Setting Sail

Eleanor Johnston |
Food And Dining

When Brian Malarkey and his partner, James Brennan, opened Searsucker—a supersized Fifth Avenue restaurant and lounge with a social dining motto—a lot was on the line, and many things were uncertain. Would Malarkey’s tongue-in-cheek fare fly with tourists and locals alike? Would Brennan be able to work his nightclub knowledge, keeping butts on bar stools, and heads bobbing to the groove? Would people buy into the quirky fabric riff for a name?

The answer: absolutely. Along with the help of Designer Thomas Schoos, whose playful yet plush décor pairs perfectly with Malarkey’s fun yet seriously delicious food, the 7,000-square-foot behemoth was a come early, stay late success out of the gates. In between turning out dishes and posing for pictures with blushing guests who recognized Malarkey’s lively personality as a finalist on “Top Chef Season 3,” the inventive cocktails flowed, and a brand was born.

“I was so excited with Searsucker,” Malarkey says. “That was my dream come true. I would have been completely happy just to be running the one restaurant.”

But not everyone greeted Malarkey and Brennan’s brainchild with confidence. There were naysayers, including reputable restaurateurs who thought it was an overloaded concept.

“David Cohn said to me, ‘What are you thinking? This isn’t going to work,’” Malarkey remembers. “The Cohns have been cranking out one successful restaurant after another for decades in San Diego, so I'd be lying if I said that proving him wrong—along with other accomplished chefs in town—didn't feel pretty good.”

Now, under the Enlightened Hospitality flag, Malarkey, Brennan, and Schoos have taken San Diego by storm. Brennan quickly parlayed Searsucker’s success into restaurant number two: Burlap.

“James is very driven—if he has one thing that works, he wants two things that work, and three things, and on and on. Literally, six months after Searsucker, he said, ‘I want to do a Del Mar location.' I said I was okay with it, but suggested we give it a different fabric name. And that opened up the floodgates—all of a sudden we realized that there are a lot of fabrics in the world.”

Expectedly, Gingham, Gabardine, and Herringbone followed in San Diego’s growing swath of social dining concepts. Searsucker Scottsdale threw open its doors recently, with an Austin location next on the national list. The menus for each have grown from Malarkey's quirky inspiration, who pens a framework and drafts talent—like Amanda Baumgarten and Anthony Sinsay—to fill in the details with their own creative flair.

“My dishes are big, fun, and bold. The Scallop with corned beef and corn, for example—that's a Malarkey dish, making fun of corned beef and cabbage. The Duck, Duck, Duck is another. We’re still smuggling in foie gras to make the sauce,” he laughs. “And, the Tongue in Cheek with sous vide tongue, braised cheek in agave, pickled cactus, queso fresco, radishes, and cilantro? Ming Tsai said it’s one of the best dishes he’s had in his life. These are definitely fun—and tasty—dishes.”

Still, Malarkey is expanding his repertoire from chef to restaurateur and loving every step along the way.

“I get to work with designers, pick out the plates, logos, design; I play with the food, the style, the side plates. I figured out that this is what I love. I’ve become a junkie, taking a place all the way from an ugly building to an amazing concept. I’m still driven by my culinary passions, but I'm more of a restaurateur than I have ever been.”

Malarkey’s penchant for being in the spotlight hasn’t gone by the wayside during his expansion. He’s authored “Come Early, Stay Late,” a gorgeous, approachable cookbook with local publisher Chef’s Press, and landed his most impressive on-camera role to date: being cast as a judge on ABC’s new cooking competition show, “The Taste,” alongside Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, and Ludo Lefebvre.

“Nigella and Tony are recognized internationally, so it was funny to see people's reaction to me being cast on the show. At first, the audience wasn't sure what to think, but when they realized that I was the only judge up there with not just one, but seven restaurants, and that I still cook in my kitchens, the respect factor when up—and fast.”

It’s undeniable that Malarkey’s national spotlight reflects back on San Diego—where it all started for him. With the city still in search of its culinary identity, that attention is a good thing.

“There’s a lot of fun quirkiness here, people who have a lot of the same philosophies,” Malarkey says of the local restaurant scene. “There are lots of people who are doing fun design and making great food—not all pretentious and serious. And for the most part, everyone gets along. Plus, the beer has really brought a spotlight onto San Diego. I really see it, except for a couple of bad apples.”

At the end of the day, it’s hard to hate on the fact that Enlightened Hospitality has created roughly 600 jobs, donated $300,000 to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, and gives hundreds of thousands to charities annually—with no end in sight. Malarkey wants to expand Searsucker nationally and possibly launch a lifestyle brand with Schoos, followed by some well-deserved time off.

“When the kids are 10 and 11,” he says with a wistful look, “we’re going to rent a big boat and set off around the world for a year to snorkel, fish, and eat.” And during that much-deserved respite from the spotlight, his legendary eats will swim on in his wake.


Malarkey Eats Cheat Sheet
All of the Enlightened Hospitality restaurants, in a nutshell

Searsucker {611 5th Avenue; 619.233.7327;}
New American Classic cuisine in the Gaslamp

Burlap {12995 El Camino Real; 858.369.5700;}
“Asian cowboy” fare in Del Mar

Herringbone {7837 Herschel Avenue; 858.459.0221;}
Fish “Meats” Field offerings from around the world in La Jolla

Gingham {8384 La Mesa Boulevard; 619.797.1922;}
La Mesa’s “urban cowboy diner”

Gabardine {1005 Rosecrans Street; 619.398.9810;}
A neighborhood kitchen to “gab, bar, and dine” in Point Loma