Antique Row Café
3002 Adams Ave. (Normal Heights)
Prices: Breakfast, $4.95 to $10.50; Lunch, $5.25 to $10.95; Dinner, $9.95 to $15.50
Normal Heights eatery a pop-culture shrine
By Frank Sabatini Jr. / Restaurant Review
A friend who lunched with me a few years ago at Antique Row Café summed up the place perfectly: “This is the illegitimate child of the Corvette Diner,” she said while buttering her pancakes under the gaze of a vintage Betty Boop doll. Within a split second of stepping inside, customers are greeted with thickets of American memorabilia spilling into three dining sections of the café, enough to qualify it as a mini museum.
Route 66 plaques and pictures of Elvis, Sinatra and James Dean plaster the walls. Marilyn Monroe gets top billing too, particularly in an art piece where she is centered at a table in a sacrilegious Last Supper scene. Copious toys and statuettes cram the shelves, requiring a duster to come in every two weeks to keep you from sneezing.
Located within a succession of antique shops on Adams Avenue, the menu spotlights all-American diner food. Breakfast ushers in the café’s famous homemade biscuits and sausage gravy, which can sell out in a moment’s notice for late risers on weekend mornings. Customer lines grow so large that you can barely see the front door.
You’ll also find jumbo cinnamon-apple pancakes that taste like buttery apple pie, plus a gamut of egg dishes that include a “chick-a-dee” omelet, folding in chicken breast and broccoli. Equally hearty is an omelet encasing lean kielbasa and mushrooms, the Polish-American answer to steak and eggs.
In a recent morning visit, my companion opted for the Irish croissant oozing seductively with Hollandaise sauce. Poking out from the sides were scrambled eggs and tender chunks of corned beef, which left me wondering why the corned beef hash I ordered originated from a can rather than the actual roast. Nonetheless, the serving size was double in comparison to hash served in other breakfast joints, and as preferred, it was griddled to a substantial crisp.
The biscuits with Italian sausage gravy came out foolproof. The plate featured a duo of cake-like biscuits, camouflaged by thick, yellowish gravy speckled with parsley and bits of tomatoes. The sausage was invisible to the eye, but evident by the dashing bursts of fennel that arose.
If you find yourself arriving for lunch, look no further than the Texas chicken melt constructed with fat slices of toasted egg bread, juicy breast filets and Jack cheese. Other choices include French dips made with prime rib, Philly cheese steaks, homemade meatloaf and Cincinnati-style chili, which exposes San Diegans to the quirky tradition of chili and Cheddar served over spaghetti. Locally, you’ll be hard pressed to find it elsewhere.
Dinner service is offered after 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays only. In keeping with its American theme, the late-day menu tempts with some retro-style meals such as chicken potpie, beef liver strips and ground beef steaks. Pork chops, however, receive contemporary treatments, served with house-made honey mustard sauce or breaded in panko crumbs.
Service is generally fast and folksy, as demonstrated by our waitress who has worked at Antique Row for 18 years, starting a year after the café opened. Based on the devoted patronage that has since come knocking for the café’s homey, generously portioned meals, this shrine to American pop culture has become a Normal Heights icon.