Eclectic Restaurateur nonpareil Arsalun Tafazoli is back in business. As of this summer, the 16 bar and restaurant concepts in his Consortium Holdings empire are once again delivering the “immersive experiences” he passionately obsesses over.
The pandemic was “shocking and jarring — especially shutting down 95 percent of our operations,” says Tafazoli, a UC San Diego alum who lives in downtown’s East Village. One of the hardest blows dealt by COVID was the realization that “suspending operations affected 600 employees whose wellbeing is contingent on this thing we’ve been building for 13 years.”
Consortium Holdings includes, undeniably, the most conversation-worthy restaurants on the San Diego landscape. There’s Raised by Wolves, the opulent bar/bottle shop that elevates the level of cocktail service inside the confines of the Westfield UTC shopping mall.
Both Raised by Wolves and CH’s Noble Experiment, a spooky speakeasy hidden behind a faux wall inside the recently revamped East Village eatery Neighborhood, were recently named to Esquire’s “Best Bars in America” list. Cosmopolitan cocktail lounge Polite Provisions in North Park garnered a James Beard Award nomination for Outstanding Bar Program. And the newest downtown addition to the group, J & Tony’s Discounted Cured Meats & Negroni Warehouse, also snared accolades from Esquire.
You’re not alone if you’re looking at the full name of J & Tony’s and asking, “What the…?” It’s part coffee-driven café, called Invigatorium, serving breakfast and lunch. Modern Times beers are on tap, along with specialty craft cocktails, on the bar side. Tafazoli calls J & Tony’s “a daytime hangout space.” A wide-winged pterodactyl dangles over the café counter, which is also guarded by a glaring red dragon and a bemused-looking T-Rex.
Not everyone is a fan of Tafazoli’s down-the-rabbit-hole décor style. And that’s okay. “Some people aren’t going to get it, and think we’re pretentious hipster scum,” he says. “We’re not in this to appease everybody. And we’re not necessarily trying to get more people into our tent. We are trying to go deeper with the people who are.”
Tafazoli’s endeavors exude a style and voice that’s both idiosyncratic and humanistic. “At our core, we’re trying to create immersive environments that happen to make an emotional connection,” he says. “Life is hard. We’re all trying to figure it out. We all have issues. When you come to our spaces for an hour and a half, though, what we can help you do is forget about your problems for a while.”
Human connectivity issues and problems instigated or magnified by quarantine are in his crosshairs. Tafazoli wants to enable people to socialize again.
For each CH concept, including environment, design, service, background music, cocktails, and food, Tafazoli creates a narrative and a pocket of subculture. Two Underbelly locations (Little Italy and North Park) pay homage to Japanese ramen houses. Little Italy’s Craft & Commerce (which has a Tiki bar-themed speakeasy hidden in a back room, natch) could be described as an industrial literary cabin. Hundreds of classic novels are stacked in bookcases. In consultation with the San Diego Natural History Museum, animal taxidermy is dramatically displayed.
Don’t look for literal explanations. However, there is an admitted double meaning behind the name of upscale Little Italy steakhouse Born and Raised. “We’re definitely focused on filling a cultural void in the city we know and love,” Tafazoli says. “Except for economic reasons, it doesn’t make any sense for us to ever expand outside of San Diego County.” He’s had offers in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but lays it on the line by resolutely saying, “If you see us outside of San Diego County, you’ll know we’ve sold out. We’re homegrown. Born and Raised is a double entendre for that.” It’s too soon to say, but Tafazoli believes Born and Raised (which came with a hefty $6.5 million price tag) could evolve into an iconic spot where locals spend decades celebrating those big, life experience moments.
Next up: CH Projects is designing a Roman trattoria and private members club. They’re slated to open in August on a rooftop of the San Diego-bayside InterContinental Hotel. “What we do in each place is organic,” Tafazoli says. “There are stories we want to tell. You can’t force what we do.”
Also in the hospitality arena, Consortium Holdings recently purchased the historic Lafayette Hotel in North Park for
$25.8 million. It remains to be seen how the boundaries of creativity will be stretched when Tafazoli has a 131-room hotel as canvas for his next signature experience. consortiumholdings.com