Old Art Deco building to be transformed into upscale eatery

Plans are in the works to transform an aging, Art Deco-style building on a dark and dirty bit of downtown's D Street into an upscale dining establishment with a raw oyster bar.

The brownish-gray structure a half-block west of Coast Highway 101 began life as a grocery store just before the Great Depression hit and wiped out its owner's hopes, and thus the building never really had the golden heyday period that it deserves, its new owners say.

Business partners Christopher Puffer and Brian Malarkey, who run the popular Herb & Wood restaurant in San Diego's Little Italy neighborhood among other restaurant properties, have big plans for their new Encinitas acquisition.

They're proposing to completely overhaul the D Street building, eliminating structural issues such as the sagging spots in the roof and the eyesore elements like the pipes tacked to the exterior walls, while preserving the beautiful Art Deco detailing, including the corner tower feature that faces toward Coast Highway 101.

"We'll do some gold work within the grooves of the Deco and pop light up there, so when you're looking at the building from the corner it'll be like this really cool beacon ... with gold detail," Puffer said recently as he gave a tour.

So far, they've done the interior demolition work, and they hope to "start going pretty much full steam ahead" with the renovation work in a few weeks, Puffer said. The goal is to have what will be known as "Herb & Sea" -- a lighter version of the Herb & Wood establishment with an emphasis on seafood -- open next March or April, Puffer said.

The building sits on a transition zone between the commercial Coast Highway 101 corridor and the residential areas to the west. In order to embark upon the renovation plans, they needed city Planning Commission approval for multiple permits, including a major use permit. At a Sept. 6 meeting, the commissioners voted 3-1, with Chairman Glenn O'Grady opposed and Commissioner Bruce Ehlers absent, to approve the permits.

Commissioner Kevin Doyle called it a "brilliant project" that would bring vibrancy to a dark, dingy stretch of sidewalk, while Commissioner Al Apuzzo noted that there was not one bit of community opposition to the proposal even though downtown's ever-growing number of alcohol-serving establishments has been a huge issue in recent years.

Even O'Grady said he felt like the "Grinch that stole Christmas" by voting no, but said he was doing so because he didn't want restaurant projects creeping into the residential neighborhoods west of Coast Highway.

While collecting information for the city permit process, they have learned some interesting history about the building, Puffer said, mentioning that structure served as a library, a municipal court, a sheriff's substation and a Coast Dispatch newspaper office over the years. There's even what was once a little brick jail on the back side of the structure, and that's where they're planning to put their office, he said, laughing.

County building records indicate the building was constructed in 1928. James Rupe, a "very hardworking, devoted man" who ran a grocery business across the street, bought the property that year and hired Miles Kellogg, the man who built the famed boat-shaped apartments, to create a building for him, according to the "Encinitas History & Heritage" book written by Mac Hartley.

Rupe moved his grocery store into half of his new building and rented out the remainder. Though the building has survived to the present day, Rupe's grocery store didn't last long given the troubled economic times, the book states.

Carolyn Cope of the Encinitas Historical Society said that Rupe was known for his generosity and his willingness to extend grocery store credit to families who were hurting during the Great Depression.

"He was doing what he could to feed people, but no one had any money -- it was too bad he had to close," she said.

She can remember going to the Rupe building in the 1950s when she was a kid to check out library books, and said it became a newspaper office in the 1960s.

"Thank goodness they're not scrapping that building," she said as she talked about other buildings in town that have been demolished.

While longtime Encinitas residents know that the Rupe building was once a library and a newspaper office, people who've moved to town in the last two decades know it as home to Kealani’s Restaurant and Manhattan’s Giant Pizza. Those restaurants lost their leases when the building's ownership changed.

The entity that will replace them will be far more upscale -- an "interactive" space with a raw oyster bar and wood-fired grill.

"I think it's going to be a great draw for the community," Puffer said, adding that he hopes it becomes the kind of place where you want to bring your Prom date, yet families with children can still feel comfortable eating there.

--- Barbara Henry is a freelance reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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