Down the Rabbit Hole: An Inside Look at Crafting Cherished San Diego Hangouts

We sat down with Brendan and Big Jon from Social Syndicate for an exclusive peek behind the scenes of their wildly popular gathering places, including Monarch Ocean Pub, Wonderland Ocean Pub, Grand Ole BBQ, and The Rabbit Hole, which recently celebrated nine successful years in Normal Heights. 

Tracing back to their very first venue, we explore how these homegrown hospitality mavericks cultivate bars, pubs, and eateries reflecting the stories of eclectic local communities across San Diego.

Over 13 years, 13 unique concepts, and many lessons learned, the Social Syndicate formula remains simple: tap into the spirit of neighborhoods to weave the fabric of inspired spaces where everyone feels welcome to laugh, live, and linger for years to come. 

Join us in venturing down the rabbit hole to discover what gives this brand an enduring sense of belonging across San Diego’s one-of-a-kind enclaves.

Origins of The Rabbit Hole

Brendan: Hey, what’s up, how are you doing?

ThereSanDiego: I’m great, how are you?

Brendan: Good, yeah, great little Wednesday no doubt about it. I’m sitting with Big Jon here as well, who heads up the daily operations.

ThereSanDiego: Well it’s great to connect. I wanted to touch base with you guys and talk about The Rabbit Hole’s nine years in the community. That’s an awesome accomplishment, congratulations. 

Brendan: Many thanks. As you know in the restaurant world, there are so many moving parts it’s tough to have sustainable relevance. But with The Rabbit Hole, our motive was planting deep roots to establish something lasting.

When we find a space with potential, we create identities around the venues themselves. We took over a spot here with great bones and layout. 

Coming in, we realized it could be something special—a casual, blue-collar spot fitting the artsy vibe of Adams Ave and Normal Heights. Having an attitude with murals and creativity around food and drinks. 

This area used to be grass fields inhabited by rabbits. Lightbulb moment—we had to be The Rabbit Hole, this fun spot for everyone!

ThereSanDiego: That’s a cool origin story!

Brendan: Yeah, it really became the Everyman’s bar—super adaptable for events, games, local bands. We’re proud The Rabbit Hole has developed into a second home for many.

Crafting Unique Concepts at Social Syndicate

ThereSanDiego: I love hearing how spots like The Rabbit Hole and Monarch differ, tapping the vibe of distinct communities. Monarch in particular has changed Del Mar so much! I live nearby and go all the time. 

How was that experience different from places like Grand Ole BBQ or the Rabbit Hole? Del Mar seems like a unique challenge.

Brendan: You’re absolutely right, that was the driving force behind Monarch—providing something new to Del Mar. During our research, everything was higher-end, white tablecloth dining. We came in intentionally casual—would board shorts and flip-flops work in this posh beach hub? 

Amazingly it drew people in rather than being off-putting. We aimed to be the playful non-country club spot for sunsets and brunch. The food and service are still fantastic, but the vibe is laid back, which was needed. 

The couple who bought Del Mar Plaza, Marcus especially being from Philadelphia, made it their passion project to have a bar that was more casual and authentic. 

We’re cut from the same cloth, so I related to where he was coming from, wanting to stir things up.

ThereSanDiego: I lived in Boston and loved the bars there, so I definitely appreciate a bar with grit and authenticity.

Brendan: For sure, I’m a huge Red Sox fan myself so I got where Marcus was coming from, wanting to liven up the scene.

Now at the Rabbit Hole’s 9-year mark, we have a very different Normal Heights vibe—full bands blasting from the stage. But it’s the same for our group: catering experiences around what each community gravitates towards and feels ownership of. 

Going grassroots, connecting local businesses and associations. Once they know our commitment to investing and belonging, it organically comes together.

ThereSanDiego: So it’s safe to say that relationships and hospitality come first before business returns at Social Syndicate? That genuine care really stands out.

Brendan: Yeah. Our founding father and original GM/partner here was Stephen Throop—we call him the Governor of Normal Heights. Sadly he passed during COVID, but Rabbit Hole was always lovingly referred to as “the house Throop built.”

We developed a foundation to honor his legacy. Throop put such a stamp on this place and was a huge part of those first formative years, helping shape the vibe. We jumped on board the train, and he took us for a wonderful ride. Now we ensure his spirit lives on as Normal Heights holds special meaning.

We also have the Irish pub Rosie O’Grady’s nearby.

ThereSanDiego: I love Rosie O’Grady’s too! Such a great place.

Brendan: Thanks! It’s a spot where you can go off-grid—nothing but smiles when you enter.

Big Jon: Like the second happiest place next to Disneyland!

Brendan: For sure; it’s become a true community fixture. Big Jon keeps the show running and vision intact daily.

Authenticity and Grittiness

ThereSanDiego: I admire that long-term consistency and authenticity. At all your spots, like Monarch, from the first visit, it just feels real—like you enjoy what you’re doing and care about each person’s experience.

Monarch is the first place that became our go-to neighborhood spot in Del Mar. I expect to see familiar faces, and even when I don’t, the welcoming atmosphere brings that warmth. 

Folks say the same about Rabbit Hole and Rosie O’s, too.

I know there’s been chatter lately about indie bars struggling amidst corporate buyouts. But as an entrepreneur myself, I believe you need winning business formulas too. 

You strike an important balance between financial success and preserving the original San Diego spirit. That seems to be what keeps people coming back.

Brendan: Well said. Like any small business, you have to find ways to sustain and thrive without sacrificing your soul. We’ve figured out how to make the model work through sheer passion while keeping that connection genuine.

To be honest, that grassroots ethos has been our driving force from the start. We’re a group of friends without family money but with a shared passion. We utilize investor capital to open new neighborhood spots but stay grounded in keeping experiences authentic.

While we now have 13 busy concepts and nearly 900 employees, our collaborative style and intimate involvement persist. We focus on belonging to communities—whether supporters here in Normal Heights or new ventures spanning to Pacific Beach. 

Our model has inherent risks compared to big celebrity name investors trying to scale rapidly. But we value longevity over rapid expansion.

Case in point, hard to believe nine years flew by with the Rabbit Hole still going strong as a fixture. We walk the talk by showing up consistently—Big John attending local comedy shows or me chasing my kids through this very neighborhood. 

That connection remains our priority over profit margins.

ThereSanDiego: Love that commitment to community.

Big Jon: The proof is in the smiles on people’s faces at your places as they celebrate the day together. 

Brendan: Yeah, this place has an attitude and energy that lends itself more to the neighborhood dive bar feel. Like Cheers—where you walk in knowing everyone, high-fiving familiar bartenders. 

And we accommodate different crowds. Maybe a happy hour hipster from uptown. Or a family guy catching a game. Or a musician with a weekend gig. There’s been comedy, all types coming through.

Big Jon keeps us true to that, not getting off track from the vision.

Protecting the Social Syndicate Culture

ThereSanDiego: So critical to have that daily hands-on leadership like Big Jon shows. Crazy respect for how you instill and maintain such a strong culture when hiring/retaining must be hugely challenging nowadays.

Big Jon: For sure, especially with turnover rates. But my priority is investing in our teams between both concepts. Many staff work 7 days a week, so I owe them. 

As I mentioned, when I’m pushing the stroller through Normal Heights with my wife, feels like I know 40 familiar faces passing by! Pretty humbling that our imprint reflects everyone’s combined efforts.

ThereSanDiego: No doubt, that connection and consistency speak volumes.

So are either of you actual San Diego natives?

Brendan: Big Jon is originally from here. 

I’m a mutt who grew up in Hawaii with my family rooted in New England—huge diehard Red Sox fans. I’ve been out here since 1999 for grad school. Fenway is like church for us! My son plays baseball nonstop. When Sox games are on, time stands still in our house.

ThereSanDiego: I lived right by Fenway when they won the Series. I was on a rooftop overlooking the stadium the night they came back to beat the Yankees—we thought the city would burn down! 

Brendan: That’s amazing you were there for that epic comeback. The energy must’ve been electric. I did my grad studies here too and just never left—closing in on 24 years now. Petco Park has such an incredible vibe as well. Baseball is practically a religion in my family. 

So you’re from Boston? Where exactly?

ThereSanDiego: I just moved out there to go to graduate school. I lived right in Brookline by Coolidge Corner. After starting my business, my office was downtown, so I had to drive by the park. I was constantly stuck in traffic by Fenway for games. 

Love the gritty bar scene there! When I later moved out to Colorado, I really missed that grit and sense of community. 

When I moved to San Diego, I honestly had no clue the neighborhoods here would have so much distinct character to them. 

It was a wonderful surprise discovering all the tight-knit communities here and their local bars. Reminded me of those classic Boston watering holes I’d grown up with. 

Local Backstories

Brendan: You’re absolutely right. It’s wild how distinct each neighborhood is here. That’s a good way to consider Normal Heights—having its own artsy identity and creativity.

We actually had an artist come do a huge mural capturing the Rabbit Hole story with references to other venues of ours. He did this epic painting in like 52 hours flat. Out above the stage is a scene with a miner, a whiskey-stealing rabbit, and stalactites as carrot shoots. There’s even a hidden door to Wonderland tying in our Ocean Beach bar.

All our spots subtly connect through backstory about San Diego history and characters.

At Bootleggers Downtown, we dug into prohibition tales. We try honoring communities, almost like an interactive game picking out links between concepts if you pay attention.

ThereSanDiego: Love discovering all these little details you’ve woven together. Such great storytelling while creating spaces for people to keep writing new stories.

Brendan: Grand Ole BBQ is another great backstory—owner Andy Harris used to book hard rock bands and has this total greaser vibe like a character made for TV. His dad taught him true Texas-style smoking meats, and it took years before we partnered with them. Now we’re proud to be the Official BBQ of the San Diego Padres.

Similarly, our Blue Water Seafood owners were literal salty fishermen from Ocean Beach back in the day who surfed by Sunset Plaza getting 50-cent burgers as kids. They’ve seen it all, from Tower 2 to the present day. 

We helped them scale while preserving that one-of-a-kind fishermen’s hospitality if you order at their counters. Or their smoked goodies for your kids, like ‘old fashioned’ whipped cream desserts.

ThereSanDiego: Incredible! All of these origin stories are uniquely tied to San Diego’s history and the characters that live here. And that you keep each concept’s distinct character woven through the full experience.

Brendan: Thanks! We need to keep swapping stories and concepts! Would love to continue the conversation over a beer sometime. But the bottom line is consistently delivering great experiences for every guest.

ThereSanDiego: Well thanks again for your time, it’s been fantastic learning more about your journey. It’s really impressive what you all have built at Social Syndicate and how tied you are to the communities you serve—keep up the great work!

Brendan: Likewise! Cheers and best wishes!

ThereSanDiego: Cheers!

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