San Diego’s Lei Lounge Re-Opens, to Delight of Gay Community
When Lei Lounge closed its doors this past January, happy hour-goers across San Diego panicked, among them the many LGBT residents who flocked there for the camaraderie and cocktails.
"What the hell happened? That was all I could think," recalled Jennifer Tilton, who drove down from La Jolla for, "what was the best happy hour in San Diego."
"I was planning on bringing my cousin here who was visiting from the Midwest," remembers James, another customer. "This isn’t like anything you get in a small town."
It has been a six-month wait, but the popular Asian fusion University Heights nightspot has reopened its doors, and the community is taking notice. From passers-by to neighborhood residents to social media, everyone seems delighted to have a neighborhood flagship establishment back.
"I didn’t think I’d be as excited to see an establishment re-open, but if you read my reviews (yes, that is a plural) of Lei Lounge, you’d understand why," began one Yelp review.
"Lei Lounge has re-opened!! Go see the spot where I proposed marriage to the woman making me breakfast," read one Twitter post.
With no notice and nothing but a four word phrase on their website -- "Closed for the Winter" -- mystery surrounded Lei Lounge as it shut its doors half a year ago. For the first several weeks, the restaurant sat vacant, then the brown paper went up on the windows and the renovations began. It took half a year to transform the Polynesian bistro into an urban Zen oasis, but when that paper finally came down, patrons poured in.
"It’s beautiful inside. It makes me want to meditate, but I’d rather have a drink," said one patron finishing a cigarette outside the restaurant. "They don’t let you smoke in the outside patio anymore either, but their happy hour is worth it."
Not everyone, however, approves of the changes. "I think they ruined it," another person said. "It looks cheap, they took away my favorite drink, and I miss the food specials they had."
Change will never appeal to everyone but one thing is certain: residents were thrilled to see the familiar florid façade light up once again.
False hopes were raised with an announcement of a June reopening but finally, two days before Pride, Lei’s doors were unsealed once again. With an inspired outdoor dining area complete with a permanent open-air covering, fire pits and more lounge furniture and sans the bulky and often-awkward private dining cabanas, greater flexibility now exists both for the restaurant and its patrons.
The tropical feel gives way to the more modern, urban, sleek design of the interior bar. Flat screen televisions on the wall behind the bar flash metropolitan cityscapes from across the world. Soft, white vinyl squares climb the walls towards the ceiling skirted with a stainless steel wainscoting. White subway tiles wrap the bar.
Overheard is still the same eclectic mix of electronic music. And mixed behind the bar are many of the same signature crafted boozy blends that put this restaurant on the proverbial map. Oh, the cocktails.
"Who cares what it looks like?" asked Maureen, a Lei regular. "My $4.50 lemongrass martinis are back!"
Along with the Lemongrass Collins, favorites like the Lei Collins, Aloe Vera Collins and Basil and Pineapple Martini returned, along with a few other additions.
The drinks aren’t the only change. Lei Lounge was known for their tapas-style food items, which still exists, but in a more limited form. Added to the menu are full-sized entrees, which include a 16 oz., bone-in rib eye and a roasted, free-range, organic half chicken. You will still be able to find the tempura vegetables, edamame, sweet potato frites (with a new dipping sauce) and, of course, the crab mac ’n cheese.
Lei Lounge, you had me at crab mac ’n cheese. One question I kept running into was simply, why mess with a good thing?
"I loved that place," said one patron EDGE talked to, who admitted that she was there the first day it opened in 2009. "It always seemed so busy, people outside of the area were talking about it, and it became a destination. I don’t understand what they needed to change or fix."
Adding to the mounting sense of mystery, Lei Lounge did not reply to multiple calls and emails about why they felt they needed a refresher. But another community resource was happy to share their view.
"It is always good to do fresh and exciting things to improve your business and your offerings," said Matt Harding of the Greater San Diego Business Association, San Diego’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce, "and to show your customers you care about them."
"Reinvention is key," said one manager of a nearby restaurant who asked not to be identified because of the competition for local business. "They did a smart thing by renovating. It gives them a leg up on local competition, it gives consumers something fresh to come to and they get excited about that kind of stuff. It makes all of our jobs a little more difficult, but it also attracts more people to this neighborhood and that is good for everyone."
Whether it’s reinvention, reinvigoration or a reintroduction to the community, Lei Lounge has made another bold attempt to put its stamp on the University Heights area and the community is taking notice.
"I don’t love [the remodel] and I don’t hate it. It’s definitely different," says Heather Polen, a UH resident that has a special bond with the bar and restaurant. "Lei Lounge is why I moved to University Heights. It just has a great vibe and I always brought people there. I was certainly sad it was gone for so long. Now I just have to remember it’s open again."