By Kendra Sitton
Bankers Hill mainstay Hob Nob Hill reopened with other restaurants to reveal an entirely new interior, a full bar, espresso machine and many menu changes.
Before COVID-19 closures began in March 2020, owner Tania Warchol was planning to add a full bar to the premises for the first time.
“We were scheduled to do the construction three days after they closed for COVID here, so it kind of worked out for the best,” Warchol said.
As the closure kept being extended, Warchol decided to do a remodel of the whole restaurant beyond just the new bar.
Some of the changes were meant to make things safer during the pandemic. All carpets and porous materials were replaced with non-porous materials so the large space could be sanitized in less than 10 minutes by staff. Like many restaurants, she also added picnic tables and canopies on the street outside the corner restaurant.
Pillars were taken out and new lighting opportunities created. A point of sale system replaced tickets. She bought an espresso machine so simple any of the staff could operate it without being trained as a barista. This was the first time the interior was updated since 2004 when carpets and work stations were replaced.
Alongside her interior designer and managing partner Edwin Real, Warchol created a ‘Wizard of Oz’ narrative for one of the oldest woman-owned restaurants in San Diego.
Dorothy Hoersch and her husband Harold opened what was then called Juniper Cafe in 1944. It moved to 2271 First Ave. in 1946 and has remained a popular diner since. In Dorothy’s honor, the remodel contains “Wizard of Oz” themes. In the front entrance where people can buy freshly baked items or asked to be seated, the area is entirely black and white from the baroque floor tiles to a mural of Balboa Park – similar to the beginning of the Wizard of Oz movie.
In the dining area beyond, a technicolor mural of the original cast on the yellow brick road fills the largest wall in the restaurant. That wall overlooks Coronado where L. Frank Baum wrote the “Wizard of Oz” books. The rest of the dining area is “non-specific Americana,” with art deco and space age pieces that harken back to anytime between 1935 to 1955. Some original pieces remained such as the ticketing wheel even though it is not in use. For customers who have been coming to the diner for decades, it is still a major change.
“That was our biggest concern was people were gonna say, ‘you ruined Hob Nob.’ So what we’ve been saying to that is, ‘which version of Hob Nob?’ There’s been five different versions… through remodels through the look and feel of the place. It used to be called the Juniper then Melody Grill [then Dorothy’s Oven] then Hob Nob. So there’s been all kinds of different iterations of this,” Real said.
One of the most standout features of the remodel is the different types of classic and chic tiling on the floors, walls and bar. Another homage to Dorothy Hoersch is that the subway tiles are placed vertically instead of horizontally as seen in a photo of her in front of the restaurant in the ‘40s.
The remodel comes as many restaurants struggled for revenue during the pandemic. Hob Nob Hill received government assistance but Real still estimates the restaurant lost a million and a half dollars.
“That’s gonna be hard to recoup. But we had to do this for us or else there wouldn’t be a 10-year future ahead of us. This remodel could last 10 years or more the way it’s set up,” Real said. “We’re hoping that in that time we can recoup some of that lost revenue during COVID.”
The restaurant used to attract many office workers escaping the buzz of Downtown for their lunch break. Warchol said they had many ‘high-rollers’ like judges, City Council members and even Mayor Todd Gloria. It was not well-suited for takeout. Real said in a morning with the interior open, the restaurant will make more just in coffee sales than they did in an entire day of takeout-only service.
The restaurant remains committed to making all menu items from scratch including pastries and bread. Many of the classic diner items remain on the menu like roast turkey sandwich and chicken fried steak although the point of sale system is letting them track which items are actually selling. Over the years, Warchol added many lighter, healthier options. Real also brought in new bistro items. He is working to save money by reducing waste through using the same ingredients for multiple menu items. He is sourcing more local items such as the coffee blend they use from Cafe Moto.
Like many restaurants, they are currently short staffed. Warchol brought in some staff members to help her reorganize the back and paint the walls but still laid off many during the remodel. Today, they are still struggling to hire new talent. Many waitstaff have been at the restaurant for decades. Some chose to come back after being laid off but others did not. One longtime busboy died during a coronavirus surge in Tijuana.
“He was with me for over 20 years… I don’t care how old he was, he worked so hard. It was sad. It was sad,” Warchol said, voice cracking.
Real said many current staff members are working six or seven days a week which is “not sustainable.” The nationwide shortage of service workers has prompted conversations about how the industry compensates staff members. Real and Warchol are trying to balance paying a fair wage with remaining in business as San Diego raises its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Tips at the restaurant are pooled and split between waiters and busboys. The managing partners were shocked during a recent interview when a candidate asked for $35 an hour – more than either of them make.
“Losing a Hob Nob Hill would be a major blow to San Diego,” Real said. “It’s an institution. It’s a tradition.”
Real was brought to the restaurant with his family as a child. Warchol loves when people come in and explain that their grandparents were the first ones to bring them to Hob Nob Hill. She hopes the restaurant remains open so more generations can share the memory of coming to the Bankers Hill diner.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.