Sometime early this month, Chula Vistans Kevin Rhodes and Christianne Penunuri will open Lime in the Coconut, a tropical bar, restaurant and speakeasy a the corner of Third Avenue at Davidson Street in their longtime hometown.
It’s just three doors down from the Groundswell Brewing Tasting Room the married couple opened on Third Avenue in 2018. Opening two hospitality businesses in downtown Chula Vista would have been a risk 10 years ago. But in the years since, the Third Avenue corridor between E and H streets has become a bustling drinking and dining destination. On weekend nights, virtually every restaurant, tasting room and bar is packed with customers, and hundreds more people spill out into the plywood and awning parklets constructed for outdoor dining during the pandemic.
Penunuri said she and her husband have lived in Chula Vista for 28 years, and they’re thrilled to see how the downtown area has transformed in recent years.
“Chula Vista used to just be the place we lived, but it was certainly not a destination. Frankly, we were tired of having to drive to other cities to find places that were pedestrian-friendly and where you could go from restaurant to restaurant and have a place to hang out on the weekend,” she said. “We are invested in Third Avenue, and we think we’re just at the beginning of this renaissance.”
Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas has lived just off Third Avenue in downtown Chula Vista for the past 20 years, and she agrees with Penunuri that the city’s downtown was dying when she moved to town. Over the years, empty downtown storefronts were replaced by event halls used to host weekend quinceañeras and weddings, along with the florist, tailor, dress and cake shops that served these events, but most weekdays and evenings, the area was deadly quiet.
“There wasn’t much happening here downtown. Everything rolled up and closed at 5 o’clock and nobody was on the streets,” Casillas Salas said.
So in the early 2000s, city officials began crafting an Urban Specific Core Plan to revitalize and beautify the downtown and attract new businesses that would draw more foot traffic. Meanwhile, the post-World War II generation of downtown-area homeowners retired and sold their homes or passed their properties on to family members, and this growing younger population were hungry for more hometown entertainment.
The answer for jump-starting downtown was San Diego’s craft beer industry. According to a 2016 survey by National University, San Diego County had 114 breweries and brew-pubs by the end of 2015 — but only two were in the South Bay. In 2017, Chula Vista Brewery opened the first beer tasting room on Third Avenue, followed three months later by Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Co. Groundswell Brewing opened on Third Avenue in 2018 and many more arrived. Before long, more than a dozen new restaurants, cocktail lounges, gourmet bakeries, cafés and coffeehouses followed.
Chula Vista resident ErinMarie Reiter said it’s been exciting watching the downtown area come alive in recent years. She still loves visiting the older restaurants on Third Avenue, like the 67-year-old La Bella Pizza Garden, but she said having a vibrant downtown has made Chula Vista a more fun place to live.
Here’s a look at some of the new downtown restaurant, bars and bakeries that have opened in recent years or will open soon:
Lime in the Coconut
Cofounder Christianne Penunuri says the goal of this tropical restaurant and bar is to provide a space where locals can “escape, relax and slow down from the crazy pace of life.” Owned by the founders of Groundswell Brewing, a low-alcohol beermaker that debuted in San Diego’s Grantville neighborhood in 2013, Lime in the Coconut is helmed by executive chef Jeremy Galapon, formerly of Bali Hai, with drinks designed by Snake Oil Cocktail Co. Penunuri said the venue will also include a not-so-hidden speakeasy named X. Lime will open sometime early this month. 248 Third Ave. limexcoconut.com
Agave Coffee & Cafe/Shake & Muddle
Jim V. Pieri owns these side-by-side eateries in the Chula Vista Gateway center at Third Avenue and H Street. Shake & Muddle, which opened in 2019, is a fusion mixology cocktail bar and small plates restaurant serving salads, burgers, tacos, steaks and more. Agave, which opened in 2013, serves organic coffee and healthy lunch options for breakfast and lunch. 303 H St. shakeandmuddle.com, agavecoffeeandcafe.com
El Cruce + 241
El Cruce (Spanish for “the crossing”), which opened in November 2020, serves traditional Baja dishes, wines and beers with specialties that include ceviches, tacos, chilaquiles, fish machaca, along with a Mexican-style weekend brunch. 241 Third Ave., Suite C. elcrucechulavistaca.com
The Vogue Tavern
Established in 2019 in a Tudor-style building next to the under-renovation Vogue Theatre, this always-packed and boisterous Old World beer hall serves a mostly German-inspired menu with schnitzel, sausage and pretzels, along with salads, flatbreads, burgers and wings. 230 Third Ave. voguetavern.com
This La Mesa-born farm-to-table restaurant chain opened its fourth location in 2019 at F and Landis streets. It took over the 10,000-square-foot former Marie Callender’s space, just off Third Avenue, and can accommodate large gatherings. 330 F St. myfarmerstable.com
Mmm … Cakes
Chula Vista custom cake-maker Jose Barajas, known for his appearances on TV’s “The Next Great Baker” and “Cake Wars,” opened his first brick-and-mortar shop last October in the Park Plaza center at Third Avenue and F Street. The shop serves imaginative layer cakes whole or by the slice, as well as pastries, desserts and pizza rolls, custom-order cakes and coffee drinks. 310 Third Ave., Suite C4. mmmcakessd.com
Dark Horse Coffee Roasters
Founded in Normal Heights in 2013, Dark Horse plans to open its sixth San Diego County location soon next door to Mmm … Cakes in Park Plaza. Dark Horse trades directly with coffee growers on small farms worldwide. 310 Third Ave., Suite A5. darkhorsecoffeeroasters.com
One of Third Avenue’s largest new restaurants opened last October in the former Fuddrucker’s space. It serves modern Sinaloan food and Japanese sushi along with a floor show of live Norteño music. The chain is named for founder Misael Guerrero’s hometown of Culiacán in Sinaloa, Mexico. 340 Third Ave. culichitown.com