This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.
The question from Kelly O’Neal of Hillcrest: Why is Pernicano’s restaurant in Hillcrest still empty after decades? Is it true the owner hates “the gays” and refuses to sell?
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Longtime San Diego restaurateur, part owner of the Chargers and a man with one heck of a handlebar mustache: George Pernicano had quite a resume when he died in 2016 at the age of 98. But was he also an anti-gay fanatic so appalled by the sight of two male diners kissing, as one persistent rumor goes, that he shut down his two Hillcrest restaurants during the Reagan administration? And does prejudice explain why the property became a notorious eyesore that sits empty to this day?
One of Pernicano’s sons insists there’s another explanation, and the patriarch himself told a different story or two. But the anti-gay story, a kind of local urban legend, persists.
Now, as the sprawling Pernicano’s property in central Hillcrest is once again on the cusp of a sale, here are questions and answers about its storied and decrepit past, and its uncertain but possibly promising future.
What’s all the fuss about?
As far as anyone knows, no one from the general public has munched on a meatball at the two Pernicano-owned Italian restaurants since 1985. But still they sit in the middle of Hillcrest.
You’ll see Pernicano’s restaurant if you stroll or drive down Sixth Avenue past University Avenue toward Balboa Park. Reputed to be San Diego’s first-ever pizza joint, it stands on the right side of the street, boasting a tall sign that declares “Pernicano’s” and “Casa di BAFFI/Italian Dinners/COCKTAILS.”
Casa di Baffi (House of the Mustache) was a fancier steakhouse restaurant known for its pork chops. Famous customers dating back to the 1950s supposedly included Jackie Gleason, Joe Namath and Jimmy Dorsey.
Of course, there are plenty of empty restaurants in San Diego, and Hillcrest seems to have more than its share these days. Panera Bread, the Pub at Whole Foods and Bombay Exotic Cuisine of India, all local mainstays, have closed their doors in recent months.
But the empty 25,000-square foot Pernicano’s property is unusual — and not just because it’s been a gastronomical graveyard for longer than Lady Gaga’s been alive.
For one thing, it sits on some of the most prime land in Hillcrest, a neighborhood that had only just begun to shed its downscale reputation in the 1980s thanks to its transformation into the city’s prime gay community.
And then there’s the matter of what people saw inside Pernicano’s when they peered in its windows: tables, plates and partially eaten food.
“You could still see half-eaten meals and coffee cups on the tables,” said Walt Meyer, who’s lived in San Diego since the 1990s. He’s now manager of Lambda Archives, which preserves San Diego’s LGBT history.
That may be a sign that Pernicano closed the restaurant mid-meal. Or maybe not. Meyer has heard a theory, which he acknowledges is bizarre.
“Somebody said the half-eaten meals were there to keep his liquor license or business license,” he said. “Supposedly he had to serve one night a year, and he’d go in and cook dinner for a few friends and charge a dollar or something.”
What do we know for sure about the closure?
Not much. They shut down in 1985. Three other Pernicano’s restaurants, in El Cajon, Rancho Peñasquitos and Pacific Beach, are still open.
What’s happened to the property since then?
It’s moldered, rusted and been vandalized, turning into what former Councilman Todd Gloria has called “a black eye in Hillcrest.”
Thieves reportedly ran off with items like copper pipes and liquor. Today, “it’s a blight on the neighborhood,” Meyer said.
A community planning leader put it this way in a 2014 interview with the Union-Tribune: “Ten years ago, there was a tour of the place on TV, and it was like something out of ‘Great Expectations.’ There were cobwebs, and I remember he blew some dust off the cheese rounds.”
City officials have long tried to get the Pernicano clan to do something about the property, but they’ve had limited success.
Eight years ago, things changed – at least a bit. The Pernicano family allowed the public to use the large parking area between Pernicano’s and Robinson Avenue.
The debut of paid spaces in parking-deprived Hillcrest was such a big deal in 2010 that the lot’s ribbon-cutting was extensively covered by the media, including Voice of San Diego. (The lot had opened earlier, but it was shut in order to have an official grand opening. Pizza from another Pernicano’s restaurant was on hand.)
Gloria called it “the Miracle on Sixth Avenue.”
What’s the anti-gay rumor?
It’s important to say this up-front: I haven’t found any evidence to suggest that Pernicano closed his restaurant because he hated gays. The man himself is dead and unable to respond to questions.
It’s important to address this rumor, however, and not just because a reader asked us about it specifically. It’s pervasive.
Meyer, who runs a monthly Hillcrest GLBT history walking tour, said the rumor goes like this: Pernicano closed the restaurant after he “allegedly saw a public display of affection between two guys during dinner service one night, and he lost it. I wasn’t there, I can’t say for certain. But that has been the story that’s been passed around. I have never seen definitive proof one way or another, and I don’t know what that proof would be.”
In 2010, local LGBT community leader Nicole Murray-Ramirez told 10News that Pernicano had directly made his anti-gay wishes clear in a conversation, in which he purportedly said: “As long as I’m alive, I’m never selling property to any homosexuals or those who would cater to homosexuals.”
But about 12 years ago Pernicano was willing to meet with representatives of Lips, a drag queen restaurant/performance venue, which was looking to relocate at the time. Tootie Thomas of Lips doesn’t recall any anti-gay vibe: “He didn’t come off that way with us. I never got that from him. It was just like he was an old codger who didn’t want to make decisions and wanted to pass [the property] onto the next generation. He wanted to hold onto it for his kids.”
So if the anti-gay rumors aren’t true, what happened?
One of the restauranteur’s sons says there’s another explanation for why his father shut the restaurants down.
Gary Pernicano, who still works at the Pernicano’s restaurant in El Cajon, referred questions to real estate agent Jeannine Savory, who’s representing the property. She said: “Gary shared with me that his family closed it due to health issues his mother was facing. His parents loved the restaurant and had left it with everything in place with hopes of reopening when his mother was well. In the late ’90s they revisited opening it, but due to the years of vandalism, the cost to resurrect it was too much for them to afford.”
The Pernicano patriarch himself offered another explanation in a 1990 interview with the Los Angles Times: “He says he closed the restaurant – at least to the public – because the liquor board told him it had to be open at least five days a week. ‘That’s bull—-,’ he says with gusto. ‘But I didn’t want to hassle with them.’”
The reporter doesn’t mention seeing any partially eaten food on tables, although he describes plenty of detritus such as old newspapers, skillets, trophies, photos and more.
If Pernicano was indeed anti-gay – something that’s denied by some of the people who knew him – he didn’t mind living in the gay community at that time.
“He lives in the small, beat-up office in the restaurant’s parking lot during the week – ‘Who the hell wants to fight that traffic?’ – and spends the weekends with his wife at their ranch in Santee, or visiting his two sons and grandchildren,” the L.A. Times reported.
Pernicano also claimed to the Times that his 14-inch mustache was insured by Lloyd’s of London.
Are there other rumors about property?
“Some say George won’t sell or lease it because a former wife would receive a portion of the profit. Others speculate the property owner kept a neon beer sign glowing in the vacant premises for years to satisfy liquor license requirements,” reported a website called Hillquest Urban Guide in an undated article.
As for why Pernicano kept it instead of making a bundle, a 2002 Union-Tribune article said “he is hanging on to the property for tax reasons” and “more so, for sentimental ones.”
“It’s a valuable piece of property,” Pernicano told the paper. “But it’s my life in there.”
Wasn’t there hoopla over a property sale a few years ago?
Yes. The property was nearly snapped up by a buyer in 2015, but the deal fell through.
“We had a spectacular design for a mixed-use concept that included a hotel, apartments, affordable housing, community space, Lambda Archive/Museum space, a rooftop public park that also could have been used for events, a shopping promenade between Fifth and Sixth, underground parking, much of which would have been public,” said developer William Hamilton. “Damn, it was cool.”
But the height of the project would have almost doubled the 65-foot height limit, he said.
“Given the fervor with which the community fought height back then, we couldn’t get all the parties to agree on acceptable risk levels. Plus, the family was set on a certain price. If the community would only allow us a more mundane project limited to 65 feet, then you were going to lose your shirt (and pants, and socks, and accessories) at that price. In the end, we just couldn’t agree, and I withdrew our offer.”
The Pernicano’s property once again has a buyer, said Savory, the real estate agent.
The escrow process began a few weeks ago and is expected to finish by January 2019, Savory said. The buyer plans to build apartments on the property, she said, which is selling for close to the $8.8 million asking price.
Pizza and pork chops not included.
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