Note: For the first photos in the known universe of the places by awesome photographer James Tran, scroll to the bottom. To get deep into the existential angst of a restaurant owner, read the following interview with founder Arsalun Tafazoli.
“Economically, it’s a completely irrational move,” says Arsalun Tafazoli. “We actually shrunk it.”
He gutted Neighborhood, where it all started. He spent far too much money on a softcore carpet from Paris. One that, now installed, he partially loathes and takes full responsibility and any potential shame for. Tafazoli takes risks, and openly self-ridicules when they don’t pan out. This East Village restaurant already had a speakeasy behind a fake wall of fake kegs. So they built a second speakeasy even deeper into the guts of the building. It’s a running joke that his company, Consortium Holdings, will eventually connect Oceanside to San Ysidro through a series of secret cocktail rooms. Dante, burrowing more and more rings into his cocktail inferno.
He didn’t need to do this. Neighborhood was a perfectly viable, profitable restaurant. But viability and profitability, while important, are not how Consortium Holdings became a thrill factory for San Diego’s modest food and drinks world. Love them or groan at them—Consortium tends to elicit both reactions—no one who’s paying attention can call them boring.
“We are fortunate that our community has supported us and allowed us to grow, so now we can do things like this because of that support,” he says. “We should be held accountable for that. I felt like, ‘Man, is Neighborhood really doing something special anymore? And luckily we were self-aware to say, ‘It’s not.’ And if it’s not, then what are we doing? There’s an existential angst when it comes to creative pursuits, whether that’s in music, design, architecture, or our world. The work usually doesn’t get better as you go. This is our attempt to get better.”
So the new Neighborhood, the new Noble Experiment (the original speakeasy, often rightly credited as the catalyst for San Diego's craft cocktail movement), and the all-new, not-so-secret cocktail bar Youngblood are the manifestations of that existential tossing and turning.
Pretty wild when you think about what Neighborhood has spawned since opening in 2007. This little craft beer burger bar. The one with the oil painting of a masticating Jesus. The one that poked the bear of public ire by refusing to serve ketchup. The one Tafazoli opened a credit card for at Sears in a desperate effort to finance its early survival. Consortium is now a fairly massive organization that’s brought the city Born & Raised, Craft & Commerce, Soda & Swine, Ironside, False Idol, Morning Glory, Raised by Wolves, The Invigatorium, J & Tony’s Discounted Cured Meats and Negronis Warehouse, El Dorado, Fortunate Son, Underbelly, and Polite Provisions. They just bought the Lafayette Hotel in North Park and will soon launch a new kind of private social club called The Reading Club (the group has long had a reading group for their employees).
Consortium’s success, at least partially, was their bucking of the system. Tafazoli felt that Neighborhood no longer bucked. So Youngblood is the new idea, their most recent risk. It’s a prix-fixe-only cocktail den, the first of its kind in San Diego, whose launch is being overseen by Consortium’s cocktail man, Anthony Schmidt, and nationally respected cocktail man Sam Ross (Milk & Honey, Attaboy)—and it only has 16 seats.
“We don’t want to be the Orson Welles of the cocktail thing, where our early stuff was our best work,” Tafazoil says. “Can we still contribute? Do we still have something to say? That’s going to be up to our guests to decide. But Youngblood is what we have to say. It could still suck. But we wanted to take all those excuses out of it and see what we can do. We have to continually push forward. Ideally, everybody should be trying to one-up each other. That’s what makes great culture in any city.”
For him, Consortium’s success is its own problem.
“It’s the punk-rock paradox,” he says. “As you get acknowledgment for your work and it resonates with people, inevitably you can’t be punk and successful. You have less to be angry about. The credibility is in the grind and the struggle; credibility is reserved for the young and the hungry. We’re insecure about that, and that anxiety propels us forward.”
Still, killing your darlings is an emotional process.
“The best and worst years of my life were spent on that block,” he says. “Gutting Neighborhood was emotional in terms of sentimental value. Back then, we didn’t know anything. We were really passionate about creating a home for weirdos like ourselves. But we were terrible at operations. We just had a vision and crammed it down people’s throats without much grace or style. So all of this is just us saying, ‘Okay, after everything we’ve done, how can we do something that honors the past and carries us into the future?’”
Part of that was spending over $2 million to shrink Neighborhood—from 68 seats to less than 30—to make it more personal, intimate, meaningful. Consortium has plenty of max-capacity restaurants. For the overhaul, they brought on Home Studios, who designed Curtis Stone’s LA restaurant, Gwen.
“When I walked into Gwen, I thought, ‘These guys have a really interesting aesthetic,’” Tafazoli says. “You walk into most places now and you know all the moves—the DIY industrial decor that was once really inspiring became a commodity. Eventually, Neighborhood felt like every place I saw and it felt less special to me. Now it’s one of the more developed spaces we’ve ever done. I think it’s pretty special and I’m sure it’s going to alienate people. It feels idiosyncratic and a reflection of real humans having something to say, which elicits a reaction where people either love it or say, ‘Screw these guys.’”
They invested a ton in the sound of Neighborhood. One of the partners of Home designs recording studios. So the new Neighborhood is acoustically engineered down to the square inch, and they’ll play quintessential vinyl albums in their entirety, front to back. The artwork is a celebration of Southern California’s punk scene, including a classic photo of Harry Shearer’s chest hair.
As for that carpet?
“I fell in love with it at the shop in Paris,” he says. “Then when we got it here I realized, ‘Oh, god, we’re going to get so much crap for this. We’re going to get obliterated.’ Americans’ relationship to sexuality is much different than the French. One of the nice things about being polarizing and having a huge contingent of haters, though, is that we’re groomed for this.”
Neighborhood, Noble Experiment, and Youngblood open today, April 19.