By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Photos by Brevin Blach
They are museums to their time, those iconic restaurants where salads are still properly accompanied by chilled forks, and filet mignon is served with deserving respect by tuxedoed waiters. If you’re looking for a taste of yesteryear, replete with relic décor and anti-trendy attitudes, we’ve unearthed several kitchens that have been feeding San Diegans memorable meals since before man walked on the moon.
The Marine Room
Established in 1941
2000 Spindrift Dr., La Jolla Shores
If traveling back in time to the early days of The Marine Room, you would need only $1.35 for lobster Newburg and 35 cents for a martini. Just avoid landing in 1942 or 1982, the years when stormy waters crashed through the windows and rendered this beachside landmark inoperable for several months. A photographic display of the damage appears inside the restaurant.
The windows have since been replaced by thicker glass, allowing patrons to safely witness the drama of high tides lapping against the building while supping on such vestiges as tableside Caesar salad and cobblestone ice cream pie. With the arrival of French chef Bernard Guillas 18 years ago, the menu has come to include his prized lobster bisque, spiked with sherry and peach schnapps, along with other haute cuisine that is priced and plated more elaborately than when customers used to arrive in Cadillac Fleetwoods.
Hob Nob Hill
Established in 1944
2271 First Ave., Bankers Hill
Founder Harold Hoersch still comes in every Tuesday for short ribs, one of the blue-plate specials he began offering when the restaurant operated as Juniper Café 68 years ago. In 1946, he renamed it Hob Nob Hill, attracting a mix of neighborhood folk and downtown business types on the hunt for beef stew, liver with onions and desserts made from scratch. The patronage remains largely the same, and several recipes have been vigilantly preserved, including those for lemon-pecan pie and German chocolate cake.
Hoersch sold Hob Nob Hill in 1993 to current owners Jeff and Tania Kacha, who recently remodeled the interior but kept the original 14-stool lunch counter. Better yet, they upheld the Victorian-like traditions of providing chilled forks with salads and heated spoons with soup.
Waterfront Bar & Grill
Established in 1933
2044 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy
Credited with obtaining the first liquor license in San Diego after Prohibition ended, this now-famous burger bar was co-founded by Chaffee Grant, grandson of President Ulysses S. Grant. Boozed fishermen dominated the scene back when sandwiches sold for five cents apiece...after a kitchen was added.
“Some of our customers get pumped up when they see the worn pictures on our walls showing their grandpas drinking here during the fishermen days,” says Chad Nichols, whose great-grandfather purchased the joint in the late 1960s after it had changed hands a few times. Nichols runs the establishment with his grandmother and cousin, slinging wells and drafts and signature cheeseburgers dripping with grilled onions. As for that mysterious urn lurking behind the bar, it contains the ashes of a longtime customer who requested a Waterfront interment after coming in daily to glug wine on the patio.
Established in 1974
7878 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Kearny Mesa
With waiters dressed in tuxedos, The Godfather restaurant (which opened two years after the first “The Godfather” movie hit the big screen in 1972), delivers an unexpected touch of panache to Kearny Mesa. Formality extends to a burgeoning wine list and razzle-dazzle meals by chef Isidoro Balistreri, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Maria, after emigrating from Sicily.
The 14-ounce filet mignon is a mainstay. It’s stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella and mushrooms, then draped in marinara and Barolo wine sauce. “There’s a core style that we rarely change,” says Anthony Balistreri of his father’s cooking. Veal and pasta dishes abound, along with antique chandeliers and Mob-scene photos.
Established in 1951
326 Broadway, Downtown
Male chauvinism at the Grant Grill was kept alive until 1971, prior to which women weren’t allowed inside during lunchtime. If they came for dinner, a “male escort” was required. A clique of women challenged the rule in 1969 when they encroached for a defiant lunch of mock turtle soup, provoking shock waves among the staff. The threat of legal action a few years later resulted in liberation.
As a reminder of their victory, the original plaque spelling out the discriminatory policy hangs at the threshold, located inside the chandeliered lobby of the U.S. Grant Hotel. Power lunches and the famous mock turtle soup persist, although these days the soup is made with beef tongue and braised short ribs rather than green sea turtles - and it no longer sells for 30 cents a serving.
Filippi’s Pizza Grotto
1747 India St.,
Fishermen gravitated to the heavy aroma of aged cheeses and salted cod when Filippi’s Pizza Grotto began as a neighborhood deli more than 60 years ago. They’d fuel up on salami and bread before setting out on their tuna boats, oftentimes leaving behind their spent Chianti bottles that owners Vincent and Madeleine DePhilippis hooked to the ceiling in their honor. Today, a thick canopy of bottles dangles overhead in the adjoining dining room (formerly the Roma Inn Bar), which the family expanded into during Beatle Mania after running a smaller version of the restaurant behind the store.
“My grandparents wanted to feed everyone well with affordable food,” says Danny Moceri, referring to the oversized Angus meatballs and more-is-better pasta portions that remain the norm. With the exception of a vegetarian pizza added over time, the kitchen has resisted contemporary food trends, yet the Filippi’s brand lives on in nearly a dozen other locations within the county.
Red Fox Room
2223 El Cajon Blvd., Hillcrest
“Everyone’s dead now, so we don’t know the exact year it became a restaurant,” says manager Jim Demos of this dimly lit steakhouse that his father purchased nearly a decade after it was converted from a drug store. The restaurant’s haunting fireplace mantle and Tudor paneling with carved figures date back to the 1600s from an English inn. (Before ending up at Red Fox, the historic pieces graced the oceanfront California home of actress Marion Davies.)
A haunt for celebrities who bunked at the adjoining Lafayette Hotel & Suites (built in 1946), the restaurant sports a red ceiling and Naugahyde booths that set the stage for steak, lobster and Athenian salad, not to mention a scarlet haze that colors the vision upon exiting. Little has changed, notes Demos, revealing that “we still write [customer] checks without using a computer system.”
Brigantine Seafood Restaurant
2725 Shelter Island Dr., Shelter Island
Mike and Barbara Morton launched Brigantine Seafood Restaurant at the Shelter Island address that now houses Miguel’s Cocina, which they also own. In 1984, they moved the seafood house down the street to its current location, taking with them the bulky, hand-painted wooden menus that were once handed to guests. As the business expanded, they began dispersing to their other dining rooms a swollen collection of nautical artifacts donated by fishermen.
Recently, much of the memorabilia ended up in the company’s warehouse. “It was history versus our design company when we remodeled in 2009,” says Mike Morton, Jr., president of Brigantine Family Restaurants.
Sharing menu space with steaks, crab, lobster and the fish tacos the Mortons helped popularize, fresh swordfish rules the day, selling in 1969 for $3.50. Sentimental customers can still opt for tartar sauce with the flamed fish, while younger customers gravitate to the avocado-lime butter.