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Small Bar Taps Its Talented Friends

The University Heights pub works with some of its industry regulars to survive, and even better than that
Karen Barnett, owner of Small Bar | Photo: Bruce Glassman

By Troy Johnson

“There were holes in the floors,” says Karen Barnett. “Kitchen equipment was breaking. I’d been struggling for the last couple of years to make money with the place. Pretty soon those repairs started coming out of my pocket.”

Small Bar holds a special, dimly lit place in the hearts of San Diegans. It’s vaguely British without feeling like that friend who studied abroad and came home with an embarrassing accent. The lighting is set to keep secrets. The red altars behind the bar both inspire prayer and question it. The place just feels dark and worn and held together by heart and spit. Barnett and Scot Blair built one of the best craft beer lists in town, which was a no-brainer, since their first project was the craft beer trailblazer Hamilton’s, in South Park.

But after 10 years, building materials, especially ones bought on a DIY budget, tend to tell a sadder tale. Chips grow chippier. Thingies break.

“When Scot and I opened this in 2009, we didn’t have any money,” Barnett says, emphasizing the word “money” as if it were a preposterous thing to expect one to have. “It was a sushi bar and we took $50,000 to flip it, putting in new wood and tables and painting it. Well, turns out we picked really bad materials that weren’t going to last.”

But Small Bar will last the old-fashioned way. A couple of talented regulars volunteered to help out—chef Brad Wise (Trust, Fort Oak) and Frank McGrath, bar manager and partner at craft cocktail den Polite Provisions. Together, the three of them will throw some money at the holes in the floors, give Small Bar a little aesthetic Botox (including a lighter, brighter paint job), and a mainstay of University Heights will refuse to go down without a fight.

This is good news, especially on the heels of this story that worried about our beloved neighborhood joints.

Wise will collaborate with Barnett on the food. Anyone who’s been to his and partner Steven Schwob’s restaurants—Trust, Hundred Proof, Fort Oak—knows he can cook. I’m sure Schwob (a vet of many fancy places, including Addison and Vegas), will help her streamline ops. McGrath will bring a little of that Polite Provisions cocktail magic with a new cocktail menu and a couple punch bowls.

“It’s gonna be nice to have help,” says Barnett. “I can take a breather and not have to make the decisions with no money.”

As for Wise and Schwob’s ever-expanding roster of places, watch out. They’re good. And apparently gave up sleep many Lents ago. They’re evolving into the next booming restaurant group, à la Consortium Holdings.

Small Bar lives; long live Small Bar.

Small Bar, part deux, is expected to reopen next Thursday. 4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights

Small Bar Taps Its Talented Friends

Karen Barnett, owner of Small Bar | Photo: Bruce Glassman

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