A Quarter Century of Restlessness

Approaching our 25th anniversary, I am prompted to look back on the numerous landmarks that have helped define our operation over the past quarter century. When I reflect back on the early days of our existence, the driving force was survival. Fear, debt, cash flow and a 24/7 work mentality were the philosophical basis for our day-to-day operations. In 1984, the food and wine culture in San Diego was in its infancy and our culinary point of view was elementary, to put it mildly. I recall a particularly eye-opening trip to visit a new restaurant in Los Angeles called Spago, recently opened by a young chef named Wolfgang Puck who had revolutionary ideas about local products and casual yet sophisticated food. Wolf's restaurant set the bar considerably higher than we had ever anticipated for George's. It is difficult to imagine that for our first seven or eight years, every entrée came with a salad and was served from enormous trays with plates covered by stainless steel covers. Modest beginnings indeed.

In 1984, a week before the restaurant was scheduled to open for business, an old friend came by the restaurant to assess construction progress, and for some obscure reason we ended up on the roof of the building drinking large quantities of wine. I said grandly to my friend, “One day I'm going to put another restaurant on this roof, the view is incredible.” Fast forward to 1991 and in June of that year we christened the Ocean Terrace, a casual dining alternative to the “upscale” dining room downstairs. Never mind that we designed the kitchen before we designed the menu, causing major problems that lasted years. I will never forget that one week before the Terrace opened, the chef at that time suffered a back injury and was not able to fully engage in the opening trials and tribulations. Needless to say, persistence won out over a degree of incompetence and the Terrace today is one of San Diego's iconic dining venues.

The year is now 1999 and my chef for the past 15 years was headed out the door. It was time to hire our second chef, so I found a headhunter and hoped for the best. Her first recommendation was a young man working at Robert Redford's Sundance property, who had just been named as one of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Top Ten Chefs.” I flew out to Utah and sequestered myself for the weekend in the resort, meeting clandestinely with Trey in my cabin. After many hours of intense conversation, Trey agreed to come out to San Diego the next weekend to visit the restaurant with his wife Ximena, a fiery Chilean, who warned me that I had better not “screw her husband” or I would have to deal directly with her. Our final evening together, Trey agreed to join our team. Unfortunately, as soon as he announced his decision to his boss at Sundance, promises for Trey's future at Sundance began to expand dramatically, and I found myself in a tug-of-war with Robert Redford. As we all know, this story has a happy ending and Trey has just celebrated his 10th anniversary with George's as a twenty-five percent owner of the business. I can say unequivocally that Trey's talent and dedication have been the major reasons for our success this past decade.

In the summer of 2005, my partners and I traveled to Las Vegas to see what was going on in that market. During that trip, we had a revelation of sorts. The restaurant operators in Vegas were investing enormous amounts of capital to differentiate and upgrade their concepts. We realized at that point in our development that we needed to think about the next 20 years of our existence and to begin to redefine what we were conceptually. From those discussions came the largest project we had ever attempted. Within an 18-month timetable we signed a new 20-year lease and committed to remodeling and repositioning every level of the restaurant. The result of our $3.7 million investment was a brand new concept, California Modern, a facelift of George’s Bar, and finally, a total remodel of the Ocean Terrace, including a brand new kitchen and the creation of the most spectacular ocean-view bar in California. I think these ambitious undertakings highlight our commitment to constantly challenge ourselves to improve the George's experience.

So, why are we still around in 2009 after 25 years of turmoil and change?

I credit much of our success to a creative restlessness that drives our business every year. We do not define ourselves by what is happening in San Diego; rather we still make annual visits to the top dining cities in the world in order to gain perspective on how we stand in the international restaurant hierarchy. Our travels have taken us to England, France, Spain and Italy, as well as New York (annually at least), Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Napa. We visit the American wine regions at least twice a year and have met with vintners in France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile. At the beginning of every year, the partners gather at a destination out of town and spend three days breaking down every aspect of our business to analyze what we need to do next to remain at the top of our game. Anything that is going to improve us as a restaurant is open for discussion, no matter how crazy or expensive in either effort or money. We do not concern ourselves with democracy; we lay it out on the table no matter how sensitive the subject.

Even after 25 long years, I would say that we all still share a burning pride in our chosen profession that drives us to constantly redefine excellence at George's at the Cove. Our constant need to learn, improve and change continues to drive our operation, from the people to the product to the environment.