There are two methods of obtaining food at Fathom Bistro Bait & Tackle. One is pretty straightforward. Owner Dennis Borlek demonstrates the other by jumping over the counter of the bait shop, chopping up a frozen shrimp and pushing chunks of the flesh onto several hooks on a line dangling from a fishing pole. He shows off photos of some of his customers proudly displaying their catches—halibut, guitar fish, bass— and explains that while owning a restaurant and bar had always been his dream, operating a bait-and-tackle shop was never part of the plan.
"But it's always been a bait-and-tackle shop," Borlek says, hopping back over the counter, heading to the edge of the Shelter Island pier, where the new restaurant-and-shop sits (1776 Shelter Island Drive) and dropping the line into the water below. "One of the stipulations [of the lease with the Port of San Diego] was keeping the bait shop, but I would have anyway. It's awesome to be part of it all."
Borlek knows the history of the pier—he's been fishing off it since he was 4. He grew up in Point Loma. And with a father who worked on submarines at Naval Base Point Loma and later ran a scuba school, he has a strong connection to San Diego Bay. Borlek's father died last summer. Since then, the restaurant's become partly a tribute to him. A bit of his ashes sit in an urn above the window in the restaurant looking out at the Naval Base. Vintage scuba gear from Borlek's collection decorates the walls, and a line of old submarine crests, some from his father's collection, lines one side.
Fathom Bistro Bait & Tackle came to be after Borlek and his girlfriend took a walk along the bay. He saw the "For Lease" sign, and his vision of one day owning a big urban restaurant and craft-beer bar morphed into owning a small, unique restaurant on the water with a bait shop attached to one end. He submitted his proposal to the port, noting his background in homebrewing, explaining that he wanted to support San Diego's emerging beer scene by creating a place in a touristy area that celebrated smaller local breweries, not just the big ones like Stone Brewing Co., often the only local beer found at tourist spots in the area.
"So, it's kind of a hidden gem out here," Borlek says, squinting into the afternoon sun reflecting off ripples of water.
Borlek eventually catches a small fish he says would be perfect to use as live bait (a method he recommends since he can't sell live bait with a restaurant in the same building). It's a municipal pier, he says, pulling the fish off the hook and tossing it back into the water, so a fishing license isn't required. Poles are rented out for $6 an hour, $10 for two hours or $15 for the day. He says the pier is productive, especially in the summer when the water warms up. Halibut is the fish he recommends for frying up at home. And for those who turn up their noses at the idea of eating fish caught from the sometimes murky waters of San Diego Bay, he says they should read the Port of San Diego's signs posted at the piers, which warn of the dangers of eating certain amounts, and proceed with just a touch of caution.
"But this is the closest pier to the opening of the ocean, and we have really strong tidal flows, so the water comes and goes through here a lot," he says. "I have no problem eating fish caught here on Shelter Island."
The restaurant steers clear of seafood. "That's what people would expect out here on the pier, and I want to do what people don't expect," he says. Instead, it serves creatively flavored sausages he makes by hand alongside dressed-up hotdogs, sandwiches and burgers. Borlek makes his own kimchi, the fermented super-food from Korea, and grinds his own beef for the burgers. There are 15 taps boasting the kind of craft-beer selection that even the snobbiest of beer snobs would appreciate, and he says he never charges more than $7 for a pint (and that's for the really top-shelf stuff ).
Look out for upcoming beer-pairing dinners this summer, expanded hours that will include a Hawaiian-inspired breakfast and a rotating list of special sausages with ingredients like orange zest, cranberries and clove.
"Everyone's just been really great," Borlek says after hanging up his pole and giving a tour of his tiny but shiny new restaurant. "Beer fans and people who live in Point Loma are discovering me. The people who live on their boats in the different marinas are even finding me. I'm here for the long haul."