Blurring the lines between interior and exterior, Nolita Hall fuses modern fare and retro technology.
“I would admit I am somewhat obsessed with design,” said Doug Hamm, founder of Black Swan Hospitality, Los Angeles, and owner of San Diego’s newest beer hall, Nolita Hall, located in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Pursuing his passion for ambience, Hamm’s first owned and operated bar and restaurant presents the atmosphere of a European beer hall with Italian design flourishes, elevated cocktails, and a select menu of gourmet pizzas and salads.
According to co-collaborator David Michael, principal at San Diego design firm Tecture Inc., “We strived to go beyond the notion of a traditional bar, and build a place where people can have their own experiences. We like to blur lines, and that’s how we approached the design of Nolita Hall—which has evolved into an esteemed eatery where people come to play shuffleboard, drink cocktails, and eat good food.”
Working with Tecture, Hamm succeeded in creating an engaging environment that effortlessly blends interior and exterior, pays homage to San Diego’s outdoor culture, and incorporates design elements reminiscent of the neighborhood’s namesake.
“San Diego has one of the best climates in the country,” Michael continued. “When designing this space, we wanted to capitalize on that and truly blend the indoors and outdoors with key architectural and design elements.”
In November 2017, Hamm purchased the 6,500-sq.-ft. property and gutted it to create an open environment. During the renovation, he added an enormous 10-ft. x 60-ft. skylight which has become a show-stopping feature of the space.
“I put in this ridiculously big window at the top of the building, and it wasn’t until later that I realized it could be used to give guests an experience that they cannot get at any other restaurant, anywhere,” Hamm explained.
The team quickly came to realize that Nolita Hall lies right underneath a flight path into the San Diego International Airport, so much so that planes fly overhead only a few hundred feet above the ground. When they came to terms with the fact that sound proofing the building wasn’t possible, they decided on the next best thing: to fully embrace it.
Hamm turned to Oat Foundry, a Philadelphia-based engineering and design firm that specializes in classic train station-style split flap displays, to create a new engaging experience that makes the eatery’s location a draw. Hamm tasked the Oat Foundry Engineering team with programming their retro-split flap display with a custom Flight Tracker API that delivers real-time flight information for airplanes as they pass overhead flying to or from the airport.
When a plane flies loudly over Nolita Hall, the split flap begins clacking, and guests turn their heads in anticipation to see the flight origin and number appear on the retro-inspired display in real time. “We are really able to delight guests and generate conversations totally unique to us,” Hamm commented.
To keep interest piqued, the Split Flap Display is constantly updated with food and beer specials, clever quotes, and any other information that Hamm or the managers choose to share.
“We build things that you can’t find off the shelf,” Oat Foundry co-founder and CEO Mark Kuhn IV said. “The split flap display is the perfect addition to the Nolita Hall experience.”
Adding to the blending of the indoors and outdoors, Tecture built out the largest mechanized glass doors in Little Italy, creating four disparate systems made up of a quad-fold system; normal large pivot doors; a counter-weighted door; and horizontal slider doors in all different locations.
Now a defining characteristic of the restaurant, the door installation proved to be a challenging feat for the team. “You can design things really well on a computer, but until you get to the project site it’s all trial and error,” Michael said. “It’s a technical puzzle. But we enjoy doing things differently, and in this case, it paid off.”
Tecture also added big communal tables (an elevated take on the classic picnic table), acrylic light transmitters, and a custom-wood bar and kitchen window to differentiate it from other restaurants in the area. “We chose calming materials that created the ambiance we were going for,” Michael said.
Nolita Hall opened in April 2018 to great reviews, and quickly earned a 2018 Orchids & Onions Design Award from the San Diego Architectural Foundation. “Every project and property I acquire starts with the underlying belief that regardless of location, use, or financial underwriting, it should have potential to become something special and provide a certain ‘wow factor’ with aesthetics and design,” Hamm said. “This can be done successfully in a number of different ways. It can be simple and subtle, or unexpected and bold. Often times, and I think in this case, it’s the perfect combination of both.”