Huge ‘eatertainment’ complex Punch Bowl Social debuts in East Village
The 23,500-square-foot two-tiered complex — built inside a long-abandoned boxing gym at 1485 E St. — combines a made-from-scratch restaurant and three bars with eight bowling lanes, karaoke rooms, vintage arcade games, 8-man foosball, bocce, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, darts and table games.
How big is it? Its kitchen is capable of feeding 1,000 people at a time and its compartmentalized design allows the venue to host up to eight private events at one time.
Launched in Denver in 2012 by hospitality veteran Robert Thompson, Punch Bowl Social stands at the forefront of the all-under-one-roof “eatertainment” trend, which began heating up around 2011.
Thompson was named a 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, and Punch Bowl’s honors include being named among Fast Company Magazine’s 2018 Most Innovative Companies in the World, Inc. 5000’s fastest-growing companies in America in 2017 and Nation’s Restaurant News’ 2017 Next 20 Brands to Watch.
The San Diego venue is Punch Bowl’s 14th location, and the fifth to open in the past five months. Nine more are planned. The fast growth has been fueled, in part, by an undisclosed investment last summer by the private equity firm L Catterson Growth Fund.
Punch Bowl’s chief competitors in the eatertainment industry are Lucky Strike and Dave & Busters. All three balance their business between walk-in customers and corporate/special event bookings.
What makes Punch Bowl stand out, and have a 20 percent higher walk-in customer ratio, is its scratch kitchen menu developed by culinary partner Hugh Acheson, a two-time James Beard Award-winning chef and frequent “Top Chef” TV judge.
Thompson said he brought in Acheson two years ago because he didn’t feel the company got enough credit for its quality standards, which include serving sustainably raised, humane-certified meats, locally sourced ingredients and all food made in-house.
“I wanted to find a way to send a big signal to put a spotlight on our culinary standpoint,” Thompson said.
Thompson and Acheson are in San Diego this week for the local launch and say that San Diego is an especially important element of the company’s culinary future.
San Diego diners will be the first to sample Acheson’s newly dubbed “Mex-Tex” modern Mexican menu, which replaces the majority of its former dishes. The plan is to roll out this menu at all locations after San Diego diners have their say.
“Mexican food is becoming our Americana food and it’s also become the new veto food that everybody can agree on when they go out,” said Acheson, a Canadian-born Georgia resident who owns several restaurants in the cities of Atlanta and Athens.
Acheson said the inspiration for his new dishes — which include squash/avocado and chicken tinga tacos, beef brisket enchiladas and Hugh’s chilaquiles — comes from years of working with cooks from Michoacan and Oaxaca, his own Mexican travels and chefs like Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless.
His dishes take Mexican standards items and give them a gourmet twist with unexpected ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, house-pickled onions and jalapenos and house-made crema.
These sort of craft-food details are catnip to the chain’s millennial target customers, who studies show eat out up to five times a week, appreciate artisan “authentic” food and enjoy “experiential” dining, Thompson said.
“They’re the largest demographic in the world today and they’re moving into the highest income bracket as well,” Thompson said. “It’s not just a wave, it’s a mountain coming our way and a lot of the legacy brands don’t now how to pivot into experiential from their old antiquated casual dining models.”
Millennials also drink less than their parents, so Punch Bowl has one of the largest non-alcoholic beverage menus in the restaurant/bar industry. Company bar manager Patrick Williams has created 30 alcohol-free fruit and vegetable juices and soft drinks, shakes, malts and coffee concoctions. He said non-alcoholic beverage sales vary by location but make up 10 to 20 percent of overall bar business.
The alcohol menu features 18 cocktails, many of them made with San Diego-distilled spirits. The menu star is Williams’ signature spiked punches served in old-fashioned punch bowls with a ladle and little glass cups. The draft and canned beers are overwhelmingly San Diego-born brews.
Millennials also love interesting design concepts and the San Diego location was built inside the 1920s-era Coliseum Athletic Club, an old boxing gym where Archie Moore trained in the ’40s.
Elements of the old gym — reconditioned VIP and bleacher seating, boxing bells and stylized ring ropes — can be found throughout the building, which has a wildly eclectic design mix of mountain lodge, Victorian, industrial and mid-century modern elements.
Thompson said he spent three years planning and building the location in East Village, which he chose because he liked its location near the I-5 and the downtown business district as well as the atmosphere of gritty reinvention in the Makers Quarter area.
Punch Bowl Social is hosting a grand-opening party Saturday night. All 700 tickets, priced at $20 each, are sold, with all proceeds benefiting San Diego’s Emilio Nares Foundation, which provides transportation and other services for low-income families facing childhood cancer.