Catch of the Day: Popular Bluewater Grill Expands into Santa Barbara

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/1/16

Bluewater Grill, a Southern California-based and family-run restaurant group, is casting its nets on Santa Barbara.  The company is taking over the landmark Keeper’s Lighthouse along the city’s waterfront, and the building is already undergoing structural enhancements to accommodate its new tenant.  The new restaurant is a partnership between the group’s co-owners, Richard Staunton and Jimmy Ulcickas, and local beer magnates Adam Firestone, Andrew Firestone and David Walker.

The grand opening of Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara is slated for July 2017.

Acquiring the very visible building along Cabrillo Blvd., right at the foot of Stearns Wharf and at the threshold of the buzzy Funk Zone, was no small task.  “We’ve been chasing Santa Barbara and been knocking on people’s doors for the better part of 20 years,” says Mr. Ulcickas (his friends call him Jimmy U).  “This one came up last year and we jumped right on it.”

 The building at 15 E. Cabrillo Blvd. has a notable culinary history.  Most recently, it housed a Rusty’s Pizza.  But longtime locals remember it as the location of the famous Castagnola Lobster House, one of several local eateries established in the 1950s and 1960s by fishing industry legend George Virginio Castagnola.  The property, which is still owned by the Castagnola family, was recently rebuilt and is now being remodeled as a ground-level exhibition kitchen with counter seating and oyster bar.  Bluewater Grill is adding a second story with balcony to accommodate a full bar and dining room and “to take full advantage of those sunsets and beautiful views,” says Mr. Staunton.

The new restaurant’s location taps into some of Santa Barbara’s most robust foot traffic.  It’s also adjacent to the city’s newly reimagined lower State Street corridor, which will soon house a new luxury hotel and, in early 2017, the much-anticipated MOXI museum.  But it’s the water that sold the Bluewater folks.

The waterfront lighthouse building on the corner of Cabrillo Blvd. and Helena Ave. has a lengthy culinary history

“Imagine serving really good, fresh, awesome seafood right on the water – it’s the greatest no brainer of all time,” adds Mr. Staunton.    “But it’s not easy to do it right,” he adds, suggesting that,
with few exceptions, quality seafood, served oceanside, is tough to find in Santa Barbara.

Bluewater Grill may have well found the formula to doing it right.  Mr. Staunton and Mr. Ulcickas are fishermen by training who went into the restaurant business 20 years ago.  They prioritize sustainability, following the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch initiative and getting their fish purchases audited by the Long Beach Aquarium’s Seafood for the Future program. They serve up more than 40 varieties of seafood, reprinting their menus six to eight times a year based on what’s available seasonally and locally.  And they operate their own swordfish harpoon boat, the Pilikia, which cruises the waters from San Diego to Santa Barbara every June through October (that’s swordfish season) and supplies the Bluewater Grill restaurants with each fresh catch.
A rendering of Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara (credit: LMA Architects)

Under construction, Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara is set to open July 2017
“Whether it’s catching our own or buying from our suppliers, it’s always about getting the best,” says Mr. Staunton of their company strategy.  “And then it’s about controlling that product from the back door to when it gets to the plate.”

Mr. Ulcickas agrees: “The key to our success has been offering pristine quality at a value price.” 

Most dinner entrees on the Bluewater Grill menus range between $21 and $28.  The restaurants also feature lunch, brunch, a kids’ menu and happy hour specials.  There are in-season promos, too – currently, the restaurant is running a stuffed lobster special – and monthly themed wine and beer food pairings.

That emphasis on the right location, even the right building, has also been part and parcel to the group’s slow but profitable growth.  Its original Newport Beach location on Lido Peninsula, accessible by car, bike or boat, took over the historic site that once housed well-known The Sea Shanty and the very popular Delaney’s.  The Redondo Beach spot is right on Kind Harbor, surrounded by sailboats.  The Coronado Island eatery is in the former boathouse of the legendary Hotel del Coronado, which dates back to 1887.  And the Catalina Island restaurant sits right on Avalon Harbor, over the water.  When Bluewater Grill Santa Barbara opens, it’ll be the company’s ninth location. 

 “We don’t consider ourselves a chain, but rather a family of restaurants,” insists Mr. Staunton.  “Do they all serve fish and chips? Yeah.  But it’s not very interesting for us to cookie cutter the style for each restaurant.  Each menu is really styled for each location – and not only the food but also the design, which is always inspired by the buildings they’re in.”

Rick Staunton, left, and Jimmy Ulcickas (credit: Bluewater Grill)
And in that sense, Santa Barbara’s old Keeper’s Lighthouse building “was worth the wait,” adds Mr. Ulcickas.

The business connection with the Firestone-Walker team is really more a personal one.  Mr. Staunton’s wife, Cammy, was grade school classmates with Adam Firestone’s wife, Kate, and the families are longtime friends.  “I’ve tried to talk Jim and Rick into coming into Santa Barbara forever,” admits Mr. Firestone.  “I know they’ve always loved and had a connection to the local area.” 

Like all Bluewater Grill locations, the Santa Barbara restaurant will carry a variety of Firestone-Walker beers and Santa Barbara County wines.  It’s also looking to hire a Santa Barbara-based chef, as well as local management, servers, bartenders and kitchen personnel.

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