Mane course: Seafood-forward Lionfish seeks to become king of urban jungle


You do not have to be a well-heeled tourist to make yourself at home in the Lionfish restaurant, opening in December in the Gaslamp’s swanky new Pendry San Diego hotel. In fact, locals already have a permanent seat at the Lionfish table.

“The customer we are focused the most on is really the San Diego local,” says Andy Masi, owner of Clique Hospitality, which designed and developed the hotel’s eating and drinking venues with Montage Hotels and Resorts. “Tourists spend a day or two here and they leave. We want to create a place where someone is coming five or six times a month, not just because they are in San Diego for a trip.”

The upscale hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue and J Street has a nightlife spot (the Oxford Social Club), a rooftop lounge (the Pool House), a beer hall (Nason’s Beer Hall), a lobby bar (Fifth & Rose) and an all-day eatery (Provisional Kitchen, Café & Mercantile). As for Lionfish, it has Chef JoJo.

A Chula Vista native, Chef Jose “JoJo” Ruiz started his culinary career as a dishwasher at the neighborhood’s Yokozuna’s Japanese restaurant. By the time he graduated from Hilltop High School, he was working in Yokozuna’s sushi bar. To satisfy curiosity for what kind of San Diego-inspired food Ruiz will be serving his guests, just flip through the rest of his resume.

Ruiz has been a sushi chef at JRDN in Tower 23 hotel in Pacific Beach, sous chef at Oceanaire Seafood Room and chef de cuisine at Brian Malarkey’s Searsucker in the Gaslamp, executive chef at Herringbone in La Jolla and chef de cuisine at Ironside Fish & Oyster in Little Italy. To think fish might be on the menu would not be swimming up the wrong dining stream.

Masi describes Lionfish’s flavor profile as, “modern coastal cuisine.” Ruiz calls it hometown cooking.

“It is going to be food that is closest to the ocean,” Ruiz says. “We will have Japanese, Mexican and Peruvian flavors, and as many light coastal flavors as possible. I want it to be light and very comforting. Growing up in San Diego, it’s about going to Rosarito and getting nice fish with a nice amount of texture. It’s going to be a lot of fresh fish.”

Along with Ruiz’s crudos, tartares and raw-seafood platters, Lionfish’s specialties will include lobster carpaccio, a maple-sriracha pork belly and Masi’s favorite, the duck confit tostado. There will be small-plate dishes to share, tons of locally sourced produce and responsibly caught seafood, and a user-friendly collection of craft beers and cocktails.

“I was blown away by his passion and culinary expertise,” Masi says of Ruiz, who is also in charge of the food at the hotel’s Pool House rooftop lounge. “He is super-respected by local people, and, being born and raised here, he brings an essence of San Diego and years of experience working with local fishermen, and local meat and produce providers. It is incredible having this guy who eats, breathes and cooks San Diego.”

The interior of the 150-seat restaurant will be aglow with warm woods, earth-toned tiles and vintage lighting fixtures. And, like the food, Lionfish’s atmosphere will be fresh, not fussy.

“The vibe of the entire hotel is modern luxury - you will have incredible luxury, but it will also be cooler and hipper and catering to the Generation Y guest looking for something fun to do,” Masi says. “Lionfish fits into that entire vibe. It is incredibly designed, but when you get in here, it is fun and relaxed. It has kind of a warm, California classic feel. Nothing too modern. It will be comfortable, not stuffy.”

The 12-story hotel is a few blocks north of the San Diego Convention Center, so tourists and convention-goers will be a big part of the Lionfish guest pool. The restaurant is also an easy walk from downtown’s office buildings and condos, and a hop and a skip from Petco Park and East Village. Lionfish wants to give every conceivable customer a reason to dive in.

“We are smack dab in the heart of the Gaslamp, and that energy will roll into the restaurant and the hotel,” Masi says. “You have so many people. You have tourists and locals. Even on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with the Convention Center and the ballpark, there is all of this energy down here. Our customers are all around us, and we want to create a home base for them.”

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