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Gaslamp’s Water Grill, Lou & Mickey’s hoping for a home run with baseball playoffs

The bar area of Water Grill in the Gaslamp Quarter, photographed on its opening day in 2014.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gaslamp Quarter restaurants have been especially hard hit by the pandemic this year, with the loss of convention business, visiting baseball teams and fans at nearby Petco Park, special-event bookings and summer tourists.

That’s been a quadruple whammy for King’s Signature Group, which owns two fine-dining restaurants — 6-year-old Water Grill and 15-year-old Lou & Mickey’s — in the historic nightlife district. But news this month that Petco Park will host a series of American League baseball playoffs has been a bright spot on a cloudy horizon.

Mark Augarten, King’s vice president of operations, said the company reopened Water Grill and Lou & Mickey’s near the end of June. Lou & Mickey’s, situated directly facing the convention center, has one of the largest patios in the Gaslamp with more than 40 outdoor tables, so it has been doing better than many Gaslamp eateries this summer. Water Grill has created a temporary fenced outdoor dining area for up to 30 tables.

But diner traffic is far from robust and the added labor cost of setting up and breaking down the Water Grill patio each day slices profits even closer to the bone. And even with the recent approval of limited indoor dining, Augarten said most customers are fearful of eating inside.

“Even though we’re doing everything we can, it’s a very challenging environment if we can only serve a third or a half of the guests we had before,” Augarten said.

To keep up with the constantly changing rules, Augarten said the company now schedules its workers from week to week, rather than twice a month as it did in the past. And its once-quarterly managers meetings are now conducted via Zoom every week.

One of the biggest blows for King’s Gaslamp restaurants was the loss of private-event bookings, particularly by convention groups and baseball organizations, which previously brought in several million dollars in annual sales. A few small event bookings have started to trickle in, and the baseball playoffs at Petco Park and possibility of the convention center reopening in early 2021 are hopeful signs for the future, Augarten said.

In the meantime, Augarten said residents of the Gaslamp and East Village neighborhoods have been keeping the restaurants going since they reopened this summer.

“Because we’re such a big operator in the community, we thought we should open as early as possible to help lead the recovery. Even in an environment where we are not going to get the same number of guests as in the past, we want to be at the forefront of that,” Augarten said.

Visit watergrill.com/sandiego and louandmickeys.com.

Pam Kragen writes about restaurants for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at pam.kragen@sduniontribune.com.


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