Ten years ago, San Diego was a city with a lot of potential, but not many great drinks and food options. Though it boasts the nickname “America’s Finest City,” longtime residents Arsalun Tafazoli and Nathan Stanton found that something was missing from California’s southernmost metropolis. So the duo set out to fill what they saw as a cultural void, focusing on restaurants and bars. In 2006, CH Projects debuted with the opening of Neighborhood, a craft beer bar that helped launch San Diego’s gastropub scene and catapulted the city into a new caliber of on-premise chic.
“We wanted to bring a different cultural component to San Diego,” Tafazoli explains. “The general perception of our city was ‘bland’ Diego, but we knew it had the foundation to be great. We think restaurants and bars and small businesses play a huge role in developing culture, around which the identity of a community can be shaped. When we started out, people didn’t care about San Diego and didn’t take our market seriously. But they’ve responded well to our efforts.”
CH Projects—the initials of which stand for Consortium Holdings—launched its first venue nine years ago and now boasts a roster of 12 bars and restaurants, having opened five new locations in 2014. The company puts social interaction first and aims to make its properties communal gathering spots for locals and visitors alike. While the spaces have a chic feel and approachable, upscale menus, they avoid trends and pop culture. Last year, CH Projects’ revenues reached $26 million, with 45 percent of sales coming from the beverage segment. Spirits and beer dominate drinks sales at 55 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
“We provide environments where people can come together and enjoy interacting with each other,” Tafazoli says. “Drinks are the ultimate social lubricant and they’re part of the celebratory, social process. We want to offer people a refined, well-rounded experience.”
Back To Basics
Tafazoli and Stanton launched CH Projects with the goal of bringing a new type of on-premise establishment to San Diego. However, the duo stress that they aim to be timeless rather than trendy. “We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done for years,” Tafazoli says. “We look back and do old things to the best of our ability, even if we interpret them a little differently.”
The business partners recall a trip several years ago to renowned New York City cocktail bar Milk & Honey as the start of their journey. “We were blown away,” Tafazoli recalls. “So we built a relationship with the Milk & Honey team, and they helped us bring that dynamic to San Diego, which was a very one-dimensional city at the time. We’re always trying to push things forward.”
San Diego is lauded today for its support of craft beer, but Tafazoli says that wasn’t the case when Neighborhood opened in 2006. He says beer wasn’t getting the attention it deserved a decade ago, and this scarcity was a big catalyst for the concept. The pub boasts 25 labels on tap, from the locally produced AleSmith San Diego Pale Ale 394 and Green Flash East Village Pilsner to Rodenbach Grand Cru from Belgium ($6 to $8). These offerings join a list of nearly 60 bottled and canned craft beers ($5 to $50) and a lengthy spirits and cocktail menu. Neighborhood’s whisk(e)y list is expansive and emphasizes American products. Along with neat pours, the bar boasts several flights ($6 to $70 a 2-ounce pour; $18 to $22 for four ¾-ounce pours) and whisk(e)y-based draft cocktails ($7 to $10).
CH Projects’ drinks philosophy mirrors its overall operating plan to eschew trends. “Our company drinks compendium is built around the classics,” Tafazoli says. “Cocktails are deemed classics because they’ve been tested over a period of time, and that consistency is what we focus on. We have variations on certain drinks, but they’re all rooted in the classics.” Stanton, a drinks guru, says the company focuses on two cocktail categories—stirred and shaken with citrus. “We learned those from our mentors in New York City, and they’ve been really strong for us,” he adds.
El Dorado Cocktail Lounge, Noble Experiment, Polite Provisions and Fairweather all put a heavy emphasis on mixed drinks. Named after a term for Prohibition, the speakeasy-style Noble Experiment launched in 2010 and is located behind a secret door inside Neighborhood. The intimate bar boasts an upscale cocktail program that highlights pre-Prohibition spirits in drinks like The Joy League ($12), made with Beefeater London dry gin, Dolin Blanc vermouth, Cointreau triple sec liqueur and Pernod absinthe, and A Call to Arms ($12), blending Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch whisky, pineapple and house-made falernum.
El Dorado opened in 2008 and features a menu of classic and signature cocktails ($9). The bar offers an Old Fashioned that’s made with Henry McKenna Kentucky Straight Bourbon and a Beefeater-based Tom Collins alongside drinks like the Ghost Ride the Flip, mixing Matusalem Silver rum, Green Chartreuse liqueur, vanilla, egg and cream, and the Smoking Jacket, comprising Del Maguey Vida San Luis del Rio mezcal, Carpano Bianco vermouth and house-made falernum. El Dorado also boasts varied beer and whisk(e)y lists.
Described as the Disneyland of cocktail bars, Polite Provisions has an old-school vibe and boasts a selection of roughly 30 spirits-heavy cocktails, beer- and Champagne-based mixed drinks, and punches (cocktails are $8 to $10; punch bowls are $32). Standouts include the Ocean Side, made with Beefeater, Scrappy’s Celery bitters, lime juice, mint and sea salt; the Mr. Brownstone, a draft cocktail comprising Jameson Irish whiskey, Angostura bitters, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel–Aged bitters, and house-made spiced cinnamon soda; and the Hawaiian Sophie, a blend of Flor de Caña Extra Lite 4-year-old rum, Gran Classico Bitter liqueur, Lindemans Framboise lambic, lemon juice and house-made grenadine. Polite Provisions also has bustling draft beer and wine lists and an impressive whisk(e)y menu.
CH Projects is driven by passion. “There’s a renaissance happening in the spirits world and a resurgence of categories that haven’t been taken seriously for a long time, such as rum and mezcal,” Tafazoli says. “Our venues are ingrained in who we are. This business consumes our existence. You can see the amount of effort and work we put into our bars and restaurants, and we constantly challenge ourselves to do new things. While we strive to provide different experiences at all of our places, you’ll see our core values throughout.”
CH Projects puts great thought into crafting clever but accessible beverage menus, and that same effort goes into its food offerings at many of the company’s outlets. The dining concepts are very focused: Craft & Commerce is a gastropub with upscale bar fare, UnderBelly is a Japanese ramen haven, Soda & Swine serves meatballs and apple pie, Rare Form honors delicatessens of all backgrounds, and Ironside Fish & Oyster offers seafood and a large raw bar.
“We’ve created simple but well-conceived food components,” Tafazoli explains. “We focus more on technique than on having an expansive menu, and we try to make sure our cocktails and drinks are equal to our food in quality.” Stanton adds that matching the caliber of drinks and food is crucial. “We want them to complement each other,” he says. “We strive for that balance.”
Craft & Commerce’s menu includes everything from bacon-enhanced “Cracker Jacks” to roasted bone marrow, as well as fried chicken, mac and cheese, fish tacos, and smoked ribs (entrées are $11 to $16). The cocktail list offers drinks under the headings “Shaken & Refreshing” and “Stirred & Direct,” with concoctions like the Peruvian Rose, mixing Barsol pisco, Cocchi Americano Rosa aperitif, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur and lemon, and the Pinewood Derby, comprising St. George Terroir gin, Cocchi Americano, The Bitter Truth Hopped Grapefruit bitters and honey (all cocktails are $11).
For a completely different experience, UnderBelly—which boasts two locations in San Diego—emphasizes Japanese ramen served with a variety of toppings, including brisket, mushrooms or smoked bacon ($8 to $12). Craft beer shines, with selections available from 24 tap handles ($5.50 to $7.50). Meanwhile, Rare Form bridges the gap between bar and deli, offering a menu of all-day breakfasts and meat-centric sandwiches ($7 to $12), as well as signature cocktails ($8 to $10) and draft beer and wine ($6 to $10). Located above Rare Form, the rooftop bar Fairweather is the company’s ode to the beach. The venue offers Mai Tais, Mojitos, Daiquiris and punches, as well as signature drinks like the Blue Ricardo, made with a blend of Flor de Caña Extra Lite rum, Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica rum and Santa Teresa Claro rum, house-made blue Curaçao, house-made coconut and passion fruit syrups, and lemon juice (cocktails are $10 to $20).
“We do some quirky things to create conversation,” Tafazoli says. “We never saw ourselves going beyond a single venue, but people have responded well. We’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to grow.” The company has evolved with its growth, especially in the drinks business. From an initial focus on beer, CH Projects now features a varied craft cocktail program and a roster of wines on tap that includes labels by Cultivar Wine in Napa Valley and The Hobo Wine Co. in Santa Rosa, California. “Back when Neighborhood opened, we didn’t think beer was getting enough attention,” Tafazoli says. “We’ve really tried to explore beer and spirits, and now we’re focusing more on kegged wines. We’re shifting all of our wine programs to tap pours.”
Most of CH Projects’ 12 venues are located in San Diego’s East Village. Tafazoli and Stanton initially picked that part of the city because it was more affordable, and as their business has grown, so has the neighborhood. “We couldn’t afford to be in Downtown San Diego, so we went east,” Tafazoli explains. “We’ve pioneered the change in that neighborhood, and it’s very different now compared to 10 years ago. We’ve focused on developing the community, and we’re recognizable now because we’ve thrived in that small geographic area. We’ve formed a culture because our places are in close proximity to each other.”
Stanton adds that the diversity of the company’s concepts and consumer demographic have helped too. “You can visit several of our locations in one evening,” he says. “You can have a drink at one spot, an appetizer at another, and then dinner and an after-dinner drink somewhere else because all of our venues are located within a 5-mile radius.”
As CH Projects nears its 10-year anniversary, the company boasts 300 employees and is building its first corporate headquarters, which Stanton says will also feature a test lab for food and drinks. The creation of a home base will aid in communication and business infrastructure. “We never thought we’d be the size we are now, so our focus for this year is to grow into ourselves a little bit,” Tafazoli says, adding that he and Stanton are committed to the San Diego market. “Staying in one community and not getting ahead of ourselves has made us effective. San Diego is where we’re from and where we live—it’s what we know. We’re here to stay.”