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Restaurants, Shops Learning to Play the Petco Game

While Petco Park has been a catalyst for change in East Village , helping to transform an area once dominated by old warehouses, tattoo parlors and shabby rooming houses into one that boasts sleek new condo towers, modern hotels, restaurants and boutiques , not all of downtown’s businesses, particularly some higher-end eateries, made hay off the baseball crowd. Not to start with, anyway.

During the Padres’ first couple of seasons at Petco, restaurateurs griped that traffic jams and scarcity of parking kept diners away during home games, and some shop owners echoed their complaint.

Although more parking has come on line for the Padres’ fourth season at Petco, which starts April 6, game-goers still show a preference for hot dogs and beer. But some high-end restaurants are learning to play ball.

“There are good and bad things when it gets to the ballpark,” said Carl Essert, general manager of the Palm Restaurant. That thousands of people walk by the Sixth Avenue establishment on their way to each season’s 81 home games is a plus.

“Some come in to have a high-end dinner, but the majority come by for a quick cocktail or quick bite at the bar before going to the ballpark,” he said.

The bad news is that the streets empty out like a ghost town during the games. So the trick, he stressed, is to capitalize on the opportunity to market the Palm to passers-by.


Default Business Welcome

“They’re in the neighborhood, so we have to get them in the door, and we do by default, as the sports bars are packed to the gills,” Essert added. “But instead of the beer and shot crowd, we’re trying to attract clientele that wants a better drink, so we’ll offer a martini special.

“Then I’ll make an announcement that a (baseball game) ticket stub will get them a free appetizer when they come back, and we’ll try to generate some after-game business.”

Ed Nesfield, director of catering and conference services at the posh Hotel Solamar, said that while its rooftop J Bar was and remains popular with fans on game days, the street-level J Six Restaurant is less so.

“We opened in April 2005, and that summer was very good,” Nesfield said. “We were the new kid on the block and people flocked to us. They’d stop by the bar before and after the games, and the restaurant gained some people, but the main thrust was the bar.”

By “learning the habits of the game day crowd,” Nesfield said the Solamar has attracted more diners with specials, such as a three-course meal for $30, less than the restaurant’s average price of $38 to $40.

Yet J Six also derives a fair amount of business from those who go to the bar before or after a game and return on a later date to dine.

“The comments we hear are, ‘I came to the bar before a game and I noticed the restaurant, and decided to come back,’ ” Nesfield said.

Dussini Mediterranean Bistro, close to the ballpark on Fifth Avenue, has taken a different tack. Instead of lowering the price of regular menu items, the restaurant added hot dogs , Big City Reds and Portuguese Linguica , for $5, including Kettle Chips, said General Manager Carrie Richards.

At the start of last year’s baseball season, Dussini barbecued the hot dogs on its sidewalk patio, where fans could buy them on the fly.

That was until the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s redevelopment agency, put the kibosh on patio barbecuing, and the dogs were taken inside.

They’ll be available again this season, Richards said, adding that they may be consumed on-site, or as a to-go item.


Park It Or Lose It

Alex Thao, chief executive officer of the Celadon Group, which opened Rama, an upscale Thai restaurant on Fourth Avenue, about the same time that Petco Park opened, said downtown business owners expected San Diegans to follow the mode of baseball fans in San Francisco and New York City.

“When you go to San Francisco and New York, people come straight from work and head to the game and eat at nice restaurants,” Thao said. “Here they go for a beer at a pub or eat at the game and go home. The games here aren’t an affair like they are in New York or San Francisco, and I don’t think they ever will be.”

He said Rama’s business suffered during home games for the first two seasons. Rather than lower his menu or drink prices, however, he started offering valet parking, and business stabilized.

“It made a big difference,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a boon, but now the games aren’t cutting into business.”


No Shortage Of Traffic

Bubbles Boutique, a retail clothier on Fifth Avenue, has seen a slight increase in business on game days, said owner Gayleen Nichols.

“The upside to the ballpark is it brings a lot of people downtown who don’t ordinarily come downtown, so this is exposure we’d otherwise not have gotten,” Nichols said. “Several times customers say they came by after a game and happened to look in the window (after the store closed for the day) and then came back.”

She said it stays open later on weekend game nights. For fans who happen in on their way to Petco Park, offering to hold their purchases until the game is done is a welcome convenience.

“The ballpark is a positive,” she said. “The bigger problem we have is the street closures for events. That really hurts our business.”

Jenna Fasack, owner of the Lucky Dog Pet Boutique on Market Street, said that the baseball season has had a negligible effect on her business.

“We staff fewer people on those days and we take advantage by catching up on other stuff because it’s quiet and we expect that,” she said.

Nonetheless, her store, which opened four and a half years ago in 500 square feet and now occupies 1,500 square feet, has grown, which she attributes partly to the growth and development in the Gaslamp Quarter and East Village.

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