New Valley restaurants stress dining on a budget

Here’s something the central San Joaquin Valley hasn’t seen in a while: a wave of new restaurants.

No, the economy isn’t making a turnaround — so there’s no surge of fine dining. Instead, the openings are driven by other factors. Some lose their jobs and start new careers as restaurant owners. Others are lured by flexible landlords looking to fill retail spaces. Still others see a niche that hasn’t been filled.

It’s a trend that started last year. In November, Pismo’s Coastal Grill opened in the Villaggio shopping center at Blackstone and Nees avenues. Its blend of casual meals (fish and chips) and higher-end ones (garlic-and-herb roasted Dungeness crabs with handmade buttered noodles) brought the public in droves.

“Forget about the economy and focus on the idea,” says Pismo’s owner Dave Fansler, who saw a need for a seafood restaurant in Fresno. “I listen to my instincts, not the financial press.”

The businesses keep coming. J’s Sports Bar and Grill opened in Dinuba. A wine bar called The Tasting Room launched at Palm and Nees avenues. The Habit Burger Grill, a fast-casual chain known for its burgers, sandwiches and salads, will open in Fig Garden Village in mid-February.Everyone is betting that customers will open their wallets for a little lower-priced fun.

“No one wants to stay home and be depressed,” says Paul Frederick, founder of the restaurant group Modern Hospitality Systems in Manhattan Beach. “This economy is bad and it could be bad for quite a while.”

Frederick’s specialty: taking over existing restaurants, a move that saves 40% of the cost of building from scratch. His company revamps the spaces into businesses that aim to offer high-end experiences and reasonable prices.

Luna Cocina is a good example. The fusion Mexican restaurant opened in early January at 11th and Fargo avenues in Hanford. Its modern decor befits an upscale restaurant. But its main dishes are in the $10-$20 range.

The goal is to “take Mexican food to a higher level with more emphasis on better ingredients and better presentation,” Frederick says.

Examples include a braised duck tamale appetizer for $7.50, as well as The Hornet, an $8 drink. It consists of a whole pineapple infused with vodka for three days. The pineapple is drained and pulped, shaken over rocks and served in a martini glass.

The 120-seat restaurant is divided between a dining room and bar. A 40-seat patio will open in the spring. Entertainment includes Latin fusion music and sports shown on flat-screen televisions.

Frederick’s other concept is Eureka!Burger, which will launch this summer at Palm and Nees avenues. Guests will find gourmet burgers, salads and a full bar with 20 artisan beers. The family-friendly setting will have sports on TV and rock-and-roll music.

Dishes include the $9.25 Cowboy Burger, topped with cheddar cheese, shoestring onion rings and bacon, then served with homemade beer barbecue sauce. The $5.25 Eureka Gorilla Fries are served with melted cheddar and havarti cheeses, grilled onions, special sauce and green onions.Frederick, who also is a real-estate developer, knows that this is a tough time for retailers. He says he’s offering discounts at his own properties to attract tenants.

But it’s also a great time for retailers to expand. “There may have never been a better time to grow your own concept, because of the flexibility with landlords,” he says.

Others launch restaurants simply because they’ve lost their jobs. Kelly and Daniel Fenske used to own a used car lot, but they were forced to shut down in December.

“Our industry was not going well,” Kelly Fenske says.

So the two decided to create Scores sports bar on Sierra Street, near Simpson Street in Kingsburg. It’s the first restaurant for the couple, who plan to open before the Super Bowl. The restaurant will have about 80 seats and 13 television sets. The menu includes deep-dish pizzas, sandwiches, and burgers. The bar, which features beer and wine, has 12 taps, including microbrews.“We figured it could be something the town likes,” Kelly Fenske says.

Sports bars are a common theme in this new wave of restaurants. Swiggs Bar|Sports, a fast-casual restaurant with games such as pool, darts, shuffleboard and foosball, is slated to open this summer in Fresno.

“It’s a fusion of a local watering hole with bar sports,” says owner Michael Jew. “We’re trying to be a place conducive to large gatherings.”Jew, formerly a commercial real estate analyst, started thinking about opening a restaurant after his employer’s Fresno office closed. He didn’t want to relocate to the Bay Area.

“I grew up in a family full of foodies,” he says. “I love food. I love entertaining.”

Swiggs will be located on Shaw Avenue near Millbrook Avenue. With about 160 seats, it will have an area with TVs, another with games, and a “hangout” area by the bar, Jew says.

The second floor will have more entertainment, such as shuffleboard and foosball.

Menu specialties are chicken wings with 12 house-made sauces and slow-braised meat sandwiches. He estimates the average price of a meal to be $10-$12.

“What I see that Fresno wants is value in the money,” Jew says. “We’re planning on giving you the quantity. You either can’t finish it, or you’re going to eat half of it and bring the other half home.”

Though he’s no stranger to the economic slowdown, Jew is optimistic.

“I do see the restaurants closing left and right,” he says. “At the same time, they say one door closes and another one opens. I see this as an opportunity to fill a niche within the Fresno market that I think has been overlooked.”