Located in the heart of San Diego’s Little Italy, Ironside Fish & Oyster’s interior evokes the ambiance of luxurious cruise ships from days gone by.
Following a $1.8 million build-out of historic Ironside Metal Supply’s 4,500 square feet, the restaurant is a feast for the senses with elaborate details that put diners on notice that this is not an average eatery.
Channeling all things nautical—hundreds of gold-plated piranhas line one wall while a seafoam-green bench runs down the middle of Ironside’s space and upward of 600 pieces of vintage luggage are stacked to the rafters—the design is absolutely reminiscent of a ship. There are also golden mermaid statues overhead and a giant octopus tentacle cradling a light bulb, all bathed in aquatic coloring.
“We stumbled across this space and it had such a natural outline to work with, but it was just four walls and dirt,” says chef and partner Jason McLeod, who grew up on the west coast of Canada and has a long culinary history with seafood. “Our restaurant gives the feeling of what the inside of the Titanic might have looked like, and it’s all so elegantly done,” he says. “It’s as if we are saying the journey is part of what we do.”
That journey has attracted seafood lovers who are embracing the 212-seat restaurant for its fresh, locally sourced seafood menu that changes daily, plus handcrafted cocktails and beverages, iced coffee on tap, as well as made-from-scratch breads and pastries.
Flying under the banner of Consortium Holdings, which has seven additional San Diego restaurants, Ironside Fish & Oyster is the culinary crown jewel of the group.
“There wasn’t really a local seafood restaurant at the level we wanted to do,” says Chef McLeod. “We work with about seven or eight local fishermen and as a result we can offer different fish every day. We build our menu around what they catch.”
Offering 11 to 15 varieties each day, Chef McLeod says the goal was always to offer a lot more than “just salmon and halibut.” While the proteins change daily, Chef McLeod says vegetables, sides, and garnishes remain constant, which helps streamline operations.
“I was actually very surprised to see what a big market there is in San Diego for whole fish,” says Chef McLeod, who got the idea to menu whole species from one of his suppliers. “We have one Korean woman who comes in every week with her two sons, aged 8 and 11, and they always share a whole fish.”
Monday through Friday the restaurant offers an oyster happy hour, selling oysters for a buck apiece. During the three-hour window, Chef McLeod says Ironside sells between 700 and 1,200 oysters, contributing to the 12,000 sold weekly.
The biggest seller at the restaurant, by a two to one ratio, is the $21 Lobster Roll, which comprises a 1-pound lobster stripped down to 5 ounces of meat, lightly covered with brown butter mayo, and stuffed into a freshly baked roll.
Other best-selling menu items include fried oyster sliders, beer-braised mussels, and Ironside Platters from the raw bar, which come in three sizes: Big, Bigger, and Biggest. The Biggest sells for $139 and features three tiers with 18 oysters, eight clams, 18 shrimp, 18 mussels, a whole lobster, and an entire sea urchin.
With the high price of seafood, food costs at Ironside Fish & Oyster run high, about 35 percent. “We want to make sure we offer our food at a great price point,” Chef McLeod says.
On weekend nights Ironside can do up to 700 covers and about 300 covers at lunch. Tickets range between $12 and $15 for lunch and $50 and $60 at dinner. “We are well ahead of where we thought we would be after the first year. Now the trick is to keep them coming back,” says Chef McLeod.
Over the course of the first year Ironside has expanded its wine list in response to customer demand, and staff has been expanded to 104, with nearly 70 employees working in the front of the house, which has raised labor costs.
“We decided to add an extra server so they could spend a little more time at each table,” says Chef McLeod.