“No matter what happens,” Chris Heaney declares with a grin, “no matter if the economy’s good or bad, you’ve got to drink.”
He stands behind the bar at Club Kadan, the Adams Avenue bar he owns, serving a round of beers to a handful of afternoon customers.
Even in this particularly rough economic patch, Heaney is right on the money, so to speak. While the country struggles, one business venture continues to boom, at least here in San Diego: bars.
In the past year, several of San Diego’s better-known establishments have changed hands, most recently Shooterz and Scolari’s Office in North Park and the Zombie Lounge (which Heaney has purchased) and Chaser’s in City Heights. Each is being remodeled: Shooterz, at the time of this writing, is in the process of being gutted, behind a protective layer of plywood; Scolari’s Office has been completely reinvented as “the Office”; the Zombie Lounge has been rechristened “the Radio Room”; and Chaser’s is closed indefinitely.
The opinions on the current remodels — and remodels-in-progress — have been mixed. Sebastian Ulloa, drummer for the local band Batwings, misses his old haunt, Scolari’s. The night the new Office opened, he got a peek at the digs after meeting a few pals at the Pink Elephant. He wasn’t thrilled.
“There were several of us, several friends I’ve made just from going out to the bars, and we had all discussed taking a trip over there to see what it was like,” he recalls. “It was a group of maybe ten of us that walked into the bar, looked around — nobody ordered a drink — and we left immediately.”
Ulloa, who used to book bands for Scolari’s, says a lot of people don’t want to like the new bar.
“There’s an attitude that they’re not going to like it before they walk in,” he says. We’re sitting at a table at Lestat’s Coffee House in Normal Heights. “They don’t want to support the people that took away what we liked before. There really was a sense of community with the people that frequented Scolari’s.”
Lety Gonzalez, a longtime patron of Scolari’s and diehard dive-bar fan, was a member of that community.
We meet outside the Filter Cafe on 30th and Lincoln. “Scolari’s Office was this run-down little shack that’s been there forever,” she says, “really hole-in-the-wall, and it was nice. I loved going there because it had the feel of a grungy basement where you used to drink when you were in high school, compared to an upscale bar now in the middle of a street that’s not really up to par completely. North Park is coming up, but it’s not quite there.”
Daye Salani, who wrote an unfavorable review of the original Scolari’s on Yelp.com, a site that allows the public to rate and discuss local businesses of all stripes, disagrees and is heavily in favor of the reinvention of the old place.
“I wasn’t a fan at all of Scolari’s,” he says, over a coffee at Gelato Vero on India Street. “I’ve been a dozen times, and every time there was some sort of drama, either a fight breaking out on the sidewalk or a crappy sound system or just drunk jerks. So when I heard that the Bar Dynamite owners were taking over the Office, I thought it was a good thing. For the most part, the one time I’ve been there, I enjoyed it. It was very clean; the clientele was very fun.”
Other people on Yelp feel the same way, some urging bar-goers to lighten up about the change, others echoing Salani’s distaste for the atmosphere at Scolari’s.
“Variety is the spice of life, and if people can’t deal with it, I say just stick to what you like,” says Patricia V. in her review. “Just because a place cleans up and has a bouncer doesn’t mean you’re suddenly in [Pacific Beach] or [downtown]. I love me [sic] dive bars and all, but it’s nice to have a selection of places to visit in one neighborhood.”
“They seem to keep it classy but don’t make it douchy [sic],” says Lance R. “North Park is a nicer place now, so I think it deserves a classy place like this instead of a filthy scum hole that smells like puke and butt, where homeless people/gutter punks hang out.”
While the “riff-raff,” as Salani describes some of the former Scolari’s fans, are gone, he does recognize that the old Scolari’s was a popular destination.
“Most of the people in this town, most of my friends, they loved Scolari’s,” he says. “They thought it was such a fun, classic dive bar, in the sense of what a dive bar is. You know, it smelled weird, it had character, there was always something going on.”
Salani thinks that perhaps his Yelp review of Scolari’s was a bit too strong, yet it was, ultimately, his opinion.
“I think it was harsh what I said,” he explains. “You know, ‘shit bar’ or ‘shit hole for shit people’ — because there are people [for whom] that place was very near and dear. I wasn’t one of them. You have all day to convince me [otherwise], and if the pros outweigh cons, I am willing to delete my story on Yelp. But until then, I’m keeping it up.”
Richard “T-Bone” Larson, a former bartender at Scolari’s, remembers seeing the review.
“He’s talking about me,” he says of Salani’s “shit bar for shit people” comment. “It’s just kind of like all that we worked for there is for nothing because people just want a nice, glitzy bar, you know?”
And some do, preferring the revamps of other old favorites. On Yelp, a user named Teresita C. provides a favorable opinion of the new Radio Room.
“So the tetanus factor and grime might be gone from the place, but the former Zombie Lounge is now a much better place to see music,” she writes in her review. “Given more than just a corner/afterthought to play their tunes, bands can rock out on a bigger stage, and there is a nice little patch of floor if you think you can dance. Don’t let the ’80s pleather/chrome vibe scare you off, this is a fresh new update on an old fave.”
Ulloa is also looking forward to what will be going on at the Radio Room, music-wise.
“They have a brand-new, nice sound system,” he says. “It seems like it’s going to be a little bit more suited for live music. It looks nice. It’s exciting, actually.”
In addition to those staunchly pro- or anti-renovation, there are some who, while sad to see their old favorites go, are optimistic about what will arrive in their place.
Edgar Nuñez, who was a regular at the Zombie Lounge, says he will not have a problem visiting the new Radio Room.
“I [didn’t] have any qualms about it becoming the Radio Room or changing owners or anything like that,” he says, from his high stool at South Park’s Whistle Stop bar. “My general perspective on bars is they change ownership, it happens, business is business. I suppose I do feel a twinge of sadness that one of the places where I met so many of my close friends is gone, but who’s to say that you can’t have a good time at the Radio Room?”
Nuñez, who works as a Web developer by day and a deejay by night, has spun at many of the closed bars as DJ Edgartronic.
“One of my first deejay gigs was at Scolari’s,” he says. “It had its good times and its bad. I guess it just wasn’t my scene. I understand why people are sad to see it go. I mean, super-cheap alcohol, who can say no to that? But, like I said before, I’m a believer in letting things happen and giving the new place a shot and seeing if you like it.”
The changes are happening, like it or not.
“Here’s my theory,” says Heaney, giving Club Kadan’s bar-top a quick rubdown with a rag. “When the economy is good, people are buying big clubs and making big bucks. But the economy fluctuates, and since I’m here for the long term, I like small bars with low overhead, and I think everybody else is thinking the same way, getting small bars so that they can last through tough times.”
Heaney bought the Zombie Lounge from previous owner Joe Hicks in June, doing a light, 19-day renovation before reopening it as the Radio Room. His motivation to buy, he says, had a lot to do with the volume of bands that wished to play at Kadan.
“I had these punk-rock bands and these metal bands and these jazz bands playing,” he says, “and I was thinking, ‘I don’t have a stage, I don’t have an adequate sound system.’ So that’s why I started looking out for a live venue.”
The Radio Room fit his needs. Already an existing rock club, it had a core customer base and staff. Heaney, who has a background as a sound engineer, outfitted the bar with a new sound system in anticipation of a full musical roster. Two friends of his, Pete and Dan Smith, a pair of contractor brothers Heaney plays ice hockey with, made a few structural changes, renovating the ladies’ room and painting “everything that wasn’t moving” a fresh coat of black. With the new name and paint job comes a new set of drinks, including a Tanqueray pom blush (Tanqueray Rangpur lime gin with a splash of pomegranate juice and tonic water) for $4, and vanilla Absolut with Coke or Diet Coke for $3. Well drinks are $3.50.
In addition to Heaney, there are four other owners of the Radio Room, all his bartenders from Kadan. Before buying the club, Heaney set up a venture-capital account to which his employees contributed. Three years later, as the account reached $40,000, Heaney began looking for a spot to purchase. He bought the bar for $125,000.
“I decided to keep the staff,” says Heaney. “And [Hicks] told me of the nervousness of the staff, so I went down there and spoke to [them] and kept them all because, one, they have a good reputation, and two, because [Hicks] told me they were good people.”
But not all the purchased bars have stayed the same — or even similar.
The transformation of Scolari’s Office into the fully renovated “Office” is perhaps the most remarkable of the recent remodels. The site underwent a total overhaul, and it is no longer the dive it once was.
“Evolution” is the word on owner Ted Lithopoulos’s lips when talking about the facelift the bar has received.
“You start with something, and you end up with something else,” Lithopoulos says. We’re sitting at a table at Bar Dynamite, which he also owns, while he goes over some paperwork. “That’s how I expected it to go.”
Lithopoulos, who, though he has been a San Diegan since his teen years, is from Greece, bought the bar from George Scolari. Scolari owned it from the mid-’80s until 2008 and was in his 80s when he sold it in February.
Just before escrow closed in March, renovations began, which entailed a total gutting of the original interior, a tear-down of the exterior, and a full rebuilding of both.
“It needed it. Really [badly],” says Lithopoulos. “I don’t like to go to a new place and not put my own signature on it. To me it’s a waste of time. There was nothing there to keep, really; there was nothing. A lot of people went through there; it was a popular place. It [had] a lot of wear and tear. It was time. It was overdue, actually.”
The plans for the remodel were first developed by Bells & Whistles, a University Heights design company. Then Lithopoulos’s business partner and manager, Joe Balestrieri, took the reins and finished it off, their combined efforts producing the Office’s current feel.
“Definitely, we wanted a city kind of look to it,” says Lithopoulos. “Just basically a sexy, comfortable place.”
The purchase price and the remodel, Lithopoulos says, cost him just over a million dollars.
Any trace, save for the truncated name, of the old Scolari’s Office is gone. The new Office is sleek and black, everything brand new. The tiniest scent of fresh paint floats on the cool air, mixing with the scent of patrons’ perfume. Black leather booths sit tucked against the left wall, each with its own candle-topped round table. A latticed divider separates the booths from the bar for about 15 feet. Beyond that is the dance floor, complete with disco ball and a new deejay area, which glows with blue LEDs. The threadbare carpet, black-padded bar top, and low ceilings are things of the past.
There are new drinks, including a menu of “signature cocktails.” The cheapest of these is a “No. 4” (Hoegaarden, Monin Lemon, 7UP, and a lemon squeeze) at $4, and their most expensive, a “No. 7” (Grey Goose La Poire, St. Germain, Kenwood Yulupa sparkling wine), is $8. Beer is $4 a pop for draft Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Sapporo, Newcastle, and Boddingtons, while bottled beers are $3–$4.
The remodel — and entire purchasing process — took under three months, a time frame that according to former bartender Richard “T-Bone” Larson put employees of the old Scolari’s in an unpleasant limbo.
“We heard different things,” he says. “Like, oh, he’s going to fire everybody; oh, he’s going to keep everything the same; oh, he’s going to change it into a reggae club. As it got closer to [when] the sale was going to be final, they canceled all the shows kind of abruptly, and I still had about two months’ worth of shows and touring bands from all over the world scheduled to play at Scolari’s. We had to find a home for them.”
After that, Larson quit, but many others stayed until a few months later, when they were let go.
“It was kind of ugly for a long time,” Larson says. “They gave us all these lame reasons why they couldn’t have shows anymore. ‘We’re being investigated by the cops, we’re getting noise complaints.’ All those things turned out to be false, according to what I’ve heard.”
And they are false, says Lithopoulos. The reason for the cancellation of the bands, he claims, was simple: George Scolari didn’t see the point in renewing his cabaret license — the permit that allows an establishment to have deejays and put on live shows — for the short time it would take for the sale to go through.
“The legality and reality is that it’s just as simple as that,” Lithopolous says. “[Scolari] just simply chose not to renew for a short length of time. Nothing more. The sale was going through within 20 days anyway, so once it went through, we renovated, [and] I got the license.”
The closing of Scolari’s, Larson says, put a lot of people out of work, himself included. After tending bar at Scolari’s for eight years, he thought he had found a new home at Chaser’s in City Heights until that, too, closed in late August, after being purchased by the owners of the Bluefoot Bar in North Park.
“The only indication we had is that for about a week [the previous owner] didn’t stock some of the call liquor, so we’re thinking, ‘Wow, this is kind of weird,’ ” Larson reports. “We were out of pretty much every kind of vodka.”
Eventually, the alcohol came in, but the suspicion was already there. Not long after, the bar shut down. Once again, Larson had to scramble to find venues for the bands lined up to play at Chaser’s, just as he’d had to do at Scolari’s.
The fate of Chaser’s, Larson says, has been somewhat decided. He reports that the new owners plan to keep it a rock club and will reopen after a six-month remodel.
He will not, he says, reapply to work there; the experience has left a bad taste in his mouth.
“I talked to them,” he says, speaking of the new owners. “[One] gave me his card, and he was, like, ‘I know this is really hard for you guys. I know it’s hard on the bands, but it’s a decision we had to make.’ Real businessman-speak. You know how people talk in the business world. I felt it was like a corporate takeover kind of thing. [They were] being [really] placating, but all in all, it’s about business for them.”
Though he thinks the new owners will stick to their word and keep it a rock club, Larson doesn’t think they’re “getting off on a very good foot.”
He elaborates. “Canceling all these shows with no notice is no way to start a venue. I mean, they could have let us finish the shows there or something. They could have done a lot of things [to make] an easier transition.”
The owners of Bluefoot, Adam Cook and Cuong Nguyen, did not return calls for comment.
Back over in North Park, another bar aside from the Office is getting a complete makeover. The pool hall-cum-nightclub known as Shooterz is currently undergoing construction. The front wall and interior have been completely demolished.
This is the work of Eric Lingenfelder and his team, the Verant Group, who own the Tavern in Pacific Beach and Sandbar in Mission Beach, as well as several other locations in Arizona and Georgia. Lingenfelder purchased Shooterz in January and has just begun breaking ground on the construction of his new venture, which will be called True North.
“I started attending the Main Street district meetings,” Lingenfelder says, “[and] the design committee meetings, trying to get a feel for what the community, one, was looking for, and two, what the environment was.” We’re sitting at a conference table in his office on Morena Place. “Were they pro-business, do they want more bars and restaurants? What are they trying to do with North Park? I could see it from my side, but it was a matter of trying to see what the business district [wanted].”
The biggest piece of advice Lingenfelder took from the meetings with Main Street was that North Park needed more open-air dining-and-drinking spaces. With this in mind, he incorporated a streetside patio into his blueprints, which he displays on his laptop.
The plan for True North, construction-wise, is to take out the wall that used to divide Shooterz down the middle and create one big space with a horseshoe-shaped bar in the center, something Lingenfelder says creates “good energy.” The blueprint shows banks of tables and booths on either side of the bar, a small dance floor/deejay booth in the back, and a second outdoor patio to the left of the bar’s entrance.
With all of the recent turnover, one has to wonder why the rush for change. Lety Gonzalez cites gentrification as — at least in part — the catalyst for the recent alterations, quipping, “If you don’t want prostitutes hanging out on your street, close the brothel.
“The neighborhoods, when they change, they automatically want to get rid of your homeless, your drug addicts, your prostitution, and all of the above,” Gonzalez says. “About eight months ago was when I noticed Scolari’s was getting so much crap for being open all the time and having the regulars coming in at noon, which is either a bunch of homeless people or old vets that want to drink. The way I see it is, if they have no beef, and they’ve got no problem with the neighborhood, why close [the bar]?”
She cautions that, with all the bar closures and remodels, many patrons have lost their refuges and will have to seek less than desirable alternatives to their old favorites.
“The kids that used to hang out at these clubs, even though we were drunk and rowdy, we’re now hanging out in the streets again,” she says. “So you’re closing down clubs and these places where we could feel at home and stay. Now we’re all hanging out in the street. So it’s kind of unsafe for us.”
Ulloa remarks that many other bars have changed hands over the past two years.
“Dino’s used to be kind of a hip-hop bar,” he says. “That’s where the Pink Elephant is. Buster Daily’s is now
U-31. Bluefoot used to be a gay bar, a bear bar, actually. The Zombie Lounge is the Radio Room, and now with Chaser’s, every dive bar that had live music has completely tried to change their image.”
Daye Salani, on the other hand, embraces what’s been going on in North Park, which, he says, used to be a rough area.
“There was this running joke back in the day,” he says, “in the ’80s, that, if there was a crime committed in North Park, the perpetrators would run back to their homes in South Park, because South Park used to be very ‘hood-y’ as well. You look at it now, the corner of University and 30th, it’s a hotspot. You just have all these great new restaurants and bars opening up, which is good for that neighborhood. If you’re a homeowner in that neighborhood, you love it because it’s bringing up your property value, which is a good thing.”
Nuñez says he wishes people would keep an “open mind” about the changes in the neighborhood.
“With all these new bars popping up, again, there’s something for everyone,” he says. “I’ve heard people constantly ragging on these bar owners because they’re buying out their old favorite bars, and they’re kind of doing so without giving these people a chance. At the very least, they should go into the bar and check it out before they make a decision.”
Lithopoulos, too, wishes that the former patrons of Scolari’s, those who have not given the new Office a fair shake, would come in and see for themselves what he has done with the place.
“I would like them to embrace it,” he says. “All we did was clean up. Our prices are staying the same. We did not look the other way; we did not abandon them. We want to embrace them. They just need to open up their hearts and minds and come in and check it out. I understand they lost their Cheers. [The Office] is the upgraded Cheers, that’s all. Let it go!”
He pauses, putting his hands on the table.
“But it’s up to them.”