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Easy To Fathom

How the Shelter Island suds and sausage shack has survived—and thrived—for the past decade
Courtesy of Dennis Borlek
Fathom Bistro

Fathom Bistro

Courtesy of Dennis Borlek

I haven’t picked up a fishing pole since I was 12-years-old, and I probably haven’t caught an actual fish since long before that. Despite my reluctance to skewer live worms for bait, one of my favorite places to hang out just happens to be a small fishing pier on San Diego Bay facing Coronado’s North Island.

For a decade, Fathom Bistro, Bait & Tackle has tapped some of the most iconic craft beers ever made, served thousands of the “World Famous Fathom Explodo Dog” (a bacon-wrapped, mustard and cheese-smothered, kimchi-loaded Vienna Beef hot dog), and sold bait and tackle to fishermen lining the pier in hopes of catching “the big one.”

“I’ve seen seven-foot sharks get pulled out,” says Fathom owner Dennis Borlek. “I’ve seen probably 25-pound halibut, and there are big bat rays. There’s quite a variety of fish that make their way through.”

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fathom-bistro-sdm0822.JPG

Courtesy of Dennis Borlek

As a veteran of San Diego’s craft beer industry, Borlek did time at a number of iconic beer businesses across town, including the legendary Liar’s Club in Mission Beach, Hamilton’s Tavern, and Small Bar. But it was during a walk with his dog in 2012 that led him to opening his own establishment. He’d been eyeing a few larger locations in the area, but when he spotted the shuttered building on the edge of the Shelter Island pier, he called the number hanging in the window to find out more.

“They were kind of trying not to show it to me,” Borlek laughs, saying the landlords already had several proposals for the space. Nevertheless, he persisted, and got to peek inside the building on a Tuesday.

He was immediately smitten with its potential. “I left, went straight to a bookstore, bought two books on writing business proposals, and wrote a business proposal. I got it to them on Thursday. Two weeks later, I got a letter back saying I had the most unique idea for an underutilized port space and they wanted to meet with me.”

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Courtesy of Dennis Borlek

Borlek’s pitch explained that as a native San Diegan, he wanted to give back to the town and industry he loved so much. “I wanted to build something that locals would feel they weren’t being ripped off at tourist prices, and if tourists found us, they would think ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we just found this place, this is so great.’”

The lease was his by May 2012, and Fathom officially opened its doors on Groundhog Day, February 2, 2013. “I didn’t even have a sign up for the first eight months,” he recalls. “I wanted it to just go under-the-radar and have people discover it from word-of-mouth.”

His longtime hospitality experience, as well as homebrewing history, gave Borlek an edge when it came to that low-key approach, especially when he decided to forgo convention, or what others might call common sense. “Every bar owner or restaurant owner has their own reasoning for what they choose to put on tap. Perhaps picking what sells best is the best way to do it, I don’t know. That’s not that way I do it,” he laughs heartily. “Otherwise, I’d have 14 IPAs on tap instead of three.”

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Courtesy of Dennis Borlek

Instead, Fathom’s 20 taps are filled with classic styles, like ambers, brown ales, or Belgian beers. Many are made in San Diego, but he’s happy to bring in beers from Europe and beyond as well. “Some people get a little miffed at me if they tried a good new kid on the block and they want to get their beer on tap,” says Borlek. “Bring me some samples of something that isn’t a hazy IPA. Let me see that you can make classic beer first before you start painting like Picasso.”

Borlek’s bet on classic beers and sausages proved to be a winning combination, mixing familial history, local lore, and personal interests into one tiny, unique restaurant and bar.

The homages never end: When his father retired from the Navy, he immediately opened a Chicago-style hot dog stand. He goes on to recall bumper stickers on port trucks in the 1980s that read “The Hawaiian Island you can drive to—Shelter Island,” fueling his desire to “keep up the corniness” of Shelter Island with a smile and a wink. He even incorporated his love of science fiction and comic books into the decor, adding vintage dive gear and other scuba paraphernalia to the walls.

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fathom-bistro-interior-sdm.JPG

Courtesy of Dennis Borlek

Fathom’s 10-year tenure remains proof that despite the state of beer bars remaining under threat, it’s still possible to flourish. However, success isn’t something he takes lightly, especially after the pandemic threatened to decimate the two foundations of Borlek’s business: tourism and hospitality.

“We survived,” he says with a note of relief. “A whole lot didn’t… we were just very lucky.” He hopes that good fortune continues. “I want to keep doing this until I physically can no longer do it. It brings me immense joy… every day I park my car, look out, and count my lucky stars I get to come here for work every day. I’d like to see it for another 10, 20 years.”

Fathom’s 10-year anniversary celebrations kick off in February, starting with an “unofficial” group trip to Catalina Island for a weekend of festivities. On-site events will be announced over the next few months, but Borlek promises plenty of beer specials and merch. Follow Fathom on Facebook for more information, or simply scoot down to Shelter Island to find out firsthand. I recommend going during brunch for beer, biscuits and gravy, and hey, maybe even some fishing.

By Beth Demmon

Beth Demmon is an award-winning writer and podcaster whose work regularly appears in national outlets and San Diego Magazine. Her first book, The Beer Lover's Guide to Cider, is now available. Find out more on bethdemmon.com.

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