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Native Son

Being a good neighbor as important as good business to hospitality pro Steve Smith

By David Moye
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San Diego is like no other place in the world, especially if you’re in the restaurant business. So says Steve Smith, the Vice President of Operations for Eat.Drink.Sleep. (EDS), the hospitality design company responsible for local landmarks like Belmont Park (Mission Beach), the TOWER23 Hotel (Pacific Beach), and the Lakehouse Hotel and Resort in San Marcos.

In addition, Smith and his wife, Jill Lux-Smith, helped launch the popular escape-room trend in San Diego with House of Hints in Kearny Mesa; other locations are planned for San Marcos, Center City and Eastlake.

Smith, 50, believes that growing up as the son of a Navy commander-turned-high-school-principal gave him a leg up on understanding how to succeed in the region.

“San Diego is different than other cities,” says Smith, who was part of the first graduating class of University City High School near La Jolla. “The way it’s laid out—the valleys and the mesas—means people have an allegiance to a locale that is their turf. So when you open a restaurant here, you have to be practical about how far you can draw from, and what product you offer to bring in.”

That insight helped Smith and EDS return Belmont Park to its glory days as a major destination after decades of neglect.

“We wanted to make an area where adults can walk along the boardwalk and not feel like one of the old people in the room,” Smith says. “They can feel, ‘There’s a place for me.’”

EDS did that with two Mission Beach oceanfront restaurants: Draft, a bar with one of the region’s most extensive beer lists; and Cannonball, a Pacific Rim-influenced dining spot with unobstructed views of the water. Previous tenants tended to be bars and restaurants catering to young singles and emphasized wild nights and cool drinks. With high-quality meal options, Draft and Cannonball attract more of a diverse demographic.

“By improving the food and beverage options in Mission Beach, we’ve made the area not just for people 21 to 30 but for people 21 to 65,” Smith says.

In addition, EDS helped to improve midway attractions like the arcade and built a new miniature golf course and new bathrooms.

“A lot of it is behind-the-scenes and not glamorous, but it’s important to the whole experience,” Smith says.

There is a personal reason why Smith has worked so hard to return Belmont Park to a level of success it has lacked since the 1970s: his 82-year-old mother lives in the area, and he wanted to ensure she felt comfortable in the neighborhood she calls home.

He is happy with the results thus far. “Crime in the area has gone down by 85 percent, and that affects home values and a feeling of safety,” he says proudly. “The business opportunity is there, but there’s something we can do for the community and that’s the part that feels good. We think we can do something great for the city for years to come.”