West Coast Tavern operates on a simple motto: keep it simple but inventive
Owner David Cohen works tirelessly and listens intently to customers’ desires
By Donna Marganella
How to become a stand-out in the burgeoning restaurant scene? In a community as quirky and diverse as North Park, with new eateries opening on every block, it’s getting harder and harder to do.
But at West Coast Tavern, being distinctive comes with the territory. The recently reopened restaurant/bar is nestled in a one-of-a-kind location within what was the original lobby of the Birch North Park Theatre.
“We’ve really got a unique situation here,” says owner David Cohen. “We’re in a beautifully restored, classic old theater, a space that’s loaded with history and is situated right in the heart of North Park.” The 730-seat theater, originally opened in 1928, is now a revitalized entertainment destination that hosts a variety of musical programs and is home to the San Diego Lyric Opera.
Cohen, the majority owner, purchased the restaurant (originally called Hawthorn’s) in 2007. “I ran it under that name for about a year and a half with the intent to revamp the place,” says Cohen. For this reinvention, Cohen partnered with Matt Gordon of Urban Solace fame and members of the Verant Group who own and operate True North as well as several other San Diego venues. The goal was a new format that suited their target audience: 25- to 35-year-old professionals who are likely past the “dive bar” stage, in search of a more upscale experience when going out.
“I knew immediately that Hawthorn’s existing layout didn’t work for what I wanted to do,” Cohen says of the original open kitchen concept. “And I also knew that I wanted to lower the menu price point to better suit the neighborhood.” Still, Cohen operated the place “as is” to see what worked and what didn’t.
Cohn gives rave reviews to all the partners who participating in this process with him. “Their experience has been a great help to me and it still is. Whenever I have questions about operational issues or if I just need to bounce some ideas and explore the options, these guys have my back. It really helps the decision-making process.” Cohen enjoys the camaraderie of this group whose members, he says are, “very community oriented and supportive of all new businesses in North Park.”
The collaboration with executive chef Matt Gordon has been particularly enjoyable. “Matt is a very inventive chef,” Cohen says. “And he’s open to collaborating, listening to your ideas and suggestions and just ready to try anything.”
Menu development started with a conversation about “food moments,” including favorite dishes from childhood, college days and memorable vacation meals. Then Gordon worked his magic by “spinning it,” as Cohen says.
“Matt is brilliant at adding the twist that makes the dish modern, so you have the familiar reference, but he’s made it new by changing something in an inventive way.” Further, says Cohen, Gordon is also very respectful when it comes to food sources, striving to procure the freshest ingredients from local vendors whenever possible. “Even if ingredients cost 10 percent more,” Cohen says, “you can trust Matt to do the right thing, to focus on quality and sustainable sources.”
To satisfy San Diego diners, simplicity has to be a key part of the mix, according to Cohen. “It’s kind of a tricky balance,” he says. “San Diegans like simplicity. I think that’s one aspect of the city itself that we all appreciate and it’s the same with food. It’s got to be good but that doesn’t mean it has to be complicated. Inventive but uncomplicated, and the best ingredients you can afford based on your price points.”
Cohen cites some items that illustrate this “creative basics” approach to the menu, such as the fried PB&J sandwich on the weekend brunch menu. Other food favorites include the chicken and waffles, lamb sliders, butter leaf blue salad and the miso-glazed salmon. “Our lamb sliders are just one example of what works,” he says. “They’re one of most popular menu items. It’s a twist on the usual beef slider but then you have to use top-notch ingredients: the best lamb, fresh garlic, and good quality cheese.”
Because the menu has been developed using the tapas concept — a something-for-everyone variety of small plates that can be shared — West Coast Tavern has been keeping the eclectic bar-hopping crowd happy, especially during happy hour. The budget-friendly food and drink menu ($3 well cocktails, beer, and wine with select menu items for $5) goes from 4 to 7 p.m. every day and is currently getting rave online reviews from sites such as Yelp.
It’s all a part of Cohen’s recipe for success. “Give customers the atmosphere and food that they want and it’s bound to resonate, keep them coming back.” Cohen initially spent time talking to patrons, asking what they wanted. He also spoke to staff members, who are also part of the demographic, but more importantly hear what customers like and don’t like. For Cohen, that listening component is key.
“We strive to give people what they want,” says Cohen. “And I keep a constant eye on that, stay open to what’s happening and what’s working and what isn’t.” It’s one element of the restaurant business that Cohen enjoys. “This is not a static business,” he says. “Restaurants have to keep changing and I love the challenge of that. You need to stay dynamic and be able to change pretty quickly. That’s what keeps a successful restaurant successful.”
The inventive yet familiar food concept fits the West Coast Tavern space perfectly, a modernized repurposed space within an historic frame. The exposed brick wall behind the front bar is complimented by bare bulb drop lights that look to be from the days when light bulbs were invented, but are newly created for the space. “It’s designed to seem new, hip and functional without wiping the slate clean,” Cohen says. Many original details, restored and buffed up to perfection, remain, and Cohen and crew have added elements that don’t intrude on that. The ceiling above the interior bar at the back of the restaurant area is a perfect example of this approach where simple, barely-visible lighting fixtures illuminate the one-of-a-kind, original ceiling.
The two circular booths centered within the restaurant have a definite retro appeal but they’re on movable tracks and can be reconfigured to accommodate large parties. The light boxes on both walls of this space echo the look of movie theater posters. They’re filled with modern art but use the actual wooden frames from the theater lobby, another original brought back to life. The bar height tables that dot the remaining restaurant/bar space are intended to facilitate mingling and flow.
“The theater connection is another thing that makes us unique,” says Cohen. “We do want to capitalize on that a bit more going forward with tie-in events and programming that promotes more diversity through featured events and musical performances.”
Proximity to the theater is a bonus for patrons wanting to enjoy a drink or bite before a performance. The after-theater crowd is also in luck as West Coast Tavern is open and serving food until midnight every night. “Food past 10 p.m. can be hard to find some nights,” says Cohen. “We can fill that need with drinks or a little something to eat before you go.” To patrons still in full party mode, live music and/or DJs are featured on the weekends to entertain late crowds.
Cohen, who is on the board of North Park Main Street, a business improvement district, praises the other local business people who make up the BID for the community’s vibrant growth. “It’s a very supportive and seasoned group of professionals who really have the best interests of the locals at heart.” He cites the “neighborhood-centric approach” as key to the successful transformation of North Park. By comparison, he says, the Gaslamp Quarter has much more tourist-based approach to local business support.
Cohen’s recipe for ongoing success involves “not getting too far ahead of myself” with West Coast Tavern. But based on all the activity in North Park and the still growing restaurant scene, Cohen is optimistic. In fact, he’s already got a couple of other locations on his radar screen, spaces that appeal to him as venues for his next concept. Still, he’s being careful, content at present with the challenges of being “always busy” running his restaurant.
But it’s obviously something Cohen enjoys. “That’s part of the fun of it,” he says. “It’s constantly changing and every day is different. You can never get bored running a restaurant.”
That’s not going to change anytime soon. More North Park excitement is in the wings as the restored Birch North Park Theatre marquee will be hoisted back into place in about six weeks. The return of the landmark sign will be a major event and celebration at West Coast Tavern.
“It’s going to be great to see that marquee go up,” Cohen says. “It’s another step for this building and this whole neighborhood, a community that has really come back to live and is thriving again.”
West Coast Tavern
2895 University Ave.
San Diego, CA 92104
Modern convenience in a one-of-a-kind historical setting in the heart of vibrant North Park, West Coast Tavern’s eclectic tapas-style menu is designed to satisfy discriminating foodies and casual bar hoppers alike. Daily happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. features $3 well drink, draft beer and house wine with select menu items for $5 each.