Lush Life: A Dining Oasis (and Happy Hour Destination) for Botany Buffs

Photo by Ryan Benoit

“It started raining one day, and a guy came over to sit at the bar. I pushed one of the potted plants over and said, ‘Here, everyone needs a drinking buddy,’ ” our bartender Danny tells us right before he whips up a nicely balanced Aviation for our health.

Clearly, the Patio is an eatery for — and by — people who love horticulture: in their food, in their drinks, on the tables and crawling up the walls. Lined with sentries of papyrus on the outside, this bar/resto is a luxuriant departure from the grungy beach dives and microdorms that dominate its Pacific Beach surroundings. It also nurtures a grand, ancient pine at its rear facade, and houses a vertical garden that’s raucous with tropicals (from bright coleus to perky foxtail ferns) in the dining room.

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From left, Danny serves up a kumquat mint julep, a Paper Airplane, and an Aviation.

You can’t help feeling like you’ve wandered into a gracious home that’s been taken over by the jungle, à la One Hundred Years of Solitude. The hanging basket planters, mirrors, fireplace and the half-roofless interior add to the feeling.

“I wanted it to feel like you were entering an island environment, like Hawaii,” says the owner, Gina Champion-Cain, who opened the Patio last November. “I wanted the most lush, beautiful plants available, and to open a true neighborhood eatery in this old beach community of San Diego — a cool, hip place that was still comfortable and laidback.”

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Exec chef John Medall’s thoughtful menu includes small plates of Spanish octopus and braised short rib, pancetta and oyster mushroom rigatoni, and inventive flatbreads. And the drinks? Stiff and creative, as exemplified by the Best of Times (gin, Aperol, St. Germain and grapefruit juice) and the Hemingway daiquiri-inspired Papa Doble. Several are half off during happy hour. Needless to say, this is Our Kinda Place.

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For brunch, we had a blackened fish sandwich and a delicious granola-crusted, fruit-filled French toast.

Many of the Patio’s showstopping features are the work of San Diego design firm Tecture, which designed and built the facades (in collaboration with Oo-d-a Studio), the living wall, the bars, the formwork and all the tables. We caught up with David Michael, one of the principals at Tecture, to get the scoop on all greenery. And he delivered, explaining his plant placement strategies and why city dwellers could use some more leaves in their lives. His answers were so great we’re running them as a Q&A! Enjoy…

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TH: So, you set out to design and populate a vertical garden. What were your considerations?

DM: One, the wall faces northwest, so it will get direct sun in the summer months while not receiving any in the winter. Two, the owner, Gina Champion-Cain, asked us to create an interior that would be enjoyable all year round and would make people feel as if they were in a secluded garden. And three, we were told by Gina’s decorator, Beatriz Arrues of Urbane Boheme, that she did not want succulent plants in the wall, while showing us images of very ornate tropical walls, which, if not done well in our climate, can oftentimes fail.

With these parameters, we decided to create a highly varied wall, including sun-loving plants near the top that would [provide] larger coverage for the shade plants located in the interior and near the bottom. As this was planted at the beginning of winter, the plan was that by the time summer made its way around, the wall would fill in and be ready for the stresses of the sun. As we were not using succulents, we decided that the best method, for cost savings and soil health, was to utilize the plant pocket wall system. With this, we were able to provide more soil per plant, allowing us to bring in plants that would not normally survive in a shallow soil base. We also brought in a friend and plant expert Jason Bennink, who has studied organic sustainable crop production, soil and water science, and the horticultural sciences to help us make the most proper plant choices and to help us in the installation of the particular plants.

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TH: What plants are in the wall? 

DM: The wall has foxtail ferns, which were sought after for coverage and their ability to nest in with other plants — but we wanted to give it a wide array of colors.

Several of the [other] plants have been blooming [lately], which gives the wall a continual change in coloring year round. Other plants of note, some for durability and others for aesthetic properties, are ficus, coleus, several ferns like maidenshair, and a couple ivy plants to join the pockets — though they have to be checked often so they don’t overgrow. [Also], several pothos plants, and some cryptocereus fan and zigzag plants, which are technically cactus plants, but are perfect for the wall.

TH: What was your overarching vision for the interior and exterior of the Patio?

DM: I believe all the heads that were in on the design had a slightly different picture on the end result. But when we met with Gina, the idea [was] that it should be a unique space in not just Pacific Beach, but in San Diego, which would blur the lines between interior and exterior dining. Working through the design with the general contractor Dominique Houriette of Oo-d-a Studio, we aimed to create a private dining experience that guided one into a space that embraced the San Diego climate — while providing some playful and casual elegance to your time here.

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The decor, including the tabletop potted flowers and the hanging basket planters, are the work of Beatriz Arrues of the Urbane Boheme firm.

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TH: Who and what were your inspirations?

DM: I think anyone building a green wall system has to take into consideration the works of Patrick Blanc and his passion for the mixing of garden and interior spaces. High-yield plant productive walls were also heavily researched by Kyle Preish, one of the Tecture members. And in the end, sitting in the space and figuring out what was going to be the most comfortable and memorable experience really defined how that entire area came to be.

TH: How do plants elevate the dining experience?

DM: From our point of view at Tecture, greenery enhances our daily interactions by bringing us back to a more natural perspective. Most people living within the cities do not engage on a day to day basis with natural elements, and it can be argued by many, including Richard Louv who wrote Last Child in the Woods, that this is causing a disconnect, especially with the younger generations, between us and the natural world. Now, we are not saying that a planted green wall is curing that, but it is helping bridge it by showing people the possibilities of adding natural elements within the more urbanized regions. And, there aren’t a lot of public garden parties going on in Pacific Beach, so the Patio takes the neighborhood one step closer.

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TH: How do you care for the plants at the Patio? Any challenges or surprises that have presented themselves?

DM: The wall itself has a drip system that is set on a timer system, which is regulated and maintained by Broyles Landscaping. Building it, we wanted to make it as foolproof as possible, but with a living wall, that is not as easy as it sounds.

The plants will interact in an individual manner at the start, but the wall itself will find an equilibrium and become more unified, making it more durable and fixed. We have had a very successful rate of growth, and of the over 150 plants that are in the wall, we have had less than 10 that had to be removed. The wall will need continual upkeep, but between the wonderful staff at the Patio, the landscapers, and us dropping by the check on our baby, we have managed to get the wall going with a good foundation.

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TH: Let’s talk furniture and facades. What woods do you use throughout?

DM: The wood for the banquet seating, booths and walkway was mangaris, the interior tables with resin were old pallet wood, the large bar slab table was a fallen Torrey pine, and the upper loose tables was a eucalyptus.

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Bromeliads add to the ambiance.

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The Patio’s pet-friendly. When you bring your dog to brunch, you’ll get select drinks (including the ‘Pomeranian’ and the ‘Hair of the Dog’) half off.

TH: When people enter the space, what’s the feeling you want them to experience?

DM: Probably that of anticipation. From the street, enough of the Patio is seen to perk one’s interest, but the journey to the entry is crucial. We purposely place the entry points at a distance so that the wood walkway would guide you to the mouth of the restaurant. From there, you get a full view of the green wall. From there, it opens you right up to the bar, which stands at a contrast to the living wall, yet brings in the other side of the Patio. That side is of mirror, steel, concrete, and wood. The combination of these materials works well, with the outdoor patio being very open and lush, and the interior being deeper and cozy. The beauty of the Patio is in joining these two spaces in a balanced and complimentary manner.

TH: How have people been reacting to the plants and the design?

DM: We had a couple come up to us the other day; having lived for many years in the Bay area, they thanked us for helping to bring a restaurant to P.B. that reminded them of the places they would go to in San Francisco. They commented about the green wall and how well it worked with the entire vibe of the restaurant.

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TH: Is there a plant at the Patio that’s particularly memorable for you? 

DM: Well, there are a lot of really interesting ones, but I’d have to say the one that takes the cake is the tree that encompasses the back facade facing Hornblend [Street]. This mammoth has been here since the beginning of the previous restaurant, and has weathered the storm of the remodel. We had to be very careful in dealing with its roots and limbs, as it is a strong point to the entire neighborhood, and everyone made it very clear that the tree must stay. Now it is highlighted, healthy, and showed off from several vantage points.

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The owner recently started up a garden in the back area.

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From salty dogs to Grumpy Cat: a bit of behind-the-scenes cheek.

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We look forward to seeing what else pops up here — on the menus, and from the ground!