Meet a San Diego restaurant icon: Cafe 222's Terryl Gavre

One in an occasional series on San Diego’s dining icons

Clothes might make the man, but a waffle hat has made Terryl Gavre a San Diego icon.

For more than 25 years, the cheeky image of a mischievous-looking Gavre, sporting a batter bonnet affixed just so, has beckoned legions of breakfast lovers to her Marina District micro-cafe for its signature quirky comfort food.

Hung over on New Year’s day? How about a “Stack of Shame” platter loaded with turkey bacon, sausage and ham, three waffles, two eggs and country gravy?

Love Elvis? Celebrate his birthday with The King sandwich (better left undescribed) or the menu staple of peanut-butter-and-banana-stuffed French toast (better than you’d believe).

More than a gimmick, however, Cafe 222 was a pioneering venture into a sketchy part of town in 1992 by a young woman from Seattle who had an intriguingly begotten pile of cash and a dream.

As part of an occasional series on local restaurant icons — the people behind enduring eateries that not only are beloved but make up an essential part San Diego’s dining DNA — we offer up Gavre and Cafe 222 without equivocation. Or waffling.

The vision

Gavre, who started working in restaurants when she was 15, became enamored of a place in Manhattan named Savoy and still has a photo she took of the exterior in 1990. “It was this place that inspired me to find a corner and build a little ‘jewel box’ of a restaurant,” she said. “I would stand on that corner and dream about the day.”

Making it happen

Here’s a financing story you don’t hear every day: While in her 20s, Gavre cashed in when a TV movie (“This Wife for Hire”) was made about the business she started (The Surrogate Wife) where she baked, cooked, shopped and ran errands for some of Seattle’s most eligible bachelors, including professional athletes and TV personalities. Gavre took her $50,000 Hollywood script money to San Diego in hopes of opening her jewel box.

Fun fact

Gavre played a “dumb blonde” in the movie.

Attention grabber

The impetus behind Gavre’s waffle-head was simple: why not? She’d seen an old poster of the Rockettes posing with kitchen items (a toaster, a turkey) on their heads and thought it was fun. For the photo shoot, she used duct tape to attach the waffle to her head. Then it went up on a couple of downtown billboards. “It’s only something that you do when you are young,” Gavre said. The reaction was swift and split. Her bare-shouldered, cleavage-baring shot was labeled sexist (“I’m ashamed to let my daughter see it,” someone chided her), but it also “created noise,” she said, and it forever linked Cafe 222 to the image, with Gavre still recognized as “the girl in the billboards.”

Game changer

Lines out the door greeted Cafe 222 in its first weekend, and not just because it’s only 350 square feet. Surrounded by vacant lots and warehouses, the restaurant was welcomed by area workers and adventurous early residents of the then-undesirable neighborhood.

The glamorous life

Gavre put everything she had into Cafe 222 — and not just money. She hand-created the eclectic décor, like the teacup chandeliers, did all the cooking and baking, ordering and stocking, and ran the business operation. It was five years before she could afford to hire a cook. And because Cafe 222 served dinner back then, it was easier for her to just sleep there; her storage room doubled as her crash pad for six years. Asked what she wishes she knew back then that she knows now, Gavre said wearily: “How much it would age my legs. The restaurant business ages you in dog years.”

The glamorous life, Part 2

Gavre, who has two small children, is also the co-owner of Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant with chef Carl Schroeder. She juggles single-mom duties with the cafe — which is open every day except Christmas — in the morning and afternoon and the restaurant at night. (For an oh-too-short period, she was also shuttling back and forth from her East Village Bake Sale Bakery.)

Brushes with fame

Helped by its proximity to the Hard Rock Hotel, the convention center and Petco Park, Cafe 222 has hosted celebrities such as Barry Bonds, Bill Murray, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss. But it’s Gavre’s soulful cooking that has earned her food cred. The part of the menu that lists seven kinds of waffles (don’t miss the pumpkin or blueberry cornbread) also notes: “Not to brag, but our waffles have been featured in Gourmet Magazine.” Bobby Flay showcased Gavre and the peanut-butter-and-banana-stuffed French toast on the Food Network and later included the dish in an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” “I owe a lot to Bobby Flay. Thank you, Bobby,” she said.

Don’t call her chef

“I’m not trained. That’s why I don’t let people call me a chef. I say, ‘I’m really a damned good short-order cook.’ ”

Cafe 222’s most iconic dish

The aforementioned French toast, hands down. “I’d love to take it off the menu; it’s such a pain in the butt to prepare. But it has become so identified with the place,” Gavre said.

Biggest milestone

In its 25th anniversary year in 2017, Cafe 222 sold its 1 millionth waffle.

Unofficial motto

“There’s no booze, no Wi-Fi,” Gavre said. “We’re small and there’s always a line of people waiting for your table, starting at 7 a.m. People don’t tend to linger all day. As we like to say,” she joked, “Welcome to Cafe 222 — eat and beat it.”

Cafe 222

Where: 222 Island Ave., downtown San Diego

Phone: (619) 236-9902

Online: cafe222.com

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michele.parente@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @sdeditgirl

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