Tuesday, October 12, 2010

From “Universal” to “Eden” in Hillcrest

Gay Caterers Convert Upscale Nightclub to Affordable Restaurant

story and photos by LEO E. LAURENCE

copyright © 2010 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Scott Wagner and construction workers A. J. Neilsen (2 photos) and Tyler Startup

Swinging heavy sledgehammers, workmen recently tore out the pink-painted remnants of the old, failed Universal/Dish bar complex at University and Richmond in the Uptown district.

It will re-open as “Eden,” with the bistro (formerly Ciro’s Pizzeria) opening October 24, the restaurant on October 28 and the bar/dance floor November 24, the day before Thanksgiving. The San Diego Union-Tribune erroneously reported that Eden wasn’t opening until 2011, but it will be open to the public considerably before that. There will be an invitation-only private party for the media and VIP’s on October 26.

“Where vanity was lost, paradise is found!” says the home page of Eden’s Web site, www.edensandiego.com. Illustrating the flair the co-owners, Scott Wagner and David Laurent, are after, the site continues, “Eden will illuminate your soul and stimulate your palette of persuasion with an array of sensory indulgences. This garden of earthly delights is lush with unparalleled landscaping, seductive sounds and state-of-the-art lighting.”

The two young men are seriously renovating the once plastic, pink place into a 15,000 sq. ft. bar/restaurant complex intentionally designed for the Gay community, according to Wagner.

He and Laurent are pumping $600,000 of their own money into the massive project. (The Union-Tribune inaccurately reported $500,000.)

Referencing the dismal history of Universal/Dish — whose owner, James Brennen (a straight man who also owns the three-story Stingaree nightclub downtown), lost a $2 million loan just before it opened — Wagner insisted in an interview, “No loans. No loans. It’s all our money.”

Brennen’s financial troubles may not have been the only reason Universal/Dish failed. “He just took a noisy Gaslamp Quarter bar and plunked it into the middle of Hillcrest,” said one local resident. “He never really understood Hillcrest.” The new owners do.

Wagner, who also owns/operates ChileCo Catering, is an award-winning chef. He was named the city’s best caterer by San Diego Magazine in 2009 and 2010, and by KGTV Channel 10 this year.

He is a king at multi-tasking. While conducting my news interview, he was simultaneously negotiating on his cell phone and giving construction orders to his crew of 10 workmen, many going shirtless as they ripped out the concrete retaining walls of the old Universal.

Expect diversity in the new Eden restaurant with a high-energy, innovative, chef in charge. All entrees will be $19 or less on the menu, yet diverse, “funky” and local.

Top chefs like to know where their food is coming from. Wagner said he will be buying from vendors at the famous Farmer’s Market near the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in Hillcrest on Sundays.

“We’re going to have specialty, theme nights on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday,” Wagner explained. “There will be an all-organic, communal dinner on Monday nights, making it easier to meet people in the neighborhood.

“On Tuesday, we will have a Cajun/Creole menu with soul food and live music. And you just can’t beat $19 for homemade food made with local ingredients,” the chef added.

Total Change

“Just about everything will be different about Eden,” Wagner said. “The only thing that will not change is the land under it. It’s a completely, fresh approach.
The old Universal/Dish complex had pink walls with boa-constrictor skin and peacock feathers. All that tacky décor is being ripped out.

“The lounge will have a comfortable Moroccan feeling,” Wagner revealed. “We’re keeping the de-sign of the bar/dance floor a secret until it opens, however. We will have a large water feature with a projection in back.”

Drinks “will be pretty much the same price as everyone else in Hillcrest ($6). We don’t want to overshoot and pull people away from other places. We want to make sure we match with the Gay community in Hillcrest,” he explained.

Parking Problem

As different as Eden will be from Universal/Dish, it will share one aggravating problem with the previous establishment in the same location: parking. That’s a potentially serious issue for both patrons and nearby residents south of University Avenue.

Wagner estimates up to 500 patrons will be able to get into the new Eden complex. Asked where they’ll park, he said, “It’s like everything else in southern California. Find it.”

But where?

“We’re going to have a valet parking. As an option, we going to rent out space from the post office up there,” Wagner reported.

His PR man, Rob Corea, CEO of SceneOut San Diego, said they may be able to use the nearby DMV parking lots.

Still, residents living nearby are not happy.

“It already takes me about 10 to 20 minutes driving around and around to find a parking spot in this neighborhood,” said Richika Dutta, who lives two blocks away at 1225 Essex Street. “It will go from bad to worse” when Eden opens.

Hours of Operation

After Eden opens and is operating smoothly, breakfast will be served Sundays from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., lunch daily from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and dinner daily from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. The ChileCo Bistro will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.

While the neighborhoods west of I-163 are getting saturated with restaurants, where Eden is located, it’s still an open market for really good food, prepared by a high-end chef.

Community organizations and corporations will be able to rent the facility for private parties, but the patio areas will always be open to the public. On election night, members of the Young Professionals Council will produce a special event for their “Vote Naked” campaign, promoting mail balloting. To get involved, contact Carlos Marquez at the Center, (619) 692-2077 x103.

A plan to encourage voting by offering a free drink to anyone with a “I voted” sticker was killed by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents. Also, California’s anti-corruption law bars giving anyone something of value in exchange for voting — even if they’re not being told to vote a certain way in exchange for the drink or other gift.

Compared with the former Universal/Dish complex, Eden will have a completely fresh approach, including removal of short, retaining walls between the buildings.

James Brenner, former owner of Universal, refused to comment to the media on the resurrection of the nightspot and restaurant by a noted chef.

More information is available on-line at www.edensandiego.com, or at facebook.com/edenhillcrest

Contact writer Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or leopowerhere@msn.com