In one of the most unusual restaurant openings in its 39-year history, Cohn Restaurant Group switched out the awnings and name of its Carmel Valley restaurant on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 7, instantly turning the former Westroot Tavern into the new Pacific Social restaurant and bar.
But the changes at the 5,100-square-foot restaurant in the Village at Pacific Highlands Ranch center were far more than cosmetic. Over the past five months, San Diego’s Cohn Restaurant Group has been working behind the scenes to gradually transform the eatery’s theme, look, menu and bar environment as it prepared for its big reveal last weekend.
Since it took over the lease on the struggling Westroot Tavern in early June, the Cohn group has brought in a new chef team, listened to staff and customers about what the shopping center was missing and slowly remodeled and redecorated the property by closing it down just one day a week, on Mondays.
Usually when the Cohn Group takes over a property, it closes the venue for several months of remodeling. But because the former operator, The Verant Group, wanted to make the deal quickly last summer, and June was the high season, Cohn opted for a nontraditional slow rollout.
What was once a masculine, dark-walled, beer-focused sports bar and gastropub is now a vividly colorful “social hub” eatery with a new American menu, a specialty of fresh-baked pies, a dog-friendly patio, an upstairs video arcade for children and a colorful, art-filled interior with a more broad appeal to men, women, families and social media-loving millennials.
David Cohn — who co-founded the 28-restaurant company with his wife, Lesley, in 1981 — said restaurants in suburban areas need to cast a wider net because diners there eat differently than diners in urban areas. They don’t eat out as often, particularly on weeknights, and they’re looking for a neighborhood restaurant that appeals to all ages and genders.
“We found we wanted to be everything to everyone,” Cohn said. “I believe that in more suburban areas we need to broad cast, not narrow cast.”
L.A.-based designer Lauren Borisoff transformed every surface in the 200-seat indoor-outdoor restaurant at 6025 Village Way. The concrete floor was covered with hard wood planks and the walls were brightened up with white paint, framed artwork and bold graphics, tile art, wallpaper, wood paneling and neon art designed to encourage selfie-taking. The upstairs terrace, formerly a private dining room, now has $100,000 state-of-the-art video games. The space also has seating options for large parties and solo diners and quieter patio areas.
Although the restaurant still has walls of TV screens for watching football games and other sports, the TV volume is turned off and many of the monitors have been framed to soften their hard edges. Cohn said he made the decision to silence the games because the loud volume drove away families and small groups seeking quiet conversations. Sports fans weren’t happy with the change, but Cohn said the sports bar concept was a proven failure so something new and more inviting was needed.
The restaurant’s new co-executive chefs are Doug Dellaccio and Daniel Wolinsky, who both formerly worked for Tracy Borkum’s Urban Kitchen Group, which includes Cucina Urbana, Cucina Enoteca and Cucina Sorella.
They developed 32 menu items that include some personal favorites, like a family matzo ball soup recipe; some Cohn standards, like the famed Brussels sprouts from Cohn’s Bo Beau locations; and new takes on Westroot Tavern dishes that were customer favorites, like the vegan green curry bowl, fish & chips and chicken tenders. Prices start at $10 for appetizers, range from $15 to $20 for sandwiches platters and top out at $23 for entrees like pan-seared salmon and lobster truffle mac. The bar still offers 30 beers on draft, but now offers a broader mix of spritzes, froses, wines, cocktails and mocktails. Lunch and dinner are served, as well as a weekend brunch menu.
The restaurant’s new signature product is 6-inch shareable pies, baked fresh daily in-house, including s’mores, coconut cream, triple berry, apple and other varieties. Cohn said diners today are eating fewer individual desserts, but feel less guilt eating shareable portions. Plus the pies inspire Americana nostalgia and have been a hit with diners of all ages during sampling over the past few weeks.
Many restaurants in the Pacific Highlands Ranch center have struggled since the center opened four years ago. The fast-growing area has hundreds of new homes, two schools and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space coming online soon. But Cohn said some of the restaurants that opened three years ago, like Westroot Tavern, couldn’t hang on long enough for those office workers and homeowners to materialize.
“There’s a lot happening here very soon,” Cohn said. “We may have come in a year too early ourselves, but we’re optimistic about the area.”
IF YOU GO:
Pacific Social, Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
6025 Village Way, San Diego. pacsocialsd.com
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune