Michael McGeath owns and operates Mission Hills' Brooklyn Girl Eatery with his wife Victoria, whom he first met in the 70's while he was a manager and she was a food server at downtown's Old Spaghetti Factory. In 1989 McGeath helped to found Fio's Cucina Italiana in the Gaslamp, then established Trattoria Aqua in La Jolla and Sofia's Italian Table in the Aventine. After 17 years in business, they shuttered Trattoria Aqua in 2011 and went on to open Brooklyn Girl, which just celebrated its first anniversary and the launch of a new in-house oyster bar.
What was is like to open Fio's, one of the early restaurants in the Gaslamp?
Michael McGeath: Our first review was done by Eleanor Widmer in the Reader; she always had little cartoons to go along with the articles and ours was a cartoon looking out the window of the restaurant at the hotel across the street, where there was a hooker waving at a sailor and some drug addicts shooting up. The caption was, "Who would ever eat downtown?" About six months after we opened, we had two hour waits every night and I called her up and said, "Lots of people want to eat downtown, do you want to come back and write a different article?"
Why did you decide to close Trattoria Acqua?
MM: Our lease was up and our landlord tried to jack up the rent by 50%. He said that he had ten people waiting to take the lease; it's now 28 months later and it's still empty.
We spent nine months looking for a new space; after three Italian restaurants we wanted to do something different. Victoria's from Brooklyn and she thought we should do something that represented the melting pot of New York, where we could do many kinds of cuisines, from Korean to Vietnamese to American, and hopefully it would be all things to all people.
I did the space plan and Victoria did all the interior design and picked every color, every chair and every table. It was all her vision, so we had to call it Brooklyn Girl.
Where else did you look in San Diego?
Victoria McGeath: We looked everywhere but we really loved this building. I wanted something that had a loft-like feel.
How has your experience in Mission Hills been different than La Jolla?
VM: Both are neighborhood restaurants but here, we're getting people from all over. We wanted people to come in multiple times a day, to meet someone for lunch, drink with a friend and come back for dessert, and we're seeing that; we have a lot of regulars.
Has opening restaurants gotten easier?
MM: This one was far and away the most difficult. The city of San Diego does not make it easy to open a business. It took 17 months from start to finish and countless trips down to City Hall to get over all the hurdles it took to open this restaurant.
The process of getting Brooklyn Girl open was probably the worst I've ever had but this first year of being open is probably the best I've experienced. We're just ecstatic to be here in Mission Hills, we love the neighborhood.
Have you seen any major food changes in San Diego since opening your first restaurant?
MM: People's expectations of quality of food. I've always been a big believer in being as organic and sustainable as you can; we eat in our restaurant six days a week so we're really conscious of what we put in our own bodies. My mantra to my chefs has been, "Don't find the cheapest product, find the best product you can and we'll serve it at the fairest price we can." People are expecting to have to quality food served to them in restaurants, and they're willing to pay a little bit more for that.
VM: There are also more sophisticated palates. People are more willing to try different things, from craft cocktails to wine to the food.
I think San Diego has grown immensely and things like Eater help make people aware of what's going on. I'm really proud of San Diego because we're starting to become a major food city.
MM: It's really exciting to see young entrepreneurial restaurateurs who are opening these little neighborhood restaurants throughout the city.
Looking back on the year, what were some big challenges?
MM: We really thought the pantry idea in the neighborhood would be a great concept but once Vons opened down the street it was tough to compete. So switching it over to the new oyster bar is something we think people will be more excited about.
VM: And we needed more seats since we always have a line out the door. But I didn't want people to feel like they were in an annex so I wanted to give them something of interest, and the oyster bar is very visual and delicious; it's very New York too.
Would you open a second restaurant?
MM: I'm not someone that wants to open more and more restaurants, but if the right opportunity came along we would never say never. It takes two years to get a restaurant to the point where you can maybe think about leaving it; a lot of my partners and regulars ask me why I work so much and I say that it's like having newborn child, the first year you have to be there to burp it every night.
VM: If we did another one, it would be because we like to reward people who have done hard work for us, so if something came along and we could promote a manager into a GM position or give a chef other things to do, that would be a consideration.
Has the year just flown by?
VM: I couldn't believe it was already our anniversary.
MM: For me, it's been my best year in the restaurant business.