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Park & Rec is the new concept for former Bourbon Street and Lei Lounge

SAN DIEGO, California -- The old Bourbon Street and Lei Lounge complex in University Heights will become Park & Rec, the new ownership said Friday, with a opening planned in May.

Located at 4612 Park Blvd. in University Heights, one of San Diego's oldest neighborhoods dating to the first land boom in the late 1880s, the complex has been home to watering holes for more than 50 years.

John Pani, founder of hospitality investment and management firm ELE Collective, promises to breathe new life into the beloved neighborhood hangout with the launch of a new cocktail concept in collaboration with local beverage consulting duo Revelry Cocktail Co. and two nationally known barkeeps.

Pani and ELE Collective are involved in Waypoint Public in North Park and Hotel Vyvant in Little Italy.

Barkeeps Trevor Easter (Noble Experiment, Rickhouse, Bourbon & Branch, Heaven’s Dog) and Anthony Schmidt (Fairweather, Rare Form, Noble Experiment) will curate a playful assortment of classically-driven craft cocktails at Park & Rec.

What follows are highlights of a news release issued late Friday morning:

Park & Rec will draw on the unique structure of the pre-existing property, creating three individual brick-and-mortar cocktail bungalows surrounding an expansive open-air courtyard. A play on the venue’s name “Park” (Park Blvd.) & “Rec,” the courtyard will conjure images of backyard antics with a variety of recreational table games, such as ping pong and shuffle board. Live entertainment & musical performances will round out the venue’s charming, airy atmosphere.

Celebrating the community’s colorful roots, Park & Rec will serve as a distinct destination, attracting Uptown locals and visitors alike. Park & Rec will embrace the image of the ostrich, a wink and a nod to the neighborhood’s former ostrich farm (relocated by Harvey Bentley from Coronado to University Heights in 1904). A popular tourist attraction, the ostrich farm was serviced by trolley car up Park Blvd. and today, the ostrich imagery can still be spotted on neighborhood signs and street markers throughout University Heights.

While design specifics are currently being kept under wraps, Pani aims to celebrate the authenticity of the neighborhood space by keeping certain historical aspects intact. Pani has also acquired the lease on the property adjacent to Park & Rec, a 3,500 square-foot space formerly operated by Lei Lounge, and is currently considering several possibilities for the concept.

About Trevor Easter

It was nearly 10 years ago that Trevor Easter joined forces with fellow cocktail aficionados, the Stanton brothers, Ryan Kuntz (El Dorado) and Anthony Schmidt (Fairweather, Rare Form) to formulate the Leisure Society—a unique and raucous group of then unknown influencers trying to create a distinctive drinking culture in San Diego. Shortly before the group launched El Dorado Cocktail Lounge in downtown’s East Village neighborhood in 2009, Easter made the decision to migrate north to Sacramento, where he cut his teeth on high volume, old school classic cocktails at one of Sacramento’s spirit havens, the Shady Lady Saloon (“Best Bars in America”, Esquire Magazine 2014).

His enthusiasm eventually led to a position at under mentor Erick Castro, then bar manager of Rickhouse (Food & Wine’s “Best Bars in the World” in 2010). Easter led the SF bar to being honored by Tales of the Cocktail’s Annual Spirited Awards as the “Best High Volume Bar” in the U.S. in 2011 – marking the first time that a West Coast bar was awarded in any category.

Eager for new challenges, Easter blitzed through a handful of San Francisco bars including Bourbon & Branch, Wilson & Wilson Detective Agency, 15 Romolo, Churchill, and eventually Heaven’s Dog. Easter soon ascended to West Coast brand ambassador for Beefeater & Plymouth Gin —where he travelled the globe visiting distilleries, identifying bar and cocktail trends, learning about the history of spirits and conducting educational seminars.
Trevor Easter’s end game, however, was always to bring the knowledge he gained back to his San Diego hometown. Trevor’s philosophies are the ultimate distillation of those happening in California’s southernmost city: prize and highlight fresh produce, and take classic, simple drinks to create mindful twists that entice and educate an entirely new generation of cocktail drinkers.

About Anthony Schmidt

With a passionate yet humble approach to the art of the cocktail, Anthony Schmidt has spent the last 10 years immersing himself in the culture and history of the classic American cocktail. While moonlighting early on as a manager and bouncer at a collection of nightlife establishments, Schmidt was introduced to Nathan Stanton, a young entrepreneur on the verge of co-opening El Dorado, one of San Diego’s first, original craft cocktail bars. Quickly recognizing one another’s enthusiasm to develop San Diego’s burgeoning cocktail scene, Schmidt assumed a management position at the progressive new bar and dove head first into what would become a lifelong passion.

This collaboration eventually lead to Schmidt’s first—and much-anticipated—role behind the bar in 2010 when he opened Noble Experiment as general manager and head bartender. Over the past seven years Schmidt has helped to develop unique spirits programs that have earned a place on some of the nation’s most coveted lists – including Esquire's “Best Bars in America”, Food & Wine’s “Top 50 Bars in the Country” as well as two nomination at the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans.

Today, Anthony’s passion lies in preserving and elevating the “lost art” of the craft cocktail. Through nation-wide travel and an insatiable curiosity for discovering time-honored techniques, Schmidt has helped to preserve a cocktail philosophy founded in serving high-quality drinks with meticulous service. This mindset has carried over into the three concepts in San Diego he has helped launch thus far — Noble Experiment, Craft & Commerce, El Dorado Cocktail Lounge — and continues to be woven into the cocktail program at his newest dual-concept launch: Rare Form and Fairweather, a restaurant and cocktail bar co-owned by Schmidt that opened doors in San Diego’s East Village neighborhood in August 2014.

About John Pani/ELE

A San Diego native, John Pani has for the past 12 years established himself as a key player in a number of notable hospitality projects. Before launching ELE which stands for "Experience. Live. Enjoy." — a philosophy he aims to provide for his guests — John served as a vice president of development for JMI Realty, a private investment firm heavily involved in the revitalization of downtown San Diego's Ballpark District. His wide breadth of success includes projects such as Omni San Diego, Hotel Solamar/ Jsix Restaurant & Lounge, the Marriot Del Mar/ Arterra Restaurant, and ELE's first owned and managed property, the 23-room Hotel Vyvant in San Diego's Little Italy. In 2014, alongside business partners Brian Jensen (of the Bottlecraft beer shops) and Executive Chef Amanda Baumgarten (a Bravo Network’s Top Chef alum), John opened doors to Waypoint Public in North Park. Over the past year, Waypoint has quickly become one of San Diego’s most notable craft beer bars, having recently been honored as one of the “Best New Beer Restaurants” in the U.S. by Draft Magazine and West Coaster’s 2014 “Best Beer Restaurant” in San Diego.

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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.