please our guests, but to make them so happy that the last thing they say to themselves as they are leaving is ‘I cannot wait to come back.’ ”

Empire turning point: CRG president David Cohn said he and his wife never envisioned becoming such a big company when they opened their first diner 30 years ago, “but once we got bit by the bug, we really became enamored with the industry and the creative aspect of it. We became obsessed with brainstorming and developing new concepts, and once you start, it’s hard to slow down.”

Key collaborator: Executive chef and partner Deborah Scott has been instrumental to the chain’s growth for more than 20 years.

Latest project: The Cohns made national news earlier this year with the Hillcrest taco shop Libertad, San Diego’s first restaurant that’s 100 percent for charity. It’s attached to the Paris-pretty speakeasy Cache and the latest Bo-Beau.

What’s next: After decades of launching distinct, site-specific places, a clear sea-change in the group’s approach has recently emerged, with successful brands (like Bo-Beau, Coin Haus and Draft Republic) being replicated in multiple locations. Opening soon is Draft Republic Carlsbad and Coin Haus Ocean Beach.

Karina’s Group

A classic humble taco shop to glamorous restaurant group rags-to-riches story, Karina’s is a multi-generational family affair, where the American Dream of founders Arnulfo and Maria Ines Contreras-Curiel continues to flourish.

Year founded: 1981

At the helm: Arnulfo Jr. and David Contreras-Curiel

Current roster: Karina’s Mexican Seafood (three); Karina’s Ceviche & More; Karina’s Taco Shop; Savoie Italian Eatery; Saffron Thai

Iconic dishes: Ceviche Karina’s (Karina’s Mexican Seafood and Karina’s Ceviche & More); Bacon Wrapped Shrimp Taco (Karina’s Ceviche & More); Pad Thai and Thai grilled chicken (Saffron); shrimp linguini (Savoie)

The mission, in their words: “It’s always a pleasure to share our authentic cuisine and welcoming hospitality with the San Diego area and our family looks forward to maintaining our relationship with the community far into the future.”

Empire turning point: A now-closed Karina’s - it lost the lease on its Eastlake shopping center location in 2015 - was the first to feature the modern, boldly colorful and eclectic design from Karina’s style visionary, David Contreras-Curiel. From there came the posh spaces of Savoie Italian Eatery and Karina’s at Otay Ranch Town Center.

Key collaborators: Numerous members of the extended family, from abuela Maria Ines, who remains the soul of the operation, to her offspring who work in management, down to the grandchildren who take reservations, greet customers and bus tables during summer break. “We don’t feel we have an empire,” kidded Contreras-Curiel. “Our family just keeps growing so we have to keep expanding the restaurants to feed and keep them all employed and out of trouble.”

Latest project: Entering into a partnership with San Diego culinary icon Su-Mei Yu ensured that the venerable Saffron Thai would endure. A refresh of the India Street restaurant includes a video homage to Yu, who continues to oversee the menu. Next door, in the former Saffron takeout chicken shop, is the new Karina’s Ceviches & More, with a more creative, contemporary take on the family’s traditional Mexican cuisine.

What’s next: Building on the fast-casual concepts of Saffron and Karina’s Ceviches & More.; Twitter: @sdeditgirl