By Dr. Ink
It isn’t uncommon to blurt “oh wow!” when stepping into the dimly lit lounge at Imperial House Continental Restaurant for the first time. Few places remain where you can practically smell 1968, which is when the restaurant and apartment tower overhead opened for business. Replete with red leather booths and dark wood walls, the only thing missing is a big white cloud hanging over the bar from gaggles of cigarette smokers.
Imperial House is one of the few spots in San Diego that serves free food during happy hour. While so many local watering holes did away with complimentary peanuts and pretzels after the economy tanked, it takes stepping even further back in time to rediscover the days when you could actually find hot food in chaffing dishes up for grabs.
The free chow varies throughout the week. During our visit it was tender steak fajitas sporting copious sautéed peppers and onions, as well as creamy refried beans that tasted homemade. Hidden beneath another silver lid were warm flour tortillas to boot. So what if you’re eating off Styrofoam plates with plastic forks. The offerings rotate each day (Tuesday through Friday) between chicken wings, ribs and fish tacos, all of which serve as good sustenance for mopping up the excess booze you might ingest. Or as bar owners understood back in the days, the free food keeps you drinking.
Cocktails, beer and wines are discounted between 50 cents and $1 during happy hour. My cohort opted for Anderson Valley IPA, served without delay in tall draft for $4.50. I sprung for a gin martini, which cost $5 and came with an extra olive as requested. The gin was some generic brand, our server said, but its flavor and punch was no less alluring than Bombay Sapphire, which I prefer when my wallet is stuffed.
From our cushy red leather booth, we couldn’t help but spy upon the mixed demographic seated mostly at the bar. At one end was a 70-something woman chuckling loudly with another woman half her age while a trio of Gen X’ers sporting variant clothing styles, discussed politics and iPhone applications.
By all accounts from those who frequent Imperial House, as well as those who patronize the restaurant’s weekend Mystery Café dinners ($59.50), this is one of the few remaining bars in San Diego that stands as a museum to its time.
A full range of classic cocktails is available as well as a few IPA beers found among the leading brands.
We only tried the steak fajitas and refried beans, both of which prompted us to reload our plates a few times.
The drinks are mildly discounted but the hot food sitting in the chaffing dishes is free, a rarity in San Diego.
The lounge area features full service at the booths and tables. Our waitress was fast and friendly.
Three hours is sufficient when drinking strong cocktails and eating free food.
Imperial House Continental Restaurant and Lounge
505 Kalmia St. (Bankers Hill)
Happy Hour: 4 to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday