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Take a look inside the soon-to-open Sky Deck high-end food hall in San Diego’s Carmel Valley

Sky Deck developer Pat Donahue of Donahue Schriber at the venue on Wednesay.
Sky Deck developer Pat Donahue of Donahue Schriber looks out over the nearly finished food destination from its second-floor Brewers Deck during a preview tour Wednesday at Del Mar Highlands Town Center.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The two-story, 26,000-square-foot culinary destination was modeled on Barcelona’s upscale El Nacional dining complex

Sky Deck, North County’s latest culinary attraction, is finally nearing completion after a year-long pandemic-related delay.

On June 11, a handful of the restaurants in the nautically-themed 26,000-square-foot dining-and-drinking destination will open, with the majority coming online around mid-July.

But on Wednesday afternoon, May 26, Sky Deck’s developer and architect offered a walk-through preview of the massive, 1,000-seat complex, which is the final piece of a four-year, $120 million expansion of the Del Mar Highlands Town Center, at El Camino Real and Del Mar Heights Road in San Diego.

Sky Deck is located 14 miles south of the Windmill Food Hall, a 12,000-square-foot food hall that opened in September 2019 in the old Pea Soup Andersen’s restaurant building in Carlsbad. The two venues are among a wave of similar projects that have opened around the county in recent years, including the Little Italy Food Hall in Little Italy, the Liberty Public Market in Point Loma and the still-in-the-planning stages Outpost Urban Food Hall in Poway.

The entrance patio to Sky Deck at Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Carmel Valley.
The entrance patio to Sky Deck, a 26,000-square-foot restaurant destination at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Carmel Valley.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

But Sky Deck creator Pat Donahue doesn’t like his career-capping project being compared to the region’s other food halls. He modeled his project after El Nacional, the famously luxurious, 400-seat dining-and-drinking destination in Barcelona, Spain, which he visited on vacation several years ago.

“This isn’t a food hall, and please don’t call it a food court. This is a restaurant collection and a culinary experience,” said Donahue, the former CEO of Donahue Schriber Realty Group, the Costa Mesa company that developed Sky Deck and owns more than 60 shopping centers nationwide.

Like El Nacional, Sky Deck is a large and opulent location with a large bar at its centerpiece, surrounded by independently operated restaurants that have their own seating areas and full service staffs. Sky Deck will have eight restaurant tenants plus the main bar. There is also an upstairs patio Brewers Deck, where three local companies, two beermakers and one hard kombucha-maker, all had their soft openings this weekend.

Old boats, fish traps and glass floats hang from the 35-foot ceiling in Sky Deck.
Old boats, fish traps and glass floats hang from the 35-foot ceiling in Sky Deck, a 26,000-square-foot restaurant destination opening soon at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Carmel Valley.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Donahue said the goal for Sky Deck is to create an exciting location that will draw the dinner crowd for a night out at the shopping center.

“Food courts are good at drawing a lunch crowd to centers, but at dinnertime that falls apart because nobody’s going to get any credit for taking someone out to dinner at a food court. This place will be a date night destination. It will be dinner-centric,” he said.

Two of the Sky Deck tenants are excited about the project’s potential for success. Third-generation chef/restaurateur James Augustine, 20, is opening two side-by-side venues inside Sky Deck, Zizikis Street Food and J Restaurant. He opened Zizikis for takeout-only service two months ago and said he’s been stunned by its success, serving mostly local residents within a five-mile radius.

“Our business has been absolutely crazy,” said Augustine, who got his start in the kitchen five years ago at Beeside Balcony in Del Mar. “People are really excited about this. I’m optimistic.”

Sky Deck developer Pat Donahue, left, and chef/owner James Augustine of Ziziki's Street Food and J at the Sky Deck.
Sky Deck developer Pat Donahue, left, with chef/owner James Augustine, 20, who is opening two dining venues inside the upscale restaurant destination, Ziziki’s Street Food and J at the Sky Deck.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Also bullish on the future are Aaron and Anne Ortega, who co-own Oceanside’s Northern Pine Brewing with brewer Bobby Parsons. The married brewers were the first tenants signed to the Sky Deck project a couple of years ago. Anne Ortega said initially they were going to run the whole upstairs deck but they’re even more excited to be sharing space with Boochcraft and Rough Draft Brewing Co.

“It is so exciting to be here with these other companies,” Anne Ortega said on Wednesday, May 26. “We think this place is going to be a big deal. We can’t wait for it to all come together.”

Sky Deck is opening in a pedestrian-rich area that’s been growing rapidly in recent years, according to Chris Elliott, vice president of leasing and acquisitions for Donahue Schriber. It’s directly across the street from the 2-year-old mixed-use project One Paseo, a 23-acre development of housing, offices and retail shops. More than 280,000 square feet of leased office space was recently completed there and more is on the way, Elliott said.

Sky Deck, a 26,000-square-foot upscale food hall,  above the Jimbo's market at Del Mar Highlands Town Center.
Sky Deck, a 26,000-square-foot upscale food hall, was built above the Jimbo’s market at Del Mar Highlands Town Center.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Sky Deck — built atop the new 25,000-square-foot Jimbo’s market and reached via an outdoor escalator — was designed by Mitra Esfandiari, senior principal of RDC Architecture in Long Beach.

Inspired by San Diego’s Navy history, the interior design has an industrial maritime theme that’s decorated with real fishing boats, lobster traps, glass floats, nets and reclaimed iron hardware from decommissioned ships.

The building has a 35-foot-high, glass-paneled ceiling and its north wall is painted with a 100-foot-long ocean mural. Esfandiari said she wanted the massive scale of the building to have a unifying “wow factor,” but for each of the individual restaurants to have their own unique and intimate design.

Here’s a look at the tenants of Sky Deck. For opening updates, visit delmarhighlandstowncenter.com/skydeck/.

Sky Deck, a 26,000-square-foot restaurant destination opening soon at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Carmel Valley.
Sky Deck, a 26,000-square-foot restaurant destination opening soon at the Del Mar Highlands Town Center in Carmel Valley, is naturally lit with many windows in its 35-foot-high ceiling.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Understory — Scott Slater of Slater’s 50/50 restaurants will operate this huge central cocktail and wine bar with a live music stage and the ability to order plated food delivered from any of the eight onsite restaurants. Opening June 11.

Zizikis Street Food — Chef/owner James Augustine’s Greek restaurant serves pita wraps, burgers and sides made from family recipes. Now open for takeout. Opening June 11.

J at Sky Deck — A New American restaurant, also from James Augustine, features appetizers and entrees such as grilled Spanish octopus, lamb meatballs, pan-seared salmon and steaks. Opening June 11.

Kiin Extraordinary Thai — Pimwara “Patty” Thongchua, owner of Plumeria vegetarian Thai restaurants in Encinitas and University Heights, will offer both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Opening June 11.

Marufuku Ramen — This Bay area ramen restaurant chain, specializing in Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, opens its first San Diego County location.

Owners and managers mingle at Ambrogio15, the Milano Pizza Experience, inside the Sky Deck food hall.
Owners and managers mingle at Ambrogio15, the Milano Pizza Experience, inside the Sky Deck, a 26,000-square-foot upscale food hall opening soon at Del Mar Highlands Town Center.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ambrogio15, the Milano Pizza Experience — A more upscale version of the popular Pacific Beach pizzeria, will have more than a dozen gourmet pies developed by Michelin-starred Milanese chef Silvio Salmoiraghi and partner Choi Cheolhyeok. It will also offer a seven-course gourmet tasting menu for 15-20 diners at a time featuring Italian dishes and global meat and seafood entrees, with a vast menu of natural Italian wines and French Champagnes. Opening June 11 or earlier.

Craft House — Chef Caesar Huerta and his brother/partner Jose Huerta will serve New American and Mexican cuisine, including ceviches and whole grilled branzino. The brothers’ first Craft House, a brewpub known for its burgers, opened in North Park in 2018.

Urbana, Mexican Gastronomy — The second location of Javier Cuadra’s Michoacán-inspired street foods stand at the Anaheim Packing District food hall, including tacos, ceviches, enchiladas, salads and pozole.

Glass Box — Operated by chef Ethan Yang of Zen Modern Asian Bistro in Sabre Springs, Glass Box will offer yakitori, sushi and other Asian dishes at a dining bar where guests surround the chefs on three sides in a glass-walled restaurant. Opening in late August.

Boochcraft, Organic Hard Kombucha — Founded in Ocean Beach and headquartered in Chula Vista, Boochcraft is serving 16 of its flavored high-alcohol fermented tea drinks on tap in the upstairs Brewers Deck. Now open.

Rough Draft Brewing Co. — This Sorrento Mesa brewer specializes in IPAs, ales, stouts and Belgian-style and bourbon barrel-aged beers. Now open.

Northern Pine Brewing — This 3-year-old Oceanside brewer serve an eclectic mix of its house-brewed beers on tap, which include Smoke Show Black IPA and its Saized & Confused Saison, which won a gold medal at the 2020 San Diego International Beer Competition. Now open.

Inside the Sky Deck  food hall at Del Mar Highlands Town Center, an ocean mural can be seen above J restaurant.
Inside the Sky Deck upscale food hall at Del Mar Highlands Town Center, a massive hand-painted ocean-themed mural can be seen on the wall above the soon-to-open restaurant tenant J at the Sky Deck.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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