New restaurant — with familiar façade — will open at former site of Small Bar in University Heights

Johnston’s will open at 4628 Park Blvd., with a sign dating back to 1924.

Johnston's restaurant and bar SD

A piece of local history gets a second life.

Photo via @johnstonsbar

Something big is rising from the former site of Small Bar in University Heights.

John Pani, founder of ELE Collective, is spending $3.5 million to transform the space at 4628 Park Blvd. into Johnston’s — a bar + restaurant with a twist of local history.

The façade includes an original, 1920s-era storefront sign that once welcomed locals to “Johnston’s Variety Dept. Store,” a five-and-dime that belonged to Alex and Mary Johnston from 1924-1940.

The sign was unearthed during the demolition process and when Pani saw it, he was inspired to pivot his restaurant’s design plans and create a space that honored the piece of local small business history.

“University Heights is one of San Diego’s oldest communities,” Pani said. “It would have been unconscionable to just have let that history disappear. This store has an important story to tell, and now, it’ll continue to live on in the heart of uptown for all to enjoy.”

Pani plans to open the 3,500-sqft Johnston’s in early 2023 for dinner and brunch — at least its indoor dining room, bar, and streetside patios. A larger garden patio buildout will be completed in the summer.

The kitchen will be helmed by Executive Chef Peter Ziegler (formerly of Wolfie’s Carousel Bar) and the menu will include yakitori cooked over a binchotan Japanese charcoal grill. Johnston’s will be a sister restaurant of Park & Rec, so its cocktail offerings will be extensive; look for the menu’s Small Bar Bloody Mary, a nod to the former beloved bar.

We’ve got our eyes on this opening, that’s for sure. 👀

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