Restaurants typically aim to get you fed—not make you think. But when you see a no-ketchup manifesto on the menu of a burger joint, or an elegant steakhouse sporting gilt-framed portraits of gangsta rappers, you can’t help but notice something different going on.
Tonics, elixirs and cures and on the menu at the corner drugstore-themed bar Polite Provisions in North Park.
That difference is part of the program for Arsalun Tafazoli ’06, who never expected to become a restaurateur, let alone such a radical one. Like many college students, Tafazoli was once a kid with no idea what to do with his life. As much as he enjoyed Muir College and his political science and philosophy studies, equally interesting to him were the social dynamics he saw play out every night while he worked security in local bars.
“I got to see firsthand the impact of environment on behavior,” he says. “I’d see people I knew and respected completely change. And that’s just what tends to happen in places that create an atmosphere that all too easily leads you down a thoughtless path.”
This was the first of a pair of observations that would ultimately lead Tafazoli to his calling. The second would come halfway around the world, when he took a side trip to Germany while studying abroad. “I went to a beer festival in Munich,” he says, “and three breweries being recognized there as the best in the world were from my hometown of San Diego—I hadn’t even heard of two of them.”
The fact that world-class craft breweries were right in his backyard made Tafazoli consider the social offerings of San Diego, which at the time were predominantly made up of vacuous bars like those he had once known, most of them still oblivious to the area’s burgeoning craft scene.
Tafazoli immersed himself in the local craft beer culture and found richness and complexity—something worth caring about and paying attention to, just as one would the subtleties of wine. Moreover, the culture of craft was the antithesis of what he saw playing out in those bars he’d known before. It was the beginnings of the “intelligent consumption” concept that would become the heart of the restaurant collective that has since become a force in San Diego, Consortium Holdings.
But before there was a collective, there was only that concept, which he pitched to any downtown developer who would take his call. When one of them saw promise but said he needed a business plan, Tafazoli came right back to Geisel Library, checked out every book on the subject and drafted something that held water. With a plan in place, funding was still another story, and so began the search for investors. “By the time I raised the equity, I actually owned very little of what I was killing myself to create,” he says. That would change in 2007 once the doors finally opened on his first project, the downtown gastropub Neighborhood.
“Nobody showed up,” says Tafazoli. “The craft beer culture hadn’t proliferated yet, and nobody really understood what we were trying to do.” His investors urged him to pivot to something more familiar—a sports bar, anything—but local brewers encouraged him to stick with it. “That gave me some strength to carry on,” he says, “and ultimately I took out a bunch of credit cards to buy back the equity from those investors who wanted out.” The pub struggled for eight more months until craft beer started gaining traction, and once it hit the mainstream, Neighborhood was ahead of the curve in giving beer an elevated, yet still approachable experience.
And while it might seem counterintuitive, with his next venture, Tafazoli set his sights smaller. Inspired by the intimate and eclectic craft cocktail bars he visited in Manhattan, he brought a similarly curated experience to San Diego with a small storeroom turned speakeasy—the aptly named Noble Experiment. With just 32 seats, a secret door and an unorthodox reservation process, drinks there are as much earned as they are ordered, and a special respect is paid to the overall experience. “It was about the interaction,” Tafazoli says. “It was about the conversation, and taking a thought-out approach to the product, the design and the narrative.”
The experiment got buzz in food circles throughout the nation and put San Diego on the map for innovative food and drink. It also launched Consortium Holdings proper, and its offbeat series of 13 projects over 11 years, including an homage to the corner drugstore (Polite Provisions), Japanese ramen houses (Underbelly), an ode to dive bars (El Dorado) and classic steakhouse ritz (Born and Raised).
“Every project we do starts with a story,” says Tafazoli. “We look around and think about what we want to see in our city—what kind of stories aren’t being told yet? What kind of communities do we want to try to build, and how will we go about doing that?”
And now it’s the developers calling him—a full 180° from where he started out. But the collective selects future projects discerningly, which makes it all the more significant that Tafazoli’s community- minded ethos will soon return to campus when the former Porter’s Pub becomes the third outpost of his classic America– inspired meatball joint, Soda & Swine.
“When I was at UCSD, it was a good place to go and focus,” he says. “But it was tough—there weren’t many gathering spots, and not so much of a social, college experience. But there’s a shift happening to support that kind of interaction, and such an amazing density of great people—researchers, students—to be a part of that renaissance is a beautiful thing.”