By John P Anderson / San Diego Free Press
I’ve seen ads in CityBeat for the past couple of months featuring a large pink Lichtenstein-ian tentacle pouring a draft beer and the tagline “San Diego’s Only Tap House on the Water”. Tentacles, beer, and an address on Shelter Island (1776 Shelter Island Drive, 92106) that I couldn’t immediately place. Mysterious and involving beer? I was intrigued and recently made a visit.
The mystery deepened when I arrived at the address (directed by my smartphone navigation app) and saw no bar or restaurant in sight, nor a sign directing me to one. There was a hotel on one side of the street, a playground on the other, and a pier with a few fishermen on it. My daughter was with me and insisting that Elmo needed to play on the slides so we headed to the playground. I agreed under the circumstances that I could continue to search for Fathom on my phone. (Yes, I use a phone while watching my child. Distracted dad indeed.)
This was my first time at the Shelter Island playground and it is a great location to enjoy playing outside. Views of Point Loma and the ocean, gulls and pelicans swooping over the bay just a few feet away, and to the east downtown San Diego with mountains in the background. I studiously ignored the views and craned my head closer and closer to my phone, trying to solve my puzzle. Google Maps gave me walking directions: Walk 46 feet along Shelter Island Drive and you will arrive at your destination. Looking all around, there were clearly no buildings in that proximity to me.
Then I remembered the latter part of the name – Bait & Tackle. There’s a pier on the bay next to the playground, with a tiny building on it. Surely that couldn’t house a bar and restaurant, could it? I picked up Elmo and my daughter and headed toward the pier.
As I approached the small blue building on the west side of the pier I saw a mid-20s man sitting on the pier with a pint glass of thick, dark beer. Ahh – this must be the place. Another young gentleman was updating the tide and temperature figures on a board next to the door. I edged around him and went to open the door with my free hand. He then turned to me and courteously asked for my ID. I had just met my first bouncer that also tracks tides. Only in San Diego?
Having been confirmed as being over 21 years of age, I entered Fathom Bistro for the first time (the bait and tackle portion is separate but on the same pier). The first thing I noticed was the chalkboard beer list featuring a drawing of an antique sea diver and an impressive list of beers. Many local breweries were featured, with a number of offerings I hadn’t seen before. I opted for the Coronado Brewing Milk Stout, which was good but I wouldn’t order again with so many options to explore.
The space inside Fathom is small, about 20 seats, and has about the same number of seats outside on the pier with a wonderful view of downtown. Since the outdoor area is on the east side of the pier it’s well protected from the breeze that blows in from the ocean which can be chilly at times. The walls inside are painted a dark blue and decorated with ocean and nautical themed items. These range from vintage 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movie posters to diving masks, to photos above the door of marine explorers like Jacques Cousteau and Steve Zissou. A large television on one wall kept with the theme, showing an old movie set on a boat.
The tables are cozy and ideal for sharing a drink and conversations with friends. There is also a large window on the west side of the building that offers what must be one of the best views of Point Loma in the city. A leaping dolphin in the bay would be the only thing I would add to the view.
I was only able to stop for one quick drink on this occasion and not able to sample the food. The menu is meat-heavy, including twists on burgers and housemade sausages and also featuring housemade kimchi. Judging by the quality of the draft list I would bet that the food is delicious but will have to confirm this notion in the future. Thrillist did a write-up of Fathom that includes some mouth-watering photos of the food offerings.
No doubt in my mind Fathom is an instant San Diego classic. The location, awesome tap list, and well-executed design of the space combine for a welcoming feel that includes elements (like the pier setting and views) unique to our city. The only other place in San Diego I’ve experienced this ‘love at first sight’ feeling was at Hamilton’s Tavern in South Park. This probably isn’t surprising since owner Dennis Borlek managed Hamilton’s. Some elements are identical between the two, like the chalkboard beer list, but for the most part Fathom has created an individual identity for itself.
My main gripe about Fathom would be the distance from local residents. Shelter Island is a great place for a stroll, run, or bike ride, but lacks San Diegans living close by – it’s a hike even from Point Loma which is the closest neighborhood. I fear that tourists staying in the hotels on Shelter Island will be the primary beneficiaries of this gem. Hopefully they’ll leave me a spot to sit.
For hours and more information check Fathom’s Facebook page.