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Aero Club Owner Finds Home For Second Bar In City Heights

The signs for the Red Sea Restaurant and Chinatown Bar and Grill are seen in ...

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Above: The signs for the Red Sea Restaurant and Chinatown Bar and Grill are seen in the foreground while the top of the Tower Bar is visible in the background, May 9, 2018.

The traditional coffee ceremony begins around 2 p.m. at the Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant in San Diego's City Heights community. That's when the wife of owner Shimeles Kibret fries coffee beans in a skillet and circulates the pan to customers, encouraging them to inhale the scent. Then incense is burned, the beans are smashed and coffee flows from a traditional pot.

"Always we do at 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, coffee," Kibret said. "Whoever comes here, they’re going to have fresh coffee, free."

Kibret has been serving traditional Ethiopian cuisine since he acquired Red Sea more than 20 years ago. The eatery is among a cluster of longtime and ethnic businesses near the intersection of University and Euclid avenues. But this month, that commercial corner is changing as a new eclectic bar and grill opens next door, and nearby business owners are welcoming it as an economic opportunity.

Aero Club Owner Finds Home For Second Bar In City Heights

Immediately next door to Kibret stands the newly launched Chinatown Bar and Grill. Owner Bill Lutzius, who also runs the popular whiskey bar Aero Club near the airport, completely rehabilitated the aging building to construct the two-story watering hole that he describes as "a nice, friendly place that you can talk, the music won’t be too loud."

Lutzius said the new pub, which isn't a Chinese restaurant but features Egyptian decor and American food, will enhance the walkability and therefore desirability of the area.

"People will move to this neighborhood because, 'Oh I can walk two blocks and I can get a beer in a nice, quiet bar or I can go to the Tower and you know listen to music,' or whatever," he said, noting the nearby bar and music venue. "I mean, it really is a big part of why a neighborhood, like I say gentrifies or becomes so expensive, you can’t live there anymore.”

However, he said what may be good for business may also carry negative consequences.

"Then if you think that, the neighborhood has improved and changed, but are the same people there? And that’s probably not true," Lutzius said.

But, he said change may be inevitable.

"What do you do? Do you not change? What do you do? Just (say) ‘OK, we’re not going to have any more restaurants, we’re not going to build any more apartments'? You know, what do you do? I don’t know, I don’t know what the answer to that is," Lutzius said.

Lutzius said he may be forced to relocate his primary bar, Aero Club, after the building's new owner put it up for sale at a high price.

Members of the City Heights business community said they're not worried about Chinatown's impact. They're excited.

Enrique Gandarilla, executive director of the City Heights Business Association, said the new establishment is an aesthetic and economic contribution to the community.

"We see businesses coming in and rehabbing old buildings that were falling apart and investing in the community as a positive influence,” Gandarilla said. "I can’t see any negative effects from somebody coming and doing that. We can’t be afraid of someone coming in and fixing up a property and starting a new business."

Mick Rossler, owner of Tower Bar, said the new bar will help draw patrons to the area.

"There's not much bringing people to City Heights, so I think it’s a good thing for the neighborhood," said Rossler, who sits on the City Heights Business Association's board of directors.

Red Sea's Kibret agreed and said he expects Chinatown to bring a boost similar to what he already sees from Rossler's bar.

"All the DJ players — and they have a party sometimes Friday or Monday — they come from New York and everywhere, and they come right here and they have a dinner," Kibret said.

The owner of a popular uptown whiskey bar has launched a new place alongside longtime businesses in the immigrant community.

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