Located on the fishing pier at Shelter Island, Fathom Bistro Bait & Tackle is unique. Not only can you choose a craft beer from a well-curated list of twenty taps and get a tasty meal, but you can also purchase fishing tackle, frozen bait, and rent a fishing rod to boot! Kayak rentals will be available soon, too. Fathom is arguably the most picturesque craft beer bar location in the city, with unencumbered views of San Diego’s bay and the city in the distance to the east, the Naval Base Coronado to the southeast, and to the west, Point Loma.
The publican and owner is Dennis Borlek, a San Diego native who has witnessed the local craft beer scene grow up firsthand. I sat down with Dennis recently to talk about Fathom and all things San Diego craft beer.
How were you able to secure this awesome location for a craft beer bar?
“I was actively looking to open a place in Point Loma… I was walking down the pier with my girlfriend and noticed that the bait shop was closed. I thought that it was really weird for it to be closed on a Saturday. Then my girlfriend saw the ‘for lease’ sign in the window and we thought how great it would be to work down there. I called the number and it was the Port Authority; I made an appointment to see it on the Tuesday (the deadline for proposals was the following Friday). When they opened the door (which was papered up) and I saw the window that looks out onto the submarine base, I thought that this was meant to be.”
Borlek’s late father (also Dennis) had been a corpsman in the Navy and then a submariner. Dennis Jr. was born at Naval Hospital Balboa Park and has been scuba diving since he was twelve years old. For a time, Dennis also dove professionally, doing underwater boat maintenance and repair, and some search and recovery work. The interior of the bar reflects a nautical theme — not your cliched nets and buoys, but rather old diving and some Navy paraphernalia, accompanied by a wall with old sci-fi movie posters depicting nautical themes. As part of Dennis’ lease with the Port Authority, he had to keep the bait and tackle shop open, which he was more than happy to do. The bait shop re-opened after a remodel in May of 2012, and the bar was opened in February of 2013.
You have worked at a number of bars and craft beer bars in San Diego before opening Fathom. Tell us a little bit about those times.
“I poured beers at Megalopolis (Fairmount and El Cajon) and then later on at the Boiler Room (now Antique Row cafe) on Adams Avenue in 2001. I also worked at the Liars’ Club for about a year and a half until I went full time with school. Then when Hamiltons Tavern opened up in South Park in 2006 about seven blocks from where I lived, I went in a few times and was eventually offered a bartender shift. I thought that I could do one shift a week and still work at the hospital full time. Hamiltons was not yet fully known at this time; sometimes only 15 people came through the entire evening… but then word got out and it started to pick up. One shift turned into two shifts, which turned into four shifts. Eventually, I thought, ‘Okay, let’s have our midlife crisis right now, I think I’ve done enough nursing. I’m going to do this bar managing thing instead.’
Borlek is a qualified LVN — Licensed Vocational Nurse — and was working at Grossmont Hospital in the radiology department. Working with and for Scot Blair, Hamiltons’ proprietor, was a non-stop event for Dennis. He went on to help Blair with the design and buildout of Small Bar, as well as Eleven, the relatively short-lived craft beer bar and live music venue on El Cajon Boulevard. Borlek was pretty much on call twenty four hours a day, which became a little grueling. While they were in the process of opening Monkey Paw, the East Village brewpub, Borlek woke up one morning and decided it was time to go and do something on his own.
You had a front row seat to the inaugural brew (and many subsequent ones) of one Vinnie Cilurzo, of Blind Pig and currently Russian River Brewing Co fame, perhaps one of the most celebrated brewers of the U.S. craft beer revolution. How did that come about?
“I met Vinnie in 1989 through his older sister, Chenin, who was at the time my roommate. I was working at Off The Record near SDSU and so was Chenin, who was studying at SDSU. She got sick of living in the dorms and moved in with me and my roommate, the late Steve Foth. When Chenin got the opportunity to do a semester abroad, Vinnie asked his parents if he could take over Chenin’s room. He was taking some college courses and working part time at a hotel in Mission Valley. After work, Vinnie would come home late and we’d watch Carson and then Letterman while drinking wine that Vinnie would get from his parents’ winery, Cilurzo Family Vineyards in Temecula.
“One night, the conversation randomly turned to making beer… so we went to Beer and Wine Crafts in La Mesa and bought a five-gallon kit with liquid malt extract. The owner Owen Eckblom told us, ‘You kids just want to make rocket fuel!’ We also bought a copy of Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. It just changed our lives right away; we were so jazzed about how it seemed so easy to make beer. It’s a blank canvas! You could be punk rock about it and use any ingredients you wanted, and if it went bad it’s still beer. I don’t think we ever made a batch we didn’t drink, even though it may not have been the best beer.
“With carboys from the Cilurzo Family Vineyards, we converted our laundry room into a brewery. We built shelves for the carboys and brewed beer almost every night for months; the two hundred gallon homebrew legal limit (per family per year) was probably met within six months, and all our friends loved us! Vinnie really got into the book and started to do all-grain brewing; he was into the science of the temperatures, and brewing became his passion.”
You always have an interesting tap list (20 taps). How do you curate your beers?
“I think I pick my lineup very personally. My rule to have beers on tap here: I have to have been drunk with the owner of the brewery or the brewer; I have to spend time drinking with them to know who they are, know what their story is, and decide if we have similar ideas of how the world works, and if we do then I’m your partner. I don’t just pick breweries because they are the new kids on the block. I only have 20 taps and I care about each one of them. Unlike other places where you will find twelve IPAs on tap, I don’t have that kind of thing; I need a wide variety beers as we have visitors from all over. We are definitely a destination location and I’m pleased with how it turned out. We have a really good cross-section of people in the industry who come down here, both the food and beer industries, and a lot of beer nerds (and I mean that in a nice way). We also have a lot of tourists. I’m currently revamping our bottle list to have a Belgian focus.”
You brought up the food industry… although you have a small kitchen and relatively small menu, you and your staff seem to take pride in the quality of product you serve.
“Everything is done in-house. We make four sausages and we grind our own meat. We do two pork sausages (a rustic Italian and a beer wurst in which we use a witbeer) and two chicken sausages (a chicken basil sun-dried tomato, and a chicken pot pie sausage). We’ve also got our homemade kimchi, and on weekends from 10:00 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. we do an ‘Island-style’ brunch.”
Do you have another favorite beer town to travel to?
“I love the Bay Area, absolutely love the Bay Area. When I was a kid, my dad’s Navy boat spent a year in the shipyards of San Francisco. He had good taste and would bring cases of Anchor Steam and Anchor Porter back when he came home on certain weekends. You’ll still find Anchor Porter and Anchor Liberty Ale in regular rotation in my fridge at home.”
Brewery satellite tasting rooms are proliferating in San Diego. Your thoughts, please…
“I won’t carry beer from anyone that has a satellite tasting room unless they are brewing at the location, or it is also a restaurant. Those satellites stopped being what they were supposed to be… if you are opening a bar and calling it a ‘tasting room’ then you’ve become my competition. I don’t despise breweries for opening the satellite tasting rooms — I understand the idea behind it — I just think that as a customer you don’t care one way or the other; you just want to go get a beer somewhere. But as a business owner, it makes it really hard for me to compete when their cost on a keg is half of what they are charging me.”
If you are not drinking at Fathom, where in SD do you go? Where’s your “local”?
“The ‘uncool’ answer to that is The Station or The Whistle Stop because they are part 1 next to my house, and part 2 though they have limited taps, they do a really good job of curating their tap list. I also will go to Tribute and get dinner and then walk over to North Park Beer Co — Kelsey has always made great beers and he’s the nicest person, and it’s a beautiful room. I also enjoy going to Fall and Societe because they’re just comfortable places where I bump into people I know.”
If you weren’t running a craft beer bar, you’d be…?
“A lot fatter! Actually I would probably be diving again and doing underwater boat maintenance and repair, and some search and recovery.”
Lastly, complete the following thought: 150+ brewhouses in San Diego County and…?
“Twelve of them are great! And I won’t say which 12!”
The Tap List on the day I visited:
Ballast Point — Fathom IPA
Sierra Nevada — Hoptimum Triple IPA
Russian River — Blind Pig IPA
Brouwerij Van Steenberge — Klokke Roeland
Karl Strauss — Windansea Wheat
Newtopia Cyder — Chai Me A River
Maui — Land of Rainbows Farmhouse Saison
Bear Republic — Tartare Blond Ale
Russian River — Damnation Belgian Golden Ale
AleSmith — Nut Brown Ale
Burning Beard — Roggen the Lightning
Sierra Nevada — Pale Ale
Societe — The Pupil IPA
Fall — Plenty for All Pilsner
Sierra Nevada — Narwhal Imperial Stout
Coronado Brewing — Mermaid Red
Coronado Brewing — Orange Ave Wit
Societe — The Harlot Belgian-Style Pale Ale
Societe — The Widow Dark Belgian Strong Ale
Avery — White Rascal Belgian-Style Wit