The power of the people was on dramatic display Tuesday afternoon as dozens of supporters of the East Beach Grill convinced the Santa Barbara City Council to give the 33-year-old restaurant a better chance for revival when its lease runs out next year and its Cabrillo Pavilion Bathhouse home is closed soon after for renovation.
Outdated and uncharmingly shabby, the bathhouse is scheduled for a massive and lengthy $12 million makeover that will preserve much of the outside aesthetic but redo most of the interior, including its upstairs event space and offices, as well as its downstairs gym, bathrooms, and restaurant. Work is expected to begin early 2018. East Beach Grill owner Francisco Aguilera, who also runs Char West and the ice cream parlor on Stearns Wharf, petitioned City Hall to give him first crack at resecuring a lease when the bathhouse reopens. He asked for six months of exclusive negotiating rights before the city solicits proposals from other restaurant operators.
Parks and Recreation director Jill Zachary and her staff recommended against Aguilera’s request, saying all bids should be considered at the same time. Zachary said Parks and Rec will be looking for a tenant who can provide a more expanded food service than the one currently offered by East Beach Grill, a casual breakfast and lunch joint open five days a week. The new restaurant will operate seven days a week, serve dinner, and be able to invest around $500,000 in new kitchen and dining equipment. Zachary said the upgraded eatery will generate much-needed revenue for her department, which was recently forced to cut public youth and sports programs. An open bidding process would allow City Hall to better gauge the market, get a fresh look at new ideas, and be more objective in its selection, said Zachary. She stressed Aguilera’s overall good standing as a city tenant and never said he wouldn’t be up to the task.
A long line of loyal customers and friends took turns asking the council to consider more than City Hall’s bottom line. They talked about Aguilera’s deep Santa Barbara roots, his ascension from dishwasher to restaurant owner, his commitment to his employees, and how the East Beach Grill is a beloved destination for Junior Lifeguards, triathlon participants, morning walkers, and passersby looking for a quick and inexpensive bite. Keep it local, and keep it authentic, they said.
Swayed by the outpouring, the council in a 6-1 vote agreed to let Aguilera have 120 days of one-on-one negotiations before other proposals are taken. “Your turnout made the difference,” Mayor Helene Schneider told the crowd.