April 4 2012 02:00 PM

Raglan Public House: Where surf meets modern kook

Michael Soriano's quirky sensibilities are in high demand.
Photo by Kinsee Morlan
Ocean Beach’s Raglan Public House is getting a lot of attention from local glossy magazines. The new restaurant and bar is one of the few spots in the granola-crunching, beach-bum neighborhood to venture away from the norm and try something a little cleaner-cut and more modern. The media are eating it up, but what do locals think?

So far, so good, claims Michael Soriano, the designer behind Raglan (1851 Bacon St.), which is loosely themed as a New Zealand, rugby-inspired burger-and-beer bar.

“If you read the Yelp reviews on all my other properties,” says Soriano, whose recognizable work you’d notice at places like The Pearl Hotel and Vin de Syrah, “the first thing people talk about is design. But with Raglan, they’re talking about how comfortable they feel, but they don’t say why.”

And that, Soriano says, was the plan. He wanted to create something in Ocean Beach that’s similar to South Park’s Station tavern—something hip and cool but subtle and casual enough for people to feel comfortable bringing dogs and kids. Before he presented his concept to the clients (the same team behind Bare Back Grill in the Gaslamp and Pacific Beach), he did his homework.

“We actually went on a bar tour,” he laughs. “That’s kind of a joke, but that was part of my research and development…. I kind of almost had to covertly analyze the community’s perception and comfort zone and use that as the base for the design aesthetic.”

There are design details, Soriano says, that act as little preemptive strikes against Raglan being viewed by the O.B. community as an outsider. What he found during his research was that most bars and restaurants in the area had a few main ingredients: a surfboard on the wall, stickers, some kind of graffiti element, reggae music and a laid-back vibe.

“That’s a good foundation,” he says. “But we wanted to figure out how to do a twist on that. And that’s how all this came about.”

There are surfboards inside Raglan, but instead of hanging on the wall, Soriano has flipped them upside-down, hung them from the ceiling and affixed carnival lights to the bottom, turning the old boards into slick sculptural chandeliers. In one corner, a rusted cooler is suspended in the air, toppling over with a wetsuit and modified beer bottles cascading out, attached to one another by a string of lights. Other burlap-pendant lighting is embellished with surf leashes. The leash, Soriano says, is inspired by local lore. Apparently, O.B. locals can spot out-of-towners by the use of surf leashes. Sissies.

“There are a half a dozen cues that are iconic to O.B.,” Soriano says, pointing out the skate rack and the canister lights filled with stickers from local vendors. “I wanted to show respect for the locals and infuse them in a way that makes sense to our program. It’s a little bit more formal, a little bit more structured, but it’s approachable.”

As Soriano enjoyed the nice natural light and ocean breeze streaming through the big, garage-door-style windows, he fiddled with a small plastic carrot and a magnet. Part of what makes the place approachable are the kookier elements like the chalkboard that runs along the wall and is covered with drawings by guests and adorned with odd magnets that Soriano pieced together; he’s known to find weird things, stick a magnet on the back and add them to the chalkboard while no one’s looking.

“It just gets people to do silly little things,” he says.

Outside, there’s a nice-size patio and barstool seating, and the building’s facade is covered with a charming blend of natural-colored and weathered, sea-foam-green reclaimed wood from San Diego Urban Timber.

Soriano giggles as he takes me to the bathroom, which has been wallpapered by old newspapers from New Zealand.

“OK, this was not planned,” he says, switching on the light. “I’ll let you figure it out yourself.” 

I look around, then look up and start giggling myself. Right in the crotch area of a blown-up picture of a good-looking rugby player is a long, slim conical light bulb jutting out.

“It just landed that way, I promise,” he says.

Soriano’s in high demand these days, designing residential projects and hotels (his favorite). In the restaurant realm, next up is another project with the Bare Back crew, Queenstown Porch and Garden, a spot Soriano describes as an “indoor / outdoor patio experience with a big backyard garden.”

He says that after years in the design business, he’s finally starting to see San Diego’s personality—a unique scene he’s helped mold, no doubt, with his own hands and sleek-yet-quirky sensibilities.

“I’m tired of everybody saying, ‘Oh, this reminds me of San Francisco’ or ‘This reminds me of New York,” he says. “When the fuck are we going to get to a point where we say, ‘Oh, this is San Diego—we have a culture here?’”

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