It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when craft-beer had not yet been embraced by the majority of San Diego restaurants. But there were early-adopters who got it and got with the program. They essentially helped build the program to what it is today. Some folded; too early to the party and unable to make ends meet. But there are a handful of those visionary spots still around, and they are to be cherished. Sadly, San Diego is about to lose one of its longest supporters of the artisanal beer movement. Downtown Johnny Brown’s (1220 Third Avenue, Downtown) will officially close its doors after tomorrow’s service.
A longtime fixture within the Civic Center Plaza, this one-story oasis among skyscraper City admin buildings, the San Diego Concourse and Civic Theater, Downtown Johnny Brown’s has been in operation since 1987. Just under three years ago, it was taken over by Sean Cole, who was kind enough to shed light on the reasons for this unfortunate turn of events. The lease on the restaurant space is up for renewal. As part of that process, the City of San Diego (the owner and landlord) utilized a request-for-proposal (RFP) process in its search for interested tenants.
Typically, existing tenants have the advantage in these situations so long as they are in good standing with the City, which Cole attests he is. That leg-up coincides with the landlord’s expectation that tenant improvements be made to meet standards and requirements. In preparation to submit a proposal in response to the RFP, Cole did his due diligence, analyzing the many modernizations that would need to be made to get the venue up-to-code in conjunction with an updated remodel. It was something that was already at the forefront of his concerns after being served with an ADA lawsuit for an improvement. Downtown Johnny Brown’s was actually exempt from the code-violation due to its pre-1992 structure status, but Cole’s attorneys determined it would be cheaper to settle out of court.
Without the many updates needed to comply with current ADA standards, Cole decided he would essentially be a sitting-duck for future, similar lawsuits. An example of how extensive the improvements that need to be made is the hallway leading to the restrooms, which would need to be widened a few inches. That would require Cole to move a main wall as well as the electrical, plumbing and ventilation within the wall. And because the updates were so costly, he voluntarily backed away, choosing to shutter the business.
Cole is disappointed to be the last overseer of Downtown Johnny Brown’s, but wants to “stay classy to the end as we San Diegans do.” To that end, he’s working to line up a band for tomorrow’s finale and empty out the many kegs of top-tier beer he has stockpiled for the many epic events the bar-and-resto have held over the years. It was a good run and one veterans of the local craft-beer scene surely won’t forget.