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High-Profile Chefs Forsake Corporate World to Go Out on Their Own

Ed Moore isn’t a gambler. But with only a few hours remaining before the scheduled opening of his third restaurant, Nick’s at the Pier in Ocean Beach, and no official operating permit in hand, he was cutting it close.

“It was literally 30 minutes ago that we got finalized by the health department,” Moore, 54, said Tuesday as he stood outside the building watching the afternoon sun descend over the Pacific. “It’s taken two years to get this restaurant open.

“It’s no easy job anymore.”

Nick’s at the Pier, which specializes in seafood, salads, pasta and meat dishes, is the largest of Moore’s three eateries, including the 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro in Ocean Beach and Nick’s at the Beach in Pacific Beach.

Estimating that the tab to remodel and open Nick’s at the Pier is $2 million, it is also his most expensive endeavor.

A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Moore’s resume includes the former Gustaf Anders restaurant in La Jolla, Harbor House in Seaport Village and TGI Fridays in Mission Valley where he worked before opening his first establishment, the now-defunct Livingston’s Chicken Kitchen in Ocean Beach in 1985, followed by Thee Bungalow, which he sold to the Cohn Restaurant Group last year.

Steve Zolezzi, executive vice president of the Food & Beverage Association of San Diego, says that Moore typifies a growing number of local chefs and operators who’ve shunned the corporate world to go it on their own.

Whether that makes San Diego, known first and foremost for its beaches, a true dining destination is debatable. Some say it’s on its way.

Others argue it doesn’t have the financial wherewithal of cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco , where folks don’t blink at paying $60 for an entr & #233;e , to make it happen.

But even if it’s just a beach town aspiring to be a dining destination, restaurateurs like Moore are adding culinary flare to local communities such as Ocean Beach, North Park, Hillcrest and beyond, Zolezzi stressed.

“These are people who are very sophisticated,” he said. “They have the credentials and they don’t want to go into the big arenas, the 300-seat restaurants with 100 employees.

“They want to have a bistro like you’d experience in Europe or France or Italy.”

They’ll go it alone or get a partner, but the idea is to have a strong connection to the people and the food they serve. They want to be able to use cottage producers and work closely with farmers.

“They’re here because they don’t want to be anywhere else.”

Moore calls Ocean Beach, where he has lived since 1963, “an absolute melting pot with an amazing amount of refinement and intelligence and the most underrated community in San Diego.”


In The Mold

Another who fits the mold of a community-minded restaurateur, according to Zolezzi, is Jay Porter, who owns the Linkery, which opened two and a half years ago in the Morley Field area of North Park.

An Alameda transplant who describes himself as a former middle-management software architect, Porter, 36, said he left the corporate world with plans to go back to college and study urban planning.

After realizing that wasn’t his true calling either, he decided to become part of North Park’s urban fabric by opening a restaurant that would be “a third place for people to meet outside home and work.”

Such gathering spots have become scarce with “the rise of urban sprawl,” he stressed. The Linkery on 30th Street south of Upas Street specializes in homemade sausages made of cured meats from the pastures of independent farmers far and near.

Beer and wine are also served.

“We recently flew to North Carolina to get a rare breed of pork and put it in an ice chest to bring back,” he said. “And we regularly drive to Vista to get ranch eggs so we can serve eggs from chickens that wander around.”

With seating for 50, the restaurant needs more space, and Porter said he plans to move, but isn’t considering leaving North Park.

North on 30th, Arne Holt, 42, has added a brick oven and plans to redesign his Caffe Calabria to add Vero pizza de Napolitano, or pizza prepared and served Neapolitan style.

He ventured to Naples to learn firsthand how it’s done and his dome-shaped Presidente oven, which replaced a fireplace, came from there. The company is also a wholesaler of coffees.

A native of Seattle, Holt came to San Diego 16 years ago with a war chest of $200 and a $5,000 loan to start a coffee kiosk venture, which is still in operation.

“Hardly anyone knew what espresso or latte was back then,” he said, adding that he waited tables on weekends to keep his enterprise afloat.


Location, Location And Lease Rates

One factor prompting many new independent restaurant owners to locate outside downtown is lease rates.

“When you look at the Gaslamp Quarter, the rents are humongous, and improvement costs are often born by operators, so startup costs are huge,” Zolezzi said. “So what you end up with are much more intense kinds of businesses that have to do high numbers just to break even.”

Porter estimated that restaurant leases in North Park run a fourth to half the rate one would expect to pay in downtown, including the Gaslamp.

While restaurants there seem to open and close at an inordinately fast pace , currently the count is more than 100 , industry sources say the attrition rate is no less than elsewhere in the city.

The trick is in knowing how to manage an operation and cater to the public’s tastes at the same time, Zolezzi said.

“When it gets down to the numbers, it’s not how much business you do, it’s how much you make doing it,” he said.

Ingrid Croce, a Gaslamp pioneer who owns Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar on Fifth Avenue, said that the beauty of the local culinary scene is that people have more unique places to go within individual communities than before.

While the balance in downtown is tipped in favor of tourists and conventioneers, she expects that will change as more locals move into the urban core.

“San Diego is finding its own place,” she said. “It’s finding itself. It’s not easy in any field, music, architecture, or whatever, and fortunately for us, we as restaurateurs don’t have to deal with critics like they do in New York who can make or break you.”

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