Juniper and Ivy reimagines its future ‘Under the Stars’
Popular fine-dining spot in Little Italy is now serving ‘elevated comfort food’ outdoors due to the pandemic
For the past six and a half years, trendy Juniper and Ivy restaurant in Little Italy has been recognized just as much for its inventive menu as the buzzy atmosphere in its packed dining room.
But with indoor dining and drinking now on hiatus due to the pandemic, Juniper and Ivy owner Michael Rosen has radically reimagined what the popular restaurant serves and how it’s delivered. On July 17, Rosen relaunched the restaurant in an all-outdoor experience he’s calling Juniper and Ivy Under the Stars.
The elegantly decorated 150-seat dining area, set up in a portion of the eatery’s back parking lot, is serving a scaled-down menu of “elevated comfort food,” with most items priced from $11 to $29. Executive chef Anthony Wells’ rustic summer menu leans heavily on wood-roasted proteins and fresh locally grown produce. Some of the new options include portobello shawarma, $5; blackened tuna tostada, $12; grilled peaches with corn pudding, $14; and a 34-ounce dry-aged ribeye steak dinner for two with onion rings and corn on the cob for $125.
Rosen said that in order for Juniper and Ivy to survive the pandemic, it can’t be the big-menu, molecular gastronomy-influenced restaurant it used to be.
“Our work now is to convince people that Juniper is not tone-deaf,” Rosen said. “People want Juniper food but not six courses of tweezer food. When people are stressed out with COVID, they want elevated comfort food. We don’t want to be a special occasion restaurant during COVID. We want people to want to come in on a Tuesday.”
Rosen is one of many San Diego County restaurateurs who’ve adapted to the county’s latest closure order by moving all or most of their tables outdoors. On June 22, upscale Jeune et Jolie in Carlsbad reopened as an all-outdoor prix-fixe restaurant in its former parking lot. Joining the roster of restaurants that have created large outdoor seating areas this month are The Plot and Blade 1936 in Oceanside, Giardino Neighborhood Kitchen in Lemon Grove, Island Prime on Harbor Island and Diane Powers’ Casa Guadalajara in Old Town and Casa de Bandini in Carlsbad.
Even if the county lifts its indoor dining ban at the end of July, many owners say customers are so wary of eating around strangers in enclosed spaces that the alfresco dining areas may stick around a while.
Juniper and Ivy at 2228 Kettner Blvd. was one of just eight San Diego County restaurants to earn Michelin’s Bib Gourmand rating in 2019. Despite its success over the years, competition and operating costs are on the rise, which Rosen said had shaved his profit margin down to around 10 percent. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared on the horizon.
“It was clear what was headed our way,” he said. “It was like a tidal wave. You could see it coming.”
Juniper closed its doors March 16, a day before the county ordered all indoor restaurants and bars shuttered. On April 2, it became one of the first restaurants in San Diego County to offer Tock To Go, a new reservation-based takeout platform. From June 3 to July 7, it was open for socially distanced indoor dining. Then following the second closure order, Rosen launched his outdoor restaurant.
It’s been a bumpy ride. Although most of Wells’ kitchen team stayed on through the pandemic, the front of the house staff has been sharply reduced. To replace Juniper’s recently departed general manager, Anna Shin arrived in May from Chicago’s BOKA Restaurant Group, whose 23 outlets hold three Bib Gourmands and one Michelin star.
Pre-pandemic, Juniper could serve 350 to 400 diners a night. By comparison, when Tock deliveries were running at full steam in April and early May, Juniper was prepping around 400 to 450 meals a week. But even that plummeted when county restaurants got the OK to reopen May 21 and quarantine-weary locals were eager to eat out again. Rosen said the only viable path forward after that was one that led to the parking lot.
To dress up the outdoor area, Rosen has brought in outdoor landscaping, strings of overhead lights and tables and chairs lent by his friend Arturo Kassel from his shuttered Whisknladle restaurant. A steel container will be custom-painted this week with a line from John Lennon’s song “Imagine”: “Above us only sky.” Umbrellas and outdoor carpets are on the way, and Wells is planing some wood-fire grilling demonstrations outside.
It’s not a perfect setting. There’s the overheard roar of airplanes landing at nearby San Diego International Airport, the traditional chill of San Diego summer evenings and the rare but eventual possibility of rain. On day two of outdoor dining on Saturday, Rosen said reservations were sold out for the night. But will it hold? Thirty-five percent of Juniper’s business pre-pandemic came from tourists and conventioneers, who are in short supply this year.
Crack Shack, Rosen’s successful six-store fast-casual fried chicken chain, would appear to be a bright spot in his portfolio with its takeout-friendly menu. But three of the Shack locations — in Century City, Pasadena and Las Vegas — are temporarily closed due to various county health orders.
Before getting into the restaurant business seven years ago, Rosen was a fund manager, with an MBA and an undergraduate degree in economic investment. Rosen said he’s better prepared than some restaurateurs to do business modeling to plot out his company’s future. But how do you plan for the hairpin turns the industry has been making since March? He has found solace in commiserating with fellow restaurateurs, like Jeune et Jolie and Campfire restaurants owner John Resnick.
“I’ve realized I can’t take this personally. It is what it is, and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Rosen said. “I have the same attitude as John does. If we go down, at least we go down fighting.”
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.