By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Block glass, fishbowl windows and Chevy-style booths define Golden Hill Café, which occupies a circa-1940 structure so splendidly sealed in time that you won’t mind killing an hour over a meal you could easily cook at home.
Located at the top of C Street, the café is owned by a woman named Carmen, whose late husband, Ronald Paul Avery, started the business in 1977. Avery, a former police officer, is remembered as his picture and gold-plated obituary hang on a wall near the semi-open kitchen.
In previous decades, the address was supposedly home to other eateries, at least according to Trudi, the café’s spry waitress of 27 years who served us eggs, pancakes and red chilaquiles on my first visit here.
A lunch counter with low, swivel stools absorbs the center of the dining area. It’s encircled partly by several cozy booths. And perched above the milkshake machine is the original notice from Aug. 6, 1988, alerting customers the café would be closed that day “due to the filming of the motion picture ‘K-9.’”
The action-comedy was released the following year and starred James Belushi, who played Officer Dooley in the movie and entered the café to buy a cupcake.
Also displayed is an autographed headshot of John Stamos. Trudi says he was here possibly for a commercial shoot. She later added that it might have been for the filming of a scene from a failed TV pilot, but couldn’t recall for sure.
I was less swept up by the celebrity factor of this Golden Hill landmark than I was with the authentic feel of the place. As one of the few surviving all-American diners in San Diego, it offers a sense of discovery outside places such as Rudford’s and Hob Nob Hill.
The only thing missing is a pie case, which means settling for a milkshake, fruit cup or dish of ice cream if your sweet tooth needs pampering.
Breakfast dishes dominate about 75 percent of the menu. They’re served daily from 6:30 a.m. to when the café closes at 2:30 p.m. Although if you’re hankering for a tuna melt or cheeseburger when the morning birds are still chirping, the kitchen obliges.
My favorite dish over two visits was the chilaquiles.
Upon ordering these fried and sauced corn tortilla strips, Trudi asked me in a forewarning tone, “Do you like spicy?”
“Yes. Bring ‘em on,” I insisted.
Simmered gently in red hot sauce, they maintained the right amount of crispiness and offered a high but manageable mouth burn. Compared to versions covered in green tomatillo sauce, which tend to taste one-dimensional, this was worlds better.
The plate included refried beans, the kind I’m guessing contain lard based on their creamy texture and old-school flavor. For $2 extra, I upgraded the meal with two over-easy eggs, knowing full well the love affair that ensues when chilaquiles meet runny yolks.
My companion ordered the “farmer’s mix” breakfast consisting of two (possibly three) eggs scrambled with bacon, sausage, onions and bell peppers. He gave it an instant thumbs-up. It also included a moist house-made biscuit draped in white gravy that further gratified his rural-Midwestern roots.
We shared a short stack of fluffy pancakes elevated by a spatula’s worth of butter the cook applied as he set the plate onto a waiting ledge. When they arrived to our table moments later, the butter had melted into a foamy, yellowish puddle that we weren’t about to shove away. No doubt, you’ll need to foxtrot down and up the hill several times to burn off these jumbo fat-soaked disks.
A week later I returned to a hit-and-miss lunch. A cup of admirable tortilla soup was the highpoint. The savory, judiciously salted broth was brimming with tortilla strips, cubed queso fresco and chunks of fresh avocado. So hearty, I almost ordered a second round.
The turkey-bacon club sandwich that followed, however, was disappointing only because of the low-grade turkey in it — the mealy, processed kind with water added. The sandwich would have otherwise sent me into diner bliss, given that it was a classic triple-decker on toasted white bread, cut into four triangles, and neatly tucking in crisp iceberg lettuce, juicy tomatoes, crisp bacon, and oozing measures of mayo. Nobody seems to make them like this anymore.
A heap of medium-cut french fries in the middle of the plate compensated in sustenance for half the club I abandoned. They were crisp and golden on the outside, steamy and soft inside.
There are no salads listed on the menu except for a mention of one that comes with “fish and fries.” Though according to my lunchtime waitress, a basic garden salad ($3.75) is available for customers in the know. But in the face of pancakes and patty melts, I have to wonder how many of them actually drop in for the greens.
Part of the thrill of eating at Golden Hill Café is that you won’t find rosemary trees sticking out of omelets and brown sugar bumping up the bacon. Nor will you encounter healthy smoothies or gluten-free anything. We know where to go for those, which is precisely why flashing back to the basics on occasion tastes so special.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.