Arsalun Tafazoli first opened Neighborhood, his craft beer eatery in the East Village, in 2007. Tafazoli then partnered with El Dorado's Nate Stanton to form the hospitality group, Consortium Holdings, which has added new project to its roster each year; their bar and restaurant stable currently includes Noble Experiment, Craft & Commerce, UnderBelly, Polite Provisions and Soda & Swine. Tafazoli sat down to a conversation with Eater on the heels of the introduction of CH Projects' newest venture, Little Italy's Ironside Oyster.
What got you into the restaurant and bar business?
I went to high school here and college at UCSD, and grew up working nights and weekends at bars and restaurants in Pacific Beach. I was in law school when I looked around and realized that I was accumulating an immense amount of debt and wasn't really sure that it was something I necessarily wanted to be doing.
I saved up and took a trip to Munich in 2002. At a beer festival there, they were naming the top ten breweries in the world and three of them (Stone, AleSmith and Port) were from San Diego. The only one I'd even heard about was Stone; I worked in local bars and restaurants but at the time, the proliferation of craft beer just wasn't there. So the local brewing culture is what really got me interested in the industry.
Is that when you started developing Neighborhood?
Well it was really tough to find good beer; there were more people making it than there were places that were offering it. I was dating a girl at the time who was really into wine and I was going to tastings but it never really resonated with me, but when I had my first Racer 5 IPA, my mind was blown. It was only a dollar more than a Bud Light but I couldn't believe how much better it was; I got it. At the time, there was O'Brien's Pub, The Liar's Club and Live Wire, and that was about it, so that was the catalyst for trying to explore the food and beverage side of things. I started developing a business plan that incorporated good design, good food and good beer.
Where did the concept come from?
I was visiting a friend in New York and the Spotted Pig had just opened. The burger was simple, just four ingredients, but done so well; it was familiar and nostalgic. I happened to sit next to a professor who taught a course on the psychology of happiness; we had this great conversation and that, in conjunction with the burger, really had an impact. I'd walked into that place feeling really shitty and I walked out feeling really good.
And resolved to do something similar in San Diego? Why did you choose the East Village?
I didn't have any real capital, and I would call the numbers on building windows and no one would call me back. At the time, it was the peak of the economy; every developer wanted to put in a Starbucks, not give a space to just some kid with an idea. I wanted a place that was the antithesis of the Gaslamp or PB; the East Village felt like it was developing as a neighborhood and still had that independent identity.
When we opened up Neighborhood, we were so different. We had 29 taps and no Bud Light, and people would come in and just walk out. It was a real struggle, and at one point we were probably a few weeks from going out of business.
When did you see the tide turn?
There were about nine or ten people who would come in regularly; Lee Chase had just left Stone and he would ride his bike here. Guys like him really encouraged us to stick to our core values and stick to our identity. And then it got really crazy around our eighth month, when the craft beer thing really took off.
Why do you think the neighborhood around Neighborhood hasn't really taken off like people hoped it would?
You had these people funding massive developments without understanding the cultural geography of the area. They had a very cookie-cutter way of doing things without having perspective on what the neighborhood needs. I've seen so many places come and go and I feel fortunate that was can continue to do what we do there.
Have you guys consciously avoided the North Park area?
We always want to add a different dynamic to a community. When Neighborhood was stable enough to think about something else, North Park already had places like Toronado, Hamilton's, and The Linkery doing good things. With Polite Provisions, I spent a lot of time thinking about bringing in something new and different; it'd be kicking a dead horse to do another beer bar there.
And now with Ironside Oyster you'll have three businesses in Little Italy. What prompted you to open there?
Well, we'd just finished Noble Experiment, which had a very controlled environment. The drinks take time and we wanted to make sure everyone had a good experience, so we wanted everyone to make reservations. It backfired in a way, because people thought it was pretentious and more of a special occasion place, so we wanted to open something more accessible that would combine the Neighborhood/Noble dynamic.
There were mostly touristy Italian places in Little Italy and people who live in the area would come into Neighborhood asking us to open there. I have to give credit to the architects and developers who originally came in and brought cool, innovative design into a blighted, industrial area. The community here has really been receptive to us.
How does a concept come together?
We do a lot of research and traveling; we tend to geek out on something and get all-consumed with it.
How much borrowing do you do from the places that you visit?
We definitely take from a lot of places. It's something that we're very transparent about; we really believe in recycling good ideas. We get to incorporate so many things into a restaurant and they become a culmination of all of our experiences. We don't pretend to be innovative and original and we give credit where credit's due. At the end of the day, we just want to find things that we're fans of and bring them to a city that we love.
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