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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
THEY HAD TO AX: Left to right: chef Justin Grady, owner Rick Onyon, bartender/partner Chris Schaffer of Firehouse No. 1.

Here Comes the Neighborhood

Firehouse No. 1 portends a bright future for San Jose neighborhood bars

By Ryan Osterbeck

SAN PEDRO SQUARE has always had the stigma of being an events-only destination for nightlife, almost exclusively dependent on the Pavilion for its bread and butter. Moreover, it's dubbed the "family-friendly" area of downtown dominated by restaurants—not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly not conducive to booming nighttime business. Not as sketchy as some other parts of San Jo, not as clubby as SoFA or as college frat party as Second, the Square is best described as "quaint."

Not so anymore. With new condo high-rises in the area and business towers finally filling up, San Pedro is turning into a legit district. Sociologists know that every good drinking district needs an anchor, that one place that becomes the destination for the neighborhood, and Firehouse No. 1—led by proprietor Rick Onyon, head bartender and partner Chris Schaffer and chef Justin Grady—is quickly becoming the anchor bar of San Pedro.

"We did a lot of drinking downtown and noticed there was something missing," says Onyon. "There was no neighborhood bar—we wanted an environment where you could come in a suit after work or in shorts and flip-flops and still feel welcome."

The "come as you are" attitude of Firehouse No. 1, with all its firefighter memorabilia, a great patio, beer signs and plasma TVs, wouldn't mean spit if this bar didn't have the secret that turns casual passers-by into die-hard regulars.

Schaffer points to the "good drinks and great food." True, the drinks do help the bar stand out among a sea of watering holes, but what really sets Firehouse No. 1 apart from the rest is the mouthwatering grub.

"New pub fare" is how chef Justin Grady describes the menu. "It's kind of a play on your pub classics, definitely paying respect, but kicking them up a notch." Grady's work in the kitchen—family-trained instead of culinary school, specializing in barbecue (all you aficionados should cruise down on Friday when Grady really showcases his backyard gourmet skills)—is readily apparent in every dish.

"My great-aunt taught me to burn things at a young age," he jokes, "but my whole thing is creativity—I enjoy making people feel good with food."

The dedication and hard work of the Firehouse is already paying some serious dividends. While others may have seen some drop off in business due to the current economic slump, Firehouse No. 1 has seen business increase, especially during the coveted lunchtime circuit.

"That's a testament to our regulars," explains Rick. "Regulars probably make up about 80 percent of our business and we're getting new ones every day."

That's no joke. On a random visit around 2:30 in the afternoon, Firehouse No. 1 was standing room only. Schaffer says that nighttime Firehouse crowds start rolling in around 6:30pm and don't let up until closing, at which point the whole crowd—staff included—does some communal karaoke before the last call bells ring.

"I think the vibe of downtown San Jose is changing," says Schaffer. "It used to be a little rough or too clubby, but it's heading toward more residential ... being able to walk everywhere, work, get some food, grab some drinks; that's the beauty of living downtown."

"We may be a little ahead of the curve," adds Rick. "Right now there's more construction than people, but the people are coming."

FIREHOUSE No. 1 is located at 69 N. San Pedro St., San Jose. (408.287.6969)

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