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Fraternity friendships foreshadowed restaurant excellence

By Brandon Hernández

Three of the top restaurants in San Diego - George’s At The Cove, Trattoria Acqua and Azul - sit in close proximity to one another on La Jolla’s Prospect Street. The owners of these three restaurants are close, too, having shared a common background as Sigma Chi fraternity brothers at San Diego State University in the late 1960s.

The trio met recently to reminisce about the good old days and the paths that led them from College Avenue to Prospect Street.

Michael McGeath, the proprietor of Trattoria Acqua, refers to his initiation into the fraternity as, “one of the worst nights of my life.” That was primarily because he dislocated his knee in the process, going straight from the frat house to the hospital, where he insisted on wearing his frat pin while undergoing surgery.

But there was something else that added to McGeath’s misery: George Hauer, owner of George’s and, according to McGeath, the toughest interviewer on the panel he faced.

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“You killed me!” McGeath said of Hauer. “I thought, ‘My God, are you sure he’s a brother?’ ”

By then, Hauer was in his final year at SDSU and had overcome a sense of inadequacy from his days as a 17 year-old pledge.

“I was surprised they picked me,” Hauer said. “My pledge class included (future NFL coaches) Joe Gibbs and Rod Dowhower. It was like being a midget in a home of giants.”

The trio went on to experience the wild times often associated with frat living, but they also had career ambitions - none of which involved restaurants.

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Hauer graduated in 1968 with a psychology degree he had no intention of using. He started working at the popular Jolly Ox Steakhouse in Mission Valley because he had recently been fired from his job as a study haul proctor at a local high school. Feeling he should switch to a more legitimate vocation, he became an investment advisor, but grew tired of it after a couple of years.

He moved to Europe for a year and, upon his return to the U.S., took a job as a waiter with Continental Restaurant Systems (CRS). He rose in the ranks to become the general manager of San Diego’s first Hungry Hunter steakhouse and, by the time he left CRS in 1984 after 14 years of service, he was the director of operations, responsible for more than 120 restaurants and more than 7,000 employees nationwide. CRS extended a generous offer for Hauer to stick around, but he had his mind made up. He opened George’s At The Cove and is now a widely respected restaurateur and industry visionary.

In 1967, fresh out of service with the Hawaii National Guard, Morton, who graduated the year before with an economics degree, went to work at his brother’s liquor store on Shelter Island. While he was there, The Chart House opened its third restaurant down the street. Night after night, Morton watched as upwards of 600 people flocked to the eatery for dinner. So, when a building behind the liquor store became vacant, he said to his brother, “Let’s lease it.”

They did and the first Brigantine was born.

“We made every mistake in the world,” he concedes. “We were bankrupt, and I didn’t even know it.”

But Morton learned from his early mistakes and, today, is the owner of the Brigantine family of restaurants, which includes La Jolla’s Azul as well as 11 other locations from Eastlake to Escondido.

During McGeath’s senior year, he was low on funds. He volunteered to cook at the Sigma Chi house and discovered that he really enjoyed being in the kitchen. After graduating in 1970 with a degree in history, he took a job as a waiter at The Old Spaghetti Factory to help pay the bills while he attended law school. With 18 months left before graduation, he was offered the general manager position at The Old Spaghetti Factory and, much to his parents’ dismay, he quit school to accept the job. Now he is the owner of Trattoria Acqua, which has won national recognition for its exceptional fare. It took awhile, but McGeath’s mother eventually softened and told her son that quitting law school was the best move he ever made, and that she really loved coming in for all the free dinners.

The bond the former frat brothers established at school has endured, they said.

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“It’s a restaurant fraternity,” McGeath said, who tells tales of how Hauer would refer diners seeking reservations at a booked George’s At The Cove over to Trattoria Acqua during the restaurant’s early days. It’s a large part of how the restaurant gained its notoriety and established itself as a great venue for authentic Italian cuisine. Expanding on this kindly practice, both Hauer and McGeath referred customers to Azul during its early days. Today, none of these establishments requires a helping hand, as they all stand on their own merits with reputations as stars of the region’s restaurant scene.

Even away from Prospect, the brothers see plenty of each other. For roughly 20 years, all three have been members of the board of the San Diego Chapter of the California Restaurant Association, and McGeath was recently elected to the CRA’s state board. Doing what they can to make San Diego’s restaurant industry all it can be for their fellow restaurateurs and valued customers is extremely important to them.

“It all comes down to camaraderie,” explains Hauer. “It’s the main reason we went into the restaurant business.”

And surely it is what’s held them together in the four decades since that harsh initiation night at SDSU.