Sometimes it seems like once any café gets too big for its boots in the Gaslamp, it gets ejected and has to start again out in some suburban wilderness, just because it won't — or can't — pay the rent that the downtown landlords think their success justifies.
802 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
(No longer in business.)
Case in point: Croce's is being levered out of the space it has held for, what? Nearly 30 years? New Year's Eve is their last night downtown. Reason? Follow the money. There was also the issue of thumpa-thumpa-thumpa coming up through the floorboards of the club the landlord let in below, which sure didn't help Croce's musicians and diners.
So now Croce's has sounded the retreat and is regrouping on Bankers Hill (Croce's Park West, 2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill, 619-232-4338 x14), still serving food, making music, and keeping alive the memory of owner singer Jim Croce (think "Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown"), owner Ingrid Croce's first husband.
Jim died in a plane crash in 1973. One week before that, he and Ingrid had discovered the Gaslamp, and together they had the idea of creating a bar/eatery/live music venue right there to revive the gone-to-seed Gaslamp-Stingaree district.
"I vividly remember...we stopped on the corner of Fifth and F... looking for a place to eat and a club where we could listen to live music," Ingrid writes on Croce's website. "We were disappointed to find only tattoo parlors, ladies of the night, and people begging for change."
A week later Jim was dead, killed in a small-plane crash in Louisiana.
Fast-forward twelve years. Ingrid returned, and created basically the first live-music eatery downtown. Croce's was an important anchor for much of what became the Gaslamp.
A few blocks down at Fourth and Market, in 1991, a Jordanian Palestinian named Bassam Shamma opened what he claimed was "the first real coffee house in California." It sure felt like a real Euro coffee shop. Sold Gauloises French cigarettes, wine, exotic teas and way-good coffees. Maybe more than anyone, Bassam created an eco-system for the New Settlers of downtown. He made downtown cool.
3088 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
Did success spoil Rock Hudson? You betcha. Around fifteen years later, Bassam's new landlord thought he ought to get a bigger percentage of Café Bassam's profits. Bassam had to move. Up to...Bankers Hill (3088 Fifth Avenue, 619-557-0173). The new place is cool, but, well, the area is residential, doctorland. Why would you be up here?
Even so, Bassam brought everything up with him: the ancient rifles, cigars, model schooners, the baby grand piano, a thousand nicknacks and a hide-away feeling that's great for studying and having intimate conversations in. And customers followed.
Me too. Last week it was just for a $5 glass of port and a bowl of olives and bread ($8). It's a nice way to put a space-bar in the day, at the slat tables outside, as the sun slides across the Park, a block over.
But you've got to go up there. And even when you've settled in, got your port, nibbled an olive, you wish this was back in the Gaslamp. You miss the bustle, and even the hustle around you down there.
You have to ask: At what point does one landlord's profits trump the happiness that a place like Bassam's or Croce's creates for thousands in an area like the Gaslamp?
With the forced retreat from downtown of successful and beloved places like Bassam's (back in '07?) and this week Croce's, you realize that okay, the landlords may be getting richer, but the Gaslamp is definitely the poorer.
Last night at Croce's downtown: Tuesday, December 31 (New Year's Eve). Official opening of Croce's Park West: Sunday, January 19, but "soft" opening starts Monday, January 6.