Will $25M bayfront dining complex that replaces Anthony’s succeed in a pandemic?
Portside Pier, a Brigantine Restaurants project that will feature Mexican food, gelato and high-end dining, is scheduled to open next week, but without indoor dining
When Brigantine Restaurants got the green light three years ago from the Port of San Diego to pursue a 42,000-square-foot restaurant complex overlooking the bay, they could never have imagined that when they opened this month, they would be doing so in the middle of a pandemic that for now means no indoor dining.
Thankfully for Portside Pier, much of the $25 million project was designed from the beginning to accommodate outdoor eating and drinking along the North Embarcadero, which will enable the owners to better navigate financially uncertain times once they open for business next Tuesday.
Port officials, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the restaurant group celebrated the imminent opening with a ribbon-cutting Monday afternoon.
“We had geared this for the outdoors and it was very fortuitous for us, but could we afford to operate like this forever? No,” said Mike Morton Jr., CEO of Brigantine Restaurants, which operates `14 other restaurants, a coffee shop and brewery. “We are hoping that by later this year or early next year, we will be able to get back to normal operations. This is not ideal for any of us in this industry; however, we understand the pandemic and the need to be careful.”
Faulconer as well acknowledged the challenges of opening in the midst of the COVID-19 era, which has hit the restaurant industry especially hard amid partial shutdowns and reopenings.
“This is not easy to do, in the middle of a pandemic,” the mayor said. “To show that spirit, to show that resolve, to show that stick-to-itiveness, I think, is something that is incredibly important, and it comes at just the right time.”
Described by one port commissioner as an “architectural landmark,” Portside Pier is built over the water atop a platform supported by four dozen pilings. Conceived five years ago, it also is substantially larger than its 25,000-square-foot predecessor, Anthony’s Fish Grotto, a dated concept that in its final years was not performing well financially.
“This is a very iconic structure and has a lot of elements that epitomize what we want the port to look like in the future — public access, plenty of places for people to sit and enjoy the bay, an exterior made of glass where you can see through to the water, a dock and dine facility that allows for multiple points of public access,” said Port Commission Chairwoman Ann Moore.
In lieu of just one venue for eating or drinking, Portside will have six, from its more upscale steak and seafood Brigantine restaurant to a walkup coffee and gelato outlet, all offering commanding views of the water from the project’s upper and lower levels. In a nod to the California Coastal Commission’s requirement for public access, Portside Pier includes a 4-foot-wide public walkway on the second level, along with a 3,700-square-foot viewing deck offering panoramic vistas of the bay. The public deck will include tables and seating for up to 108 people who do not have to purchase drinks or food from the Portside eateries.
The project’s dining and drinking outlets include:
- Brigantine Seafood & Oyster Bar, featuring a “surf and turf” menu plus oyster bar and lounge.
- Miguel’s Cocina, a Mexican-themed restaurant located on the south side on the first level.
- Ketch Grill & Taps: A casual dining area with pub fare and craft beers housed within a steel and glass structure meant to resemble a fisherman’s fishing basket.
- Portside Gelato & Coffee: Fronting the embarcadero, it will offer two walk-up windows for Cafe Moto coffees and Italian-style ice cream.
- Top Sail, one of two new rooftop bars added to the original project. Located above the Brigantine, it is more like a higher-end lounge offering small plates and seafood dishes.
- Ketch Brewing Tasting Deck will feature craft beer on tap from the restaurant group’s own brewery, along with beer-centric accompaniments, like giant pretzels, bratwurst and oyster po’ boy sandwiches.
Yet another component of the project includes a dock-and-dine facility that consists of an 83-foot-long dock able to accommodate up to four boats.
In all, the project was designed to accommodate seating for about 1,000 inside and out, with about 60 percent of those seats outdoors, Morton said. With social distancing requirements, he expects that 450 to 500 could be seated outside and 300 inside, once indoor dining restrictions are lifted.
Under the terms of a 40-year lease agreement approved three years ago by its landlord, the Port of San Diego, the Portside Pier project had been anticipated to initially bring the port three times the minimum annual rent that Anthony’s had been paying before it closed down in January of 2017. But that was pre-pandemic.
Morton says he has no way of knowing what revenues will be like once the project opens, although he notes that lack of demand has not been an issue at his other restaurants where all have waits for tables because of reduced seating now.
Portside Pier has been paying limited rent since its lease started in 2018, with more than $916,000 paid up until April of this year. Minimum annual rent was supposed to jump to $1,130,000 May 1, running through 2028. At the time the lease was negotiated, both the port and Brigantine had presumed that the tidelands project would yield even greater revenues because the lease entitles the port to capture 5 percent of food and beverage sales, which are likely to surpass the $1.1 million minimum annual payment.
Morton said he has a scheduled call with port officials on Wednesday to discuss options for possibly easing current rent requirements in light of what will be diminished revenues as a result of mandates to reduce seating.
San Diego Port Commissioners last month extended rent deferrals for waterfront hotels, restaurants, retail shops and other tenants for an additional three months and agreed to postpone repayment of deferred rent until October of next year. That action, though, wouldn’t apply to Portsider Pier, which has yet to open.
“I’m open to anything. Maybe they could go to a percentage rent model,” Morton said. “Some of my other landlords have waived base minimum rent, and we’ve paid a percentage of revenues in order to keep things going. Ultimately, we’re just kicking the can down the road, as it’s a deferral, not a waiver.”
Port officials on Monday said they have not reached any decision on what they might consider, preferring to hear first from Morton on what he is seeking.
“We would first like to get a better sense of their revised projections,” said Tony Gordon, the port’s director of real estate.. But ultimately, the port is committed to the success of Portside Pier. These are difficult circumstances for opening a new restaurant so we want to come up with something to help smooth out early portions of the lease when we know their operations will be reduced.”
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