San Diego’s newly restored historic Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club and Bungalows is a trip in more ways than one.
The main door with cobra head-shaped brass handles opens into a more-is-more lobby with checkerboard floors, zebra and leopard upholstery, tasseled lampshades and Delft blue wall tiles depicting decaying Lafayette Hotel signs. The swimming pool was designed by Hollywood’s original Tarzan back when the hotel was an old Hollywood haunt. And the stunning fine dining restaurant is a salvaged decommissioned Mexican church with stained glass windows and a pulpit for a bar.
This is a place designed to entertain visitors for a weekend or just a cocktail. But what else would you expect from Arsalun Tafazoli and CH Projects, the detail-obsessed Southern California hospitality group that put San Diego’s social scene on the global map with 20 cheekily designed food and beverage projects, including tiki bar False Idol, and brunch wonderland Morning Glory, which has cockroach wallpaper and a portrait of Rick Owens and Michele Lamy near the restrooms, among other oddities?
“I’m a huge David Lynch fan, his genius is the subversive, darker side of the Norman Rockwell painting, and I like including subversive elements in all our projects. It could be offensive to some but I think it is honest,” Tafazoli says.
The Lafayette was built in 1946 on El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego’s main thoroughfare until the I-8 freeway opened in the late ’60s. And it attracted a steady stream of stars (Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope) when the resort city was still in the running to be the vacation destination for automobile-obsessed L.A. elites. (Palm Springs eventually won out.)
Shortly after it opened, the property was purchased by Conrad Hilton and changed ownership several times in the following decades, maintained with varying degrees of effort and investment.
On a lark in 2021, during the COVID-19 downturn, Tafazoli bought the hotel and over the next two years he and his investors spent $31 million on the renovation. “A lot of hotels in San Diego are tied up with real estate, in that they are on the beach, or near a natural wonder.…We saw a cultural void in terms of a place that spoke to our group,” says the San Diego native.
The North Park neighborhood where the hotel sits was already a gentrified hot spot for bars and restaurants, including CH Projects’ own apothecary-style bar Polite Provisions and Japanese listening bar Part Time Lover.
Not that guests ever need to leave the 139-room Lafayette, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now has its own updated soundtrack produced by local musician Swizz Beatz. Overhauled by Brooklyn-based Post Company, the hotel has eight unique food and beverage outlets, each with its own menu — all of them feasts for the senses — and social media feeds.
The Lobby Bar sits under an Art Nouveau circular glass atrium anchored by an Atlas statue and surrounded by a hand-painted mural by Brazilian artist Joāo Incerti. The ’40s inspired, always-open Beginner’s Diner has a chrome exterior that was crafted with the help of a diner historian.
“The diner is a genre that will outlive us all,” says Tafazoli, a self-described nerdy kid who has a reverence for historic spaces and subcultures, studied philosophy and economics at the University of California San Diego and had an internship at CAA in L.A. before moving home and starting to work at bars and restaurants.
The Pool Bar serves apertivos and spritzes and features striped chaise lounges and rattan clamshell chairs evoking the Amalfi Coast. (The hotel’s original owner, car dealer Larry Imig, tapped five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the 1930s and ’40s films, to design the pool, and it still has a plaque commemorating him.) And haute sports bar The Gutter was inspired by The Frick Mansion’s circa 1916 underground bowling alley, and has bowling, pool, shuffleboard and basketball games on offer alongside stiff martinis.
At fine dining Oaxacan restaurant Quixote, chef José Cepeda (formerly of L.A.’s Mirame) serves delicious tlayudas, crab corn donuts, aquachiles and mezcal cocktails in its enlightened space.
Later this year, European-style restaurant Le Horse will open, and nightclub The Mississippi Room will return. (It’s where Tom Cruise serenaded Kelly McGillis with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” in the original “Top Gun.”)
“We develop these environments and make them immersive to help you forget because that’s what art should do,” says Tafazoli, who has been approached by developers in L.A. and New York but turned them down to keep his focus on his hometown.
“We’re very fortunate. I do think we’ve contributed to culture in a meaningful way here,” he says.
Plus, San Diego “is a pretty delightful place,” he says. “It’s obnoxiously delightful.”
The Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club and Bungalows, 2223 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego, lafayettehotelsd.com. Room rates start at $299.