The nautical design concept of the Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar stems from San Diego’s international reputation as a leading seaport hub and from the local fishing industry, based in Little Italy, that once made San Diego the tuna capital of the US. Basile Studio worked on the project for more than a year in what is the last industrial space to be re-developed in San Diego’s up and coming Little Italy neighbourhood, dating from the 1920s.
Taking its name from the previous occupants of the building, former wrought-iron gate-makers Ironside Metal Works, the interior’s exposed industrial rafters showcase whitewashed beams and ductwork, and the exterior façade was stripped to expose the original “Ironside Metal Works Salesroom” painted on concrete.
Almost everything inside Ironside was customised and fabricated by Basile himself in his East Village warehouse:
- Piranha Head Art Installation (by Brandon Kihl): Roughly 2,000 faux piranha skeleton heads baring sharp teeth are lined up against the south wall creating a one-of-a-kind focal feature
- A 14-foot-tall arching steel bar trellis scales the walls of the large back-bar. Rows of shelves house neatly organised spirits, and a 10-foot tall rolling steel ladder spans the length of the bar
- Oversized frosted light bulbs are affixed to the iron arms which sprawl overtop the trellis towards the ceiling rafters, evoking the image of giant octopus tentacles
- Five massive steel doors were fabricated with a custom flip mechanism, powered by an electric remote actuator, which turn the doors upward creating a shaded awning above the patio. Via a manual system, 140 gridded 10×15-inch individual glass panel windows also flip up, creating an open-air effect on the bustling India avenue
- Dining room furnishings: copper top riveted tables with ornate cast iron bases are used throughout the dining space while gold-leaf mirror top belly bars with decorative steel legs line the bar area; and vintage boardwalk-inspired sea foam green benches run the span of the interior dining section and bar.
- Throughout the back corridors, glossy walnut paneling with birch inlays mimic the vintage decorative detailing found on Chris Craft boats, circa 1874
- The in-house European-style bakery features an oversized eat-up butcher block counter, which rests atop an elevated wood platform, reminiscent of an old weathered boardwalk and pier. Hand carved birch chopping block bar stools with rounded anodised brass aluminium backs swivel under decorative carved counter legs
- The venue’s open-air kitchen features herringbone subway tiles, a 27-foot counter top and a massive cold-rolled riveted steel and copper hood
- Inspired by an old cast iron fireplace, Basile notes that the copper will age with time creating an entirely different look years down the road
- 15-foot marble countertop located directly behind the open-air kitchen transforms into a 14-seat communal table with mint-green bar seats that swivel and spin, discreetly hovered below the countertop
- Dual plasma-cut custom barstools feature carved birch “butcher block” round tops. The functional side-by-side stools, a Basile trademark, both swivel and spin atop a single steel base while an “Excess Baggage” medallion is welded with custom purse hooks fashioned into the shape of an anchor
In a nod to the nautical, around every corner are design treasures with maritime roots. For example, at the highest point of the south walls, deep shelving niches loom over the dining room, mimicking the cargo hold of a vintage cruise ship, and artfully stacked behind custom fabricated ship railings with brass fixtures, is an array of antique luggage, old trunks, nautical tchotchkes and model ships in glass bottles. The handcrafted back bar showcases rectangular cabinets fabricated to look like boat hatches. The storage niches house the wide selection of spirits, which are enclosed by safety-glass doors and affixed with metal cleats that rotate to “lock” the doors shut in case of rough waters A solid copper replica antique diving helmet (reminiscent of the first scuba diving helmets from the turn of the century) can be found nestled in the glass enclosed raw bar ice bath.
Boat anchor logos of various shapes and sizes are inlayed on the terrazzo-inspired concrete floor, whilst porthole accents are found in various fashions throughout the interior, including affixed to the restroom doors and at the base of custom sconces. A hand-carved wooden octopus oversees the bustling bar, with his tentacles entwined in the iron trellis while twin tusked-walrus’ flank either side of the bar.
As regards lighting in the restaurant, cartoon-like Kraken tentacles burst through porthole windows, wrapping around an oversized globe, fashioning a whimsical sconce showpiece located towards the back of the venue. Antique polished brass kerosene table lamps, like those often found on nautical ships, line the stationary glass-top belly bars and main tables in the main dining area. Hand-painted custom plaster Siren sculptures (by Brandon Kihl) with outstretched arms hold large globe bulbs and are hard wired in the ‘cruise ship’ luggage hold displays, which overlook the dining room, and black subway-tiled columns separate the bar from the main dining room. Overhead, Basile created an intricate globe light installation, reminiscent of a stylish cruise ship ballroom. The lights encircle the columns, hanging from brass chains affixed to massive metal rounds.
Ambient floor lighting shines through inlaid nautical anchor emblems, lighting a pathway through the main dining room, and polished brass table reading lamps line the 40-foot copper top bar.
Some of Basile’s trademark design statements included in the project are: a large-scale red marquee sign reading “SHIT HAPPENS” mounting the ceiling of the bathroom cove; outside the restaurant, the aphorism “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats” stands watch over the exterior façade; and a black, white and red-letter marquee greets guests with a daily oyster pun upon arrival, e.g. “The world is your oyster, it’s up to you to find the pearls”,“Shuck Norris for President”; as well as the daily seafood “catch of the day”. The restaurant has been finished with an 18-foot tall custom living succulent wall flanking the expansive front doors, similar to the living wall at UnderBelly in Little Italy.
Images © Zack Benson / Carissa O’Connor