When Starlite first opened back in 2007, the word "craft" wasn't yet a standard term in the San Diego's restaurant lexicon, making the India Street bar, with its midcentury-modern design and thoughtful attention to both cocktails and cuisine, a game-changer on the scene.
To mark the restaurant's seventh anniversary, which kicks off tonight with a week's worth of nightly events and fundraisers for local non profits, Eater sat down with co-owners Tim Mays of Casbah fame and filmmaker/director Matt Hoyt, two of the farm-to-table restaurant's founding partners, as they reflected on Starlite's run so far and its place in the current local food and drink landscape.
Q: What spurred the idea behind Starlite and your partnership?
Tim Mays: When we first got into this, I still had the Turf Club, as well as the Casbah and Krakatoa, but I always wanted to open a cocktail lounge with late night dining. I took a couple trips to Portland and there were bars turning out great food there, with great cocktail menus and mid-century modern decor. Matt was a commercial real estate broker at the time and approached me with this location, which was a lesbian bar that was for sale. During the course of it all, he kind of got roped into being part of the whole deal.
Matt Hoyt: I became the defacto day-to-day guy. There was a lot of project management involved, from hiring the design team to dealing with personnel, and we were all racing around trying to get financing together. We had a mission; we wanted this to feel very classic, like it had always been here, but have contemporary tones too. We both knew that San Diego was ready for something that other cities had and there were only a few places in town trying to do something different like that. We wanted to do a quiet place, off the beaten path, with great design elements, atmosphere, food, and drink that was dependable and reliable. The local food thing came out of having a small kitchen; it just works to have deliveries every day and its become an important thing to us; 90% of everything on the menu now falls within the 100 mile rule.
Q: Was the whole craft cocktail thing a tough sell in the beginning?
TM: It was tough early on. Back then, either Matt and I were here until 2 a.m. every night and sometimes it was just crickets. But we just kept at it because it was something that we believed in and wanted to see exist.
Q: It was different, design-wise, too.
MH: The sunken bar, which was part of the previous space, was a keystone of the whole design. Bells & Whistles did a great job of making it the heart of the business by putting the cocktails in the center of the room. And we just wanted to do something that raised the bar. You really have to spend time, energy and money on giving people an experience. At the time, it seemed like the majority of San Diego restaurateurs only wanted to spend a minimal amount making something that was better than people's houses but wasn't going to break their own piggy banks.
Q: How has the concept evolved since the beginning?
TM: When we first opened it was 70/30 bar versus food sales; part of that was that maybe the food wasn't as good as it could be. So we started focusing more on the food and started to see the food overshadow the drinks, so now we're trying to reintroduce the cocktail part of things.
MH: We've tried to create a menu that's accessible, you can come in a couple times a month for some drinks and apps. If you want a four course dinner you can do that, or if you just want a burger and a drink and get out the door for $25, that's possible too.
Q: You led the way for a lot of similarly-inspired places that have followed. What's your take on Starlite's place in the current scene?
TM: We're amazed that things are opening at such a rapid pace. Every day there's some next big thing and I'm not sure the market can bear it. Some of them are doing gangbuster business but I think that at some point it won't be sustainable. We just keep perfecting what we do and we've created a really loyal clientele.
MH: We've tried to focus on making a place for San Diegans, really listening to the city and what people who work and live here respond to. We never wanted to blow up overnight; we just wanted a quiet, quality place and a classic brand that will remain timeless.
Q: Have you ever thought about expanding?
TM: We've looked at other projects over the years but we've just never been comfortable enough with an opportunity to take the next step.
MH: And there are just so many other things going on in our lives, if we took on something new we would want it to be Starlite-quality and we both know the personal cost that would require. That's not to say that we wouldn't ever do something else, but the stars haven't lined up yet.
Q: How has San Diego's food culture changed since you opened?
TM: I think our food and drink culture is approaching the level of any other big city in the country.
MH: Food and entertainment in a live capacity is something that's never going to go out of style. We both come from a music background and I like to compare what Tim does for local bands at the Casbah to what we do at Starlite to support local farms.
And you can choose your own food adventure here in so many different ways now. In 2007, we didn't really see that but we knew it was coming.
Q: We have to ask; are people still stealing your mule mugs?
MH: We've gotten the psychology of the mule mug thief down so we can spot the behavior that leads up to a theft; we can see when someone's just at that tipping point, alcohol-wise, where they feel comfortable doing something that's totally illegal.
TM: When you see people emptying the mug's contents into another glass or taking it into that bathroom, those are sure warning signs.
MH: The biggest move I've made is to put a branded logo plate on our mugs. At least now when someone's stealing it, they don't get to pretend it's something they've always owned; they'll look at the mug and have to feel guilty that they took it from Starlite.
But I look at it as an advertising opportunity now as opposed to getting so angry about it.
3175 India Street
San Diego, CA 92103