Meet Frankie Scuito, Owner Of Side Bar And The Highly Anticipated Gaslamplighter

We had the opportunity to sit down with Frankie Scuito, the owner of Side Bar, the boutique lounge and nightclub in Gaslamp, to learn more about his journey in the San Diego nightlife industry, and to hear his inspiration and vision for the soon-to-be-opened Gaslamplighter, the highly anticipated cocktail and karaoke bar.

The scion of a fourth-generation San Diego nightlife industry family that has owned and operated some of the best-known establishments in San Diego, seems to be on a roll and enjoying it. His more than 10 years of hard work at Side Bar resulted in him being able to take over ownership just about two years ago, and he’s invested considerably in creating the elevated experience that it is known for today.

He’s doubling down this year with the development of Gaslamplighter. At the time of the interview, the construction of Gaslamplighter was still very much underway, but the end was near enough that the vision of what was coming was getting clear, and it’s going to be special!

We enjoyed our conversation with Frankie; we hope you do, too.

The family business

ThereSanDiego: Four generations in the bar business in San Diego? You must know practically everyone in the city!

Frankie: Not quite everyone, but I often hear people express surprise that I was born and raised here, given the number of newcomers.

ThereSanDiego: That’s pretty unique these days, for sure. So, you’ve pretty much grown up in bars?

Frankie: Yes, I’ve been in and around bars for a long time. I started working legally at 21 at Lamplighter, first as a door guy, then moving up through various roles like barback, karaoke host, and bartender.

ThereSanDiego: Were all these bars located in San Diego?

Frankie: Yes, all of them.

ThereSanDiego: Which other bars did your family own?

Frankie: Before Lamplighter, there was Stagedoor. Concurrently with Stagedoor, we owned Elbow Room (now the 710 Club). We also had Roma Inn, which was Felipe’s in Little Italy, and the Rio downtown on Fourth Avenue—a popular sailor bar during wartime. I have photos of Rio, but not of Elbow Room or Roma Inn.

ThereSanDiego: You’ve seen a lot of change in this city and industry. What are your thoughts on the present state of San Diego nightlife and what it will be in the future?

Frankie: I have learned one thing, especially the past couple of years, especially coming out of Covid, is I don’t pay attention to anyone outside of these walls. It’s kind of been our success. That’s kind of what we have done – to stop worrying about what everybody else is doing and just kind of continue to evolve with what’s working.

We’ve changed a lot of how it was run after Covid. Obviously, after Covid, everyone experienced it differently, but it was tough for me, personally, and then the team. But when I called them to come back, they were ready to go.

So, that was very special. Then when we came out of it, I had a different perspective on the industry and kind of how important the brand owning and sticking with the brand was, and then we were able to carry that into kind of what we’re doing today.

I definitely will say a lot of it has to do with how we’re marketed now, and we made some changes after Covid. I got to shout out to Ari, my Director of Marketing. We really pivoted and kind of evolved. Definitely want to throw that word in there into what we are today and it’s working.

We used to rely on the old promotions, including industry nights, but everything had become stale. So, we decided to take a risk by trying something new without worrying about its immediate success. Fortunately, it worked.

ThereSanDiego: That’s special to have that culture. That’s hard to find. Well, when I came here for your pre-opening party, it definitely seemed like a family.

Frankie: Very much so. Yeah.

ThereSanDiego: That’s awesome. I mean, I would think that’s rare in this industry.

Frankie: Yes, indeed. Before I became the owner, the place was still under RMD’s ownership when we were emerging from the Covid situation. They had suggested a soft opening due to potential staffing issues. I responded, “I can contact the staff right now; they’re all set and eager.” So, when we reopened, we didn’t opt for a soft launch. We resumed with a full team, and everyone was there, committed like soldiers.

They’re like family. That is what I say most of our success comes from: the culture and that family environment and making people feel the way they do.

ThereSanDiego: How do you foster such loyalty in this industry, given its reputation for high turnover? From an outsider’s view, and having had brief insights from within, it often appears like a revolving door. What do you believe contributes to your success in this regard?

Frankie: Man, sometimes it’s just the Side Bar thing. I’ve been here, what now? 11 years. But I have employees that have been here longer than me now. I think Ernie, he did a little stint, walked away, came back, but he would be, I think 12, 13 years here.

ThereSanDiego: That’s amazing in this industry.

Frankie: Yeah. I mean, it’s always just been a tight-knit group. We constantly emphasize the concept of ‘family.’ But it’s one thing to say it and another to genuinely make people feel it.

Just like when you enter someone’s home, you might forget the specifics of what was said or done, but you always remember how you felt. That’s the essence we strive to provide for our staff. And it’s been effective.

Side Bar 3.0

ThereSanDiego: Earlier, you touched on the concept of the brand and highlighted a turning point where you gained a deeper understanding of it, especially post-Covid. For some, a brand is merely a logo or a sign, while for others, it represents the emotional experience someone derives from it.

So what does that mean to you?

Frankie: We aim to be consistent in every aspect. Before the pandemic, you might recall how we focused intensively on specific nights, like the industry night. We would then switch our attention to another event with a different promoter on, say, a Sunday night.

Inadvertently, what happened was these specific events started overshadowing our main brand. When we resumed operations, we decided to simplify and emphasize just ‘Side Bar’ instead of segmenting it further. So now, it’s just about Side Bar in all its entirety. And that’s what has worked.

ThereSanDiego: The transformation is really something. Not only is the current look distinct from its previous version, but it also stands out in San Diego. What’s the inspiration behind the design, the energy, and everything here?

Frankie: We completely renovated this place. Previously, it had more of a mirror bar vibe, and there were those birdcages with the scantily clad women inside. We had those dancers swaying on the bar and in the birdcages, which was next to the DJ booth. It was all maroon and deep red tones. And remember the alligator print? Plus, those risqué photos framed and displayed on the walls?

ThereSanDiego: Yeah, I remember.

Frankie: Well, it was 2019 when we went for this remodel, envisioning it as a New York-style boutique. Though that description might have been apt for about a decade given our venue’s intimate size, we felt the need for a fresh touch. So, we collaborated with Davis Design, who interestingly have been behind all three versions of Side Bar.

There was a Side Bar before the red Side Bar. There’s been the first original, then what we call Side Bar 2.0, and then 3.0, all designed by Davis Design. We went to them, what started out with the Pinterest page and me….and, actually, lot of the inspiration came from my cocktail servers and our marketing team.

We’d all pitch in, saying, “It would be great if it looked like this or that.” In fact, we took cues from a few other venues. I discovered a few venues that resonated with our vision, but we wanted to infuse it with the unique Side Bar twist. That’s how our current design was born, then we had Steve Lieberman who kind of created this crazy thing. The spider.

ThereSanDiego: That had to have been fun.

Frankie: It was We incorporated all-new lighting, an LED wall, and introduced the new centerpiece – the infinity ring. We’re consistently reinvesting and ensuring that we continue to evolve. And it’s been worth it.

The biggest challenges facing the industry

ThereSanDiego: What do you feel like are the biggest challenges to the industry right now here?

Frankie: I would say it’s our biggest asset and biggest struggle, which is building the right team. That’s the hardest thing I think in the industry right now, and probably always.

ThereSanDiego: I think finding and keeping good people is the biggest challenge in any industry.

Frankie: It’s just harder to find the really good ones. So that makes it tough. I mean, the world’s crazy right now. It’s essential to be strategic – knowing when to tighten the purse strings and when to take a financial leap. While some may be holding back, we’re being aggressive with our approach. Take the Side Bar Barbie party, for instance. We didn’t hesitate to spend significantly on the event, even on details like renting the car.

ThereSanDiego: Yeah, the branding you did for the Barbie party — from the invitations to the touches here at the venue — was really something to see! You guys went for it!

Frankie: I even told my staff, ‘Hey, go rent a pink Jeep and wear wigs, and deliver invites with the surfboard and the music.” And they were all in!

ThereSanDiego: It definitely got attention. There was so much press around Barbie launching just in general – you guys really capitalized on it.

Frankie: And this is our second annual, so we did it first because our girls are called the side Barbies. Everyone’s like, “Oh, it’s your first party.” I’m like, “Nope, this is an annual party.”

ThereSanDiego: That’s great. You guys have lots of momentum and you’re busy, which is always good to see. Now let’s get to the next project, which I know you’re very excited about.

Introducing Gaslamplighter

Frankie: Gaslamplighter. Yes. Side Bar has always been my baby, but Gaslamplighter is going to be my baby.

ThereSanDiego: I’m a big fan of the original Lamplighter, so I’m excited to see the new one come to life. How will it be different?

Frankie: It’s going to be very different, but clearly related. It’s like a crafty, prettier little brother. When we first started, the idea was kind of a Lamplighter downtown. Then I thought of the Gaslamp and it struck me.

ThereSanDiego: The name is perfect. It’s so catchy. But this is going to be a different experience then it sounds like.

Frankie: Yes. I’m like, we could just keep it budget low and handle it. But I just couldn’t control myself. So we went all in.

A typical dive bar style wouldn’t fit downtown. Downtown has its own essence. So I thought it needed an upgrade, especially to be in line with the Side Bar’s brand. We aimed to give a nostalgic feel, like you’re back in time, and as a homage to San Diego. We ended up creating our version of either the San Diego sign or the one from the Gaslamp district.

ThereSanDiego: That’s amazing.

Frankie: It’s kind of like a tribute to San Diego. This building has crazy history.

ThereSanDiego: What was that space before?

Frankie: Ciro’s Pizza.

ThereSanDiego: Did they shut down, and then you acquired the space?

Frankie: Actually, the Side Bar and Ciro’s Pizza shared one license. When I took over, I got control of both. That’s the reason Ciro’s was able to serve alcohol—it was under the same liquor license. The deal came with both establishments.

ThereSanDiego: So, did you close the pizza shop?

Frankie: I did, particularly when I had a clear vision for the new venture and while still in the design phase. I had some long-standing employees, so I continued operating. Even when we were operating at a loss, it seemed financially more feasible to keep it running than to shut it. I think he moved away, so I decided to close it and focus my efforts on the new project. It’s been a year since then.

ThereSanDiego: Considering the changes you’re describing, that’s still pretty fast.

Frankie: The city procedures do tend to slow things down. It took six months just to secure our permit. We’re currently navigating through inspections. But it’s coming together. There will be karaoke just like the original.

But our new place will have a sound system up like Side Bar, so we didn’t spare an expense at all. The lighting design was handled by Steve Lieberman, who is globally renowned. The bar will feature several ‘Easter eggs’, or hidden nods from my family of old bars that we owned in the past. For instance, we’ll showcase the horn from the stage that my father owned 35 years ago.

ThereSanDiego: (Looking at renderings of new interior) Wow. Beautiful.

Frankie: Yes, and surprisingly on-budget! I’d estimated the figure about a year and a half ago when we began. Surprisingly, we’re close to that initial projection. It’s unusual to stay on budget, especially in projects like this. Most of our expenses are accounted for. I think it’s mainly the miscellaneous items that are going to get me. For instance, I recently spent on prints, and now I need to invest in gold frames for them. It’s these unexpected details that can drive up costs, but we’re currently on target, which is the same amount that this Side Bar did for its remodel. And half the space.

ThereSanDiego: Wow. So the details are really going to be felt here. It’s going to be a really first-class experience. Will you be offering table service as well?

Frankie: Absolutely. Gaslamplighter will lean more towards being a cocktail bar, and we aim to stay true to that vision. It will be a departure from Side Bar, with less emphasis on typical bottle service. We won’t be using acrylic glassware; instead, we’ll opt for genuine glass. We’re putting in the effort to make it top-notch. While customers can order bottle service, the main focus will remain on it being a high-quality cocktail bar.

ThereSanDiego: We can’t wait!

Frankie: It’s coming soon. Stay tuned!

If you have a night out in San Diego…

ThereSanDiego: If you have a night out to pick any restaurant in San Diego for dinner, where do you go?

Frankie: I’ll give you a couple. If it’s sushi, I’m going to Harney to go see Roger. I love sushi, and I love the experience at Harney. I like it when I can just sit there, I don’t order, I don’t want to order. I tell him what I don’t like, and then just sit there and enjoy.

ThereSanDiego: Bring the freshest stuff you have in the kitchen…

Frankie: Yes, and just enjoy. And then probably Cowboy Star. I’ll go out there on a Tuesday and sit at the bar, get that charcuterie board, steak, and be out.

ThereSanDiego: What about for a drink? Any other bar you want to give a shout-out to?

Frankie: I typically just like to drop by places where my friends are. Lionfish is at the top of the list. I usually meet JT there.

ThereSanDiego: Always a great spot.

Frankie: If I’m in a relaxed mood, I might head to the bar at Huntress. Otherwise, I’d end up at Rustic Root since Vince, who’s now my brother-in-law, is the General Manager there. When I go out for drinks, it’s more about catching up with people.

So yeah, I end up visiting people.

ThereSanDiego: This has been a lot of fun! Thanks for sharing that with us, and thank you so much for making the time in your very busy schedule.

Frankie: Yeah, of course.

See you there!

Side Bar is located at 536 Market Street in the Gaslamp Quarter.

The new Gaslampligher, which we expect to be one of the best cocktail bars in San Diego, is slated to open late 2023, and is located right next door to Side Bar.

See you there!

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