Midtown’s timelessly cool Starlite, a foundational member of the Eater 38 and a pioneering bar and restaurant that helped to propel the craft cocktail scene in San Diego, turns 15 this year and is throwing itself a quinceañera on September 17 and 18, with a family-style taco feast and dance party on Saturday night and an art show and pop-up market on Sunday afternoon.
This weekend’s celebrations come after an acutely painful year for the India Street restaurant, which was founded in 2007 by a group that included Casbah owner Tim Mays, musician Steve Poltz, and local filmmaker and director Matt Hoyt. In August 2021, having successfully guided the restaurant through the depths of the pandemic, Hoyt passed away after battling a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
Hoyt, who oversaw day-to-day operations for much of Starlite’s run, left big shoes to fill, and former employees, friends, and family gathered to pitch in and rally around its staff, led by director of operations Jack Reynolds and Hoyt’s wife Allison Bell Hoyt, who stepped into a management role in the aftermath of her husband’s passing.
Though its popularity has endured and the space is still fully-booked most nights, Bell Hoyt recently made the difficult decision to sell Starlite, seeking out new proprietors who she could entrust to keep Matt’s vision for the restaurant intact and help ensure its longevity.
While Mays and Bell Hoyt will continue to be ambassadors for the restaurant, as of early October the building and business will be under the stewardship of CH Projects, the group behind high-profile venues like Noble Experiment, Born & Raised, and Ironside. CH Projects co-founder Arsalun Tafazoli was a huge fan of Hoyt’s and of Starlite, which opened the same year as Neighborhood, Tafazoli’s first spot in the East Village. Although his group is best known for brand new, custom-designed spaces, Tafazoli tells Eater he’s also interested in preserving and maintaining the legacy of San Diego’s classic establishments, like the group’s ongoing restoration of the historic Lafayette Hotel in North Park and now, Starlite.
He says Starlite will run as is until March 2023, when it’ll close for a month-long, bigger-budget refresh by its original design team, Bells & Whistles (Jeune et Jolie, Animae); foundational elements such as the iconic entryway and sunken bar will remain, but other areas, like the upstairs back patio, will get a big redo.
Tafazoli promises to retain Starlite signatures like the burger and the mule, but the offerings will be updated with a vintage steakhouse vibe under chef Ted Smith (Lion’s Share, Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant), who previously worked with the group at Born & Raised. They’re also talking to former Starlite chefs and reviewing menus from years past as they develop new dishes. Interim chef Greg Talamantes will stay on as sous chef and Reynolds will continue in his position.
“There’s something unique and special about Starlite and I wanted that soul to remain intact,” said Bell Hoyt regarding why she chose Tafazoli and CH Projects to see Starlite into the future. “I’m grateful for our team who showed up every day this year to keep our doors open through the worst tragedy a business could go through. And I’m grateful that Starlite will have a bright future ahead.”