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Update: Charcoal House Owner Vows Steakhouse Will Rise Like a Phoenix

Brian Hames says prominent local chain is moving to buy Murray Drive business founded in 1962.

Updated at 6:58 p.m. Thursday.

Brian Hames, owner of the iconic Charcoal House for eight years, says a “prominent operation in San Diego County” will reopen the shuttered steakhouse on Murray Drive west of Grossmont High School.

“A new ownership team is going to buy me out,” Hames said Wednesday afternoon, adding that the new owner, with multiple locations, will keep the restaurant’s name.

“Will the Charcoal House rise again? Like the Phoenix, yes,” he said, but couldn’t say when.

The business has been closed for three weeks in the wake of an eviction triggered by the landowner, Thomas R. Toothaker of Wilton, CT—who Hames said has not visited the operation in four or five years.

“My most important goal is to take care of my employees,” said Hames, 51, an El Cajon resident who played basketball at San Diego State University and attended USC law school before getting his master’s degree in business.

Hames said he had 17 or 18 employees at the time of the restaurant’s closure Aug. 1—including a server/floor manager who had worked there 22 years.

A “hurricane” of economic stresses led to the shutdown, he said, including rising utility costs and business licenses fees, the poor economy and “so many layers of government; it’s brutal.”

Contrary to rumors, Hames said he made rent payments on a weekly basis, including a portion of August’s rent, several in July and “and all of the rent in June.”

“Obviously, I’ve been struggling,” Hames said in phone interview a little before 5 p.m. Thursday. He said he had been negotiating with Toothaker up until July 26 and appeared to have been “on the same page” with the landlord’s attorney when demands changed. But Toothaker “set his jaw and sent me an eviction notice.”

“That’s not enough,” Hames said he was told. “[Toothaker] wants more.” He bemoaned this as “a moving target.”

Hames said he spent more than $12,000 for repairs but was dismayed that Toothaker didn’t deliver on promises for a new roof, for example.

Toothaker, who could not be reached, also charged Hames rent on the assumption that the restaurant was 7,000 square feet, Hames said. But Hames said he learned after three years that the business had 6,300 square feet and Toothaker “was charging me for 700 feet I didn’t have.”

“Ultimately, the landlord has the larger genitalia,” said Hames, who hopes to return as the restaurant’s general manager.  “I’m just a small guy. I’ve spent my life savings.”

Collateral damage was Bill Holman, who doesn’t know why the Charcoal House closed. He just wants his vending machines back.

Holman visited the venerable steakhouse Saturday to stock his pair of three-item, 25-cents-a-handful machines and found the doors locked.

“I come by once a month to clean them up,” said Holman, a 22-year resident of La Mesa. He’s been doing this for four or five years, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity—first for cystic fibrosis research but later for “animal charities” and things like Japanese disaster relief.

Holman said he called the property manager and was told the old-fashioned machines were gone from the half-century old establishment at 9566 Murray Drive known most recently for its karaoke nights.

He said the restaurant east of Anthony’s Fish Grotto “didn’t appear to be in financial distress” during recent visits.

Thursday night, owner Hames said: “I’ll call [Holman] tomorrow” about letting him retrieve his machines.

Today a front window is cracked. An outdoor tile chessboard is chipped and missing squares. The sculpted rock fountain is dry.

A tall glass sat dirty on an outdoor ledge during a reporter’s visit Tuesday afternoon.

Derek Lahti of San Diego and Hames are listed as owners of the Charcoal House in its business license filing at City Hall, with Lahti denoted as manager. But Hames said Lahti resigned 2½ years ago.

Hames and his wife, Becky, were featured in a July 2008 San Diego Union-Tribune column by Ozzie Roberts, which said they bought the restaurant in 2003 “to satisfy a dream of Brian’s.”  But Brian Hames said his wife has never been involved in “day-to-day operations.”

The restaurant was built in 1962, according to real estate records.

A Tom Blair column in the Union-Tribune on Aug. 10 said: “La Mesa’s Charcoal House appears to have died of old age. Once one of the region’s most popular steakhouses, the restaurant is closed after some 50 years. A pair of recent online customer reviews say it all: ‘Popular with the over-50 crowd’ and ‘My husband and I walked in, took one look and walked out.’ ”

Next-door, an employee at La Casa Blanca, a Mexican restaurant, said Tuesday that his customers had told him that the Charcoal House hadn’t paid rent for months.

Oscar Santos, the employee, said he’d also heard that the owner would drink with customers.

 “That’s what they say,” Santos said.

Hames acknowledged that he shared “a libation” with his best customers—as is customary for a restaurant with a bar, but said that after working 16-hour days he deserved the break.

Owner Hames has been the target of a series of civil suits reaching back to 1986, with the most recent—small-claims actions—this summer.

On June 21, an East County court ordered Hames to pay Sysco San Diego Inc. a sum of $1,050. In June 2010, Hames was ordered to pay Seaport Meat Co. $2,427.

Hames said he considered those cases a victory—since both plaintiffs wanted much more money than they got. Hames said he paid them what he owed.

Katie Memmel, a 1998 Grossmont High School graduate and Patch contributor, said via email: “The karaoke nights especially were incredibly jampacked, and there seemed to be several groups of ‘regulars’ that came all the time.”

She said the Charcoal House is pretty well-known in East County—“it’s been there forever, and I think I even tried to sneak into the bar area once in high school. I’d be sad to see it go (as would all those aforementioned groups of regulars).”

In February, a restaurant review of Charcoal House by La Mesan Glenn Grant began: “ ‘The first thing I need to tell you is that we’re all out of filet,’ our waitress said soon after we sat down to order dinner at the . It all went downhill from there.”

Grant said the carpeting had been “uprooted,” exposing concrete floor.

He concluded a headlined “Getting Burned at the Charcoal House”:

Please, Charcoal House management, take this as constructive criticism: A lot of people say they like your place because it hasn’t changed in years. Replace the light bulbs, clean off the menus, buy the freshest provisions, send your chef to a refresher course at a culinary school and train all your servers in the fine art of customer satisfaction. Then roll out your carpeting—any carpeting—and we’d gladly return to experience your glory days all over again.

A comment posted April 23 by Amoreena Barnes said:

Wow. That place has really taken a DIVE!! Back in the day—like 1960s-1980s—my grandmother owned this place. Back then it was one of the finest steakhouses in Southern CA. It received a great review from the Unknown Eater, a restaurant critic who used to work for the Channel 8 News. I remember running around the kitchen when I was little.

My brother, sister and I would sometimes go with my mom to work. We’d hang out in the private room they rented out for special events, (then called “The Mushroom”) eat our lunch, climb up on a bar stool and get Shirley Temples (7up and Grenadine).

The staff were like family and they all knew us. Very talented bunch of people who were excellent at what they did. Grandma used to run a tight ship and everything was clean, the chefs wore professional culinary attire and were masters of their craft, Then bartenders (my dad was the bar tender there for YEARS) wore white button-down shirts, (my dad called them “sissy shirts”) black dress slacks and a tie. The atmosphere was much more formal. Not someplace you’d go in a T-shirt and jeans.

No karaoke, NO concrete floor. Well, it was still under a CLEAN carpet. The food was to die for! … My grandmother sold the restaurant in the late 80s when she became too old to run the place. It’s a shame that a place that holds so many wonderful memories for me has turned into such a dive. I wish you all could have seen The Charcoal House in its heyday.

David W. Harper August 19, 2011 at 10:47 AM
We knew nothing of the behind-the-scenes problems. All we knew was that we dined there about 5 or 6 times a year (including less than 2 months ago), the food was always prepared well and tasted great, the prices were fair, and our servers were, without fail, professional and personable. Yes, we would have preferred more attention to the appearance of the restaurant, but we never felt the place was dirty or unsanitary, just old (much like we are getting). I guess, as we get older, we are more forgiving of surface conditions, and more grateful for what we feel is the inner worth of things. We will miss the chilled veggie tray that started each meal, the perfectly grilled steak, and the little bit of room left in my wallet after paying the bill.
Swimmer John August 19, 2011 at 04:11 PM
If the unnamed new owner is the Cohen family I would almost gaurantee that The Charcoal House will return to past glory, maybe with a revised theme. One only has to look at what has happened with the old Thee Bungelow in Ocean Beach. The Cohen's revived that local landmark as it had been, then revised it to be Beau Bo's with a modified theme. But don't expect it to be inexpensive. La Mesa/Grossmont needs another quality restaurant to compete with the Brigintine and a few of the smaller places around.
Ken Stone August 19, 2011 at 04:57 PM
Hi, all. A comment posted last night was deleted this morning for violating our Terms of Use: http://lamesa.patch.com/terms Another comment was deleted earlier this week for the same reason.
MW August 19, 2011 at 08:15 PM
Wow, what an in depth article. Wish all news reports would be at least half as thorough as yours usually are. This brings up another question. Why does the east county have so few top notch restaurants? Seems like we usually have to go west. Besides the Brig and Savannagh Grill ,any other recommendations?
Lisa S August 19, 2011 at 11:40 PM
MW, I can wholeheartedly recommend Trattoria Tiramisu http://www.tiramisutrattoria.com/ here in the Village of La Mesa. They serve top notch food in a restaurant with beautiful decor and excellent service. I second the Brigantine. We also had the best service EVER at my Mom's birthday dinner at the Brig. Our server was fantastic and we were there early enough for the Early Dinner menu. Can't wait to go back there!
Ken Stone August 20, 2011 at 12:03 AM
La Mesa has MANY great restaurants! Check out some reviews: http://lamesa.patch.com/restaurants
Shirley Johnson August 21, 2011 at 01:47 AM
Also the Junction in El Cajon in the Harvest Ranch Shopping Center . Jamacha Rd across from Outback and CVS. Tuesday nights excellent prime rib $9.95 and Thursday Night Taco Thursday. This restuarant has had new owners for awhile. Great food. No I don't work there but I eat there often. Separate bar from the dining area., nice atmosphere,varied menu.. The Brigintine is a favorite also.
Shirley Johnson August 21, 2011 at 01:52 AM
I do hope they get the Charcoal House up and running. My husband(deceased) and I use to go there quite often. The garlic bread was to die for the food was well prepared also. I miss it. I may return by myself. We enjoyed it very much in the "old" days. Best Wishes on your reopening in the near future. Count me in
Susan Blitz August 24, 2011 at 09:20 PM
My husband and I enjoyed The Charcoal House for many years. It was a cozy place to dine on a chilly winter's eve, and a breath of fresh air during the summer. We often took friends and family. The food, cocktails, and service were all excellent. However, a few years ago the place took a decided downturn. The food became marginal at best and the place seemed unclean. Hopefully someone will restore this east county icon to its former glory.
Shirley Johnson October 01, 2011 at 11:54 PM
I heard again today that as soon as all the legal mumbo jumbo gets worked out. The Charcoal House will rise again.We went there when a lady and partner bought it I guess in the 80's?Food was superb. She was always there overseeing the business. That's what you have to do to have a successful business. You have to oversee your employees, treat them fair, pay them what their worth. Minimum wage doesn't cut it anymore I pay "good money" for The Grove in Alpine, The Brigintine,Lamesa and other good restuarants.& Savannah Grill ,Rancho San Diego. You get what you pay for at these places.. Get with it Charcoal House. We can't wait. You have to have the veggie tray,the same garlic bread and the same salad yummy

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