The High Sierra Grill at the Santa Barbara Airport.
The High Sierra Grill at the Santa Barbara Airport likely will close, at least temporarily, on Monday and Tuesday of this week as its operators seek loan funding to remain open. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Flightline Restaurant — AKA the High Sierra Grill — likely will close, at least temporarily, on Monday and Tuesday of this week, in the latest turn involving the embattled restaurant at the Santa Barbara Airport

“I am not giving up hope,” said Warren Butler, the restaurant’s managing consultant. “I am doing everything possible to keep the place open. I am just the local guy trying to make this work.”

The city of Santa Barbara denied High Sierra Grill‘s attempt to transfer ownership of the restaurant to Butler, a veteran restaurant owner who plans to rebrand the eatery as the Flightline Restaurant.

The city wasn’t convinced that the restaurant would be successful under Butler’s plan, which was to turn the restaurant into an airplane and aviation-themed restaurant.

Butler secured a commitment for a $500,000 loan to take over management of the restaurant and serve out the remainder of the lease. High Sierra is in the sixth year of a 10-year lease, with three five-year options to extend. Lease payments are about $15,000 per month.

Amid all the controversy, Butler’s lender, ACI Jet, has decided to back out and withdraw the money offer. 

“So my major lender, who was just trying to be helpful, has backed out, and we are back to square one,” Butler said. “Imagine having to send back $500,000 because of a future potential conflict of interest.”

The city blocked the lease transfer because ACI Jet, a fixed-based operator that serves airports in San Luis Obispo, Orange County, Paso Robles and Oceano, also plans to respond to the city’s request for proposals for FBOs at the airport. 

City officials are worried that ACI Jet wants to acquire the lease so that it would give itself a competitive advantage when the Santa Barbara Airport puts out a request in 2021 for proposals for new fixed-base operators.

The airport already has two FBOs — Signature Flight Support and Atlantic. According to the terms of the lease transfer, ACI Jet would receive 51 percent ownership of Flightline “if its investment appears to be in jeopardy.”

Butler is still at the restaurant daily trying to pull it all together, but acknowledges that time may be short.

The restaurant has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, and has struggled to survive in Goleta, which has seen a restaurant explosion in recent years.

The site, 521 Firestone Road, was once The Elephant Bar, but modern, branded restaurants on both sides of the highway have created strong competition.

Representatives from High Sierra did not return Noozhawk’s calls, but Butler said they are considering litigation against the city for not allowing the lease transfer.

The city is expecting it; the council has already met in closed session to talk about the anticipated litigation.

“High Sierra may have no choice but to close temporarily, and maybe even permanently if something cannot be worked out,” Butler said. 

Butler, a veteran restaurant owner who managed eateries such as Wolfgang Puck, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Morton’s Steakhouse, owned the Marmalade Cafe and Stateside Cafe locally. His goal was to rebrand the restaurant as ” Flightline,” an ode to World War II memorabilia. 

Butler said he will continue to look for investors “in order to make Flightline or something similar a reality and keep the place open, and 40 employees employed, and a great place for the community to gather and eat and drink and be merry.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.