R.I.P. Old Trieste — Thank you for your service

Larry Tomicich and his family stepped in to operate Old Trieste restaurant on Morena Boulevard after his father, Ramiro "Tommy" Tomicich, died in 1998. They served their last meal on May 30 after 56 year in business.
Larry Tomicich and his family stepped in to operate Old Trieste restaurant on Morena Boulevard after his father, Ramiro “Tommy” Tomicich, died in 1998. They served their last meal on May 30 after 56 year in business.
(Courtesy photo)

When Sylvia and Ramiro “Tommy” Tomicich moved to San Diego from New York City, they found few gourmet restaurants, so they decided to start one. In 1963, Old Trieste was born and named after Tommy’s birth place — Trieste, Italy. It opened in Bay Park at 2335 Morena Blvd., a location that a local judge friend warned them was doomed to fail.

Instead of failing, however, it became a go-to place for the local cognoscenti, an upscale eatery synonymous with that era’s Lubach’s, Mister A’s, Anthony’s Star of the Sea and Casa dí Baffi.

Old Trieste opened on Morena Boulevard in May of 1963 and closed in May of 2019 after 56 years of operation by the Tomicich family.
(Diane Bell / SDUT)

Over the years, it has welcomed celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Anthony Quinn, Evel Knievel, Orville Redenbacher and, most recently Bob Berton and his 2019 Academy Award-winning daughter, Melissa Berton, who brought her Oscar for best short documentary with her to dinner. Vice President Spiro Agnew dined there, as did Gov. Pete Wilson and many San Diego news personalities and sports celebrities.

Tommy strictly enforced a dress code: jackets and ties for men and dresses for women (he barred those in less formal attire from entry). In 1970 he relaxed the rules to permit dressy pant suits.

Many bridegrooms-to-be popped the question over champagne in the intimate dining room. Anniversaries, birthdays and promotions were celebrated at its banquettes. Business recruits were wooed. One wedding even took place inside the restaurant. It was officiated by the county assessor.

Regulars included attorneys, judges, car dealers, business executives, contractors and bankers. “Old Trieste was the office away from their office to cut a deal and sign papers,” says Larry Tomicich, who took over when his father died in 1998.

For about 25 years, a group of 10 to 15 TV, radio and advertising friends have gathered at Old Trieste for lunch every three months, says Paul Palmer, former KFMB radio general manager. They are now looking for a new meeting place.

For the past 25 years former KFMB radio executive Paul Palmer, far right, met with a group of radio, news and advertising executives quarterly for lunch at Old Trieste. Five of this original core group of 10 friends, pictured above, have passed away, but the group since has added new members. Now that the restaurant has closed, they have to find a new luncheon locale.
(Courtesy photo)

Employees have been loyal. José Lopez worked at Old Trieste for 49 years, starting as a dishwasher, moving up to prep cook and then to head chef for the past 30 years. Victor Bravo was hired as a busboy 39 years ago. He eventually became a waiter and earned the unofficial title of “Fried Zucchini Master,” a restaurant specialty.

When asked about the closure, Larry replies, “It was time to retire. I have worked in the restaurant for 50 years, and I am 63 years old. When you are the owner and operator, you do everything, all the time, without much time to do anything else.” He hopes to spend time with his three grandchildren and make up for the time missed with his own four children who, along with his wife, Victoria, and nephews, have helped him run the business.

The new owners plan to open a restaurant, Larry notes, but the look, old-world feel, menu and name of Old Trieste will be gone.

The parking lot was packed as final meals were served on May 30. Longtime diners carried home menus, table candles, extra-large wine glasses, signed bottles of wine and other memorabilia. They showered the Tomicich family with cards, thank-you notes, proclamations, flowers, chocolates from Spain and bottles of wine. One customer who had been dining at the restaurant for 51 years even delivered a hand-written poem. Members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, regular visitors, brought their ukuleles and guitars and broke into song and reminiscences.

A woman once denied entry because she wore slacks returned to dine there several days during the final week.

The Old Trieste restaurant family includes, from left, Charles Couri, Victor Bravo, Larry and Victoria Tomicich, their daughter Nicole Tomicich Habib, Robert Kessler, David Lependorf and chef Jose Lopez.
(Courtesy photo)

“The hardest thing about retirement is missing the opportunity to help people enjoy their day a little bit more by serving a meal and talking with them,” says Larry, who plans to golf, fish, go boating and, perhaps, travel back to Trieste, Italy, to visit family. “It’s not about the glamour of the restaurant business. It’s not about making a ton of money. It’s about engaging with people, learning about their lives and serving them with respect, care and quality.”

Larry doesn’t rule out, some day, getting the itch to host a pop-up restaurant so he can once again serve his customers.

Meanwhile, the Tomicichs are making sure people can recapture the flavor of Old Trieste at home. “My family and I are working on an Old Trieste Restaurant cookbook so that my customers won’t starve over the next several years,” Larry says. All the family recipes will be included, including the eatery’s signature fried zucchini.