The Journal of San Diego History
October 1956, Volume 2, Number 4
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Herbert C. Hensley

There are doubtless loftier themes, but as the Quarterly aims to cover the various phases of life in old-time San Diego, perhaps it will not be out of order to mention some of those eating houses to which our pioneer citizens resorted at lunch-times or when “dining out.”

Meals were, mostly, good in the Eighties and Nineties, and cheap ridiculously cheap, it seems to us now.

Mrs. Mary Birdsall of the Commercial HotelFirst, I would like to mention the old Commercial Hotel, because it seems to be so little known of, although, until the Florence opened in 1884, it ranked second only to the Horton House. It stood at the southeastern corner of Seventh and I Streets and had succeeded the original Bay View as terminus of the Julian Stage Line. Its proprietress, Mrs. Mary Birdsall, regularly sent a bus to meet all steamers – and trains, after rail service was established – though the distance to the steamship landing was but a few blocks.

Actually the principal patronage of the house was from country people, so that its name was rather a misnomer. Commercial travelers and notables and the wealthier arrivals, rather naturally, went to the Horton House, and later, to the Florence. But with the railroad in operation, ranchers more and more coming into town over the new “mesa road,” and business and homes moving northward in consequence, the old hotel gradually lost patronage; it lasted only into the early Nineteen hundreds, an obscure and rather dingy lodging house.

But in the Eighties, in the early evening when the long stage ride had ended at the big corral just to the east of the Commercial, the tired and dust-covered passengers came streaming across the street and through the back yard of the hotel, the men lining up at the long sink just off the kitchen for their ablutions before entering the dining room. In those days, there was life and color and high sociability at the old Commercial. For country folks generally, coming in for supplies or to bring their farm produce to market and, incidentally perhaps, visit around a day or two and hear the news, would also “put up their rigs” at that corral. After an all-day drive over roads rutty or deep in dust, in springless farm-wagons and jouncing buckboards, they could count on Mrs. Birdsall to make them feel right at home, and provide them with a good meal.

Then Charley Farwell, the waiter (later become an ornament of the police force) would come and stand importantly by the table in his white coat, napkin draped over his arm, and intone sonorously — like a train dispatcher — “Beefsteak, mutton-chops, pork-chops, bacon or ham and eggs, and a round!” A “round” was a flock of little dishes, containing various vegetables.

The evening meal at the Commercial was thus, under the circumstances, a dinner, though the general practice in those days was for the “heavy meal” to taken at noon. All three meals were good hearty ones and the uniform price was “two bits” — twenty-five cents.

The Horton House charged “four bits” for dinners which, said the knowing, weren’t a bit better — except, maybe, as regarded “style.” The Horton, for a while, prided itself on its chef, one Claude le Carboulec, who, sometime later, opened a very popular cafe of his own in Tijuana where, though a Frenchman, he served Spanish food at little tables set under pepper trees in a big courtyard. There, people from Hotel del Coronado could regale themselves and feel like travelers in a foreign land — which of course they were, to an extent.

The Horton House, in the interest of that “style,” essayed to change its dinner to the more fashionable evening hour, but most patrons weren’t used to it and wouldn’t have it — and so Mine Host Hadley had to change back.

Around Fifth and I or J Streets were several eating places of a definitely Bohemian sort, including Marco Bennis’ place. Here, with a redand-white checkered cloth and a bottle of “Dago red” on the table, dinner was an occasion — especially if taken in company with that almost legendary character Tude (often mistakenly called “Toot”) Martin, he of the piratical moustache and bubbling conviviality. He had an endless supply of anecdotes of an eventful life along the “Lower Coast” and its islands; he had been a whaler, sea-otter hunter and, I suspect, occasional poacher. A meal with “Toot” was enough to make a young ex-member of the Band of Hope feel like a regular man-about town.

Farther north, as time went on, you found J. T. Kaidel’s Minneapolis Cafe on the west side of Fifth, a little south of F Street, and the Mercantile, in the same relative place a block north. These were large and wellmanaged cafes and they existed, particularly the Minneapolis, for many years. They were favorites of store clerks and real estate agents of which latter there were about as many, proportionately to the size of the town, as there are doctors now on upper Fourth Street. Believe it or not, one could get at either of those places a good, full meal for fifteen cents — soup, meat and potatoes, vegetables and coffee. Of course, if he wanted pie to follow, that cost him a nickel more.

Waiters in nearly all eating houses in those days were men and, rather naturally there were no tips. The amount of any tip certainly would have been negligible, and, anyway, pennies were entirely unused then, here and throughout the West.

Light eaters, or the impecunious, could patronize the Coffee Club; first located at the foot of H Street, it moved to the Lawyer’s Block at Fourth and E, and finally to the vicinity of Fifth and H. This place cooked nothing, but furnished coffee, milk, “snails,” doughnuts and a few of the earlier brands of dry cereals, for five cents each.

I recall, in the early Nineteen hundreds, when the club was in its more out-of-the-way location, seeing “Father” Horton enter very quietly, heave his ponderous bulk up onto a stool and silently partake of a glass of milk and a piece of pie; then he would immediately leave, as unostentatiously as he had come. No one ever seemed to know who he was, or pay him any attention. That was in his later years, when his fortunes were at a low ebb and his doings no longer in the public eye. But he had the clear blue eyes and pink face which had always marked his appearance.

While dealing with this neighborhood, George’s Place must not be overlooked. It was on the west side of Sixth Street, a few doors north of G. it was a small cafe, operated by the George family — father, mother and daughter — and quickly became so popular, particularly with city hall workers, that late comers would be seen standing behind everybody already eating, waiting the chance to slip into the empty chair.

Then, there was the Manhattan, situated just east of Fifth, on the north side of D Street, and much favored for lunches by substantial business men and downtown clerks. Though there was not much late patronage, it remained open until midnight and, sometimes along about that time, the graveyard stillness of downtown San Diego would be broken by a clop-clop out front, followed by the entrance of Robert H. Young, president of the local Anti-Saloon League, accompanied by the writer of this absorbing chronicle. Mr. Young, once in a while, would drive out into the country, for the purpose of exhibiting stereopticon pictures of the horrors consequent on indulgence in intoxicating liquor. I went along, I guess, mainly for the ride, but I helped him handle his paraphernalia. I didn’t think much of the “views,” which were of the lurid chromo order, and I might have suggested a variation of the bill of fare when we returned to town. It was always a bowl of soup, regardless of the kind. But on the whole the excursions were rather pleasant, and entertainment otherwise was not too plentiful. Mr. Young had a gently genial manner, too, and as rather better company than his enemies (of which he of course had plenty) might have given him credit for being. Still, as a raconteur, he was far from being on a par with Tude Martin.

The Maison Doree, on Fifth Street between E and F and the Vienna, at 1048 Fifth, were popular places, though Isidor Louis made the former into more of a light refreshment room and finally into an ice-cream and candy shop, convenient for dissipated Band of Hope members.

Mrs. Mary Birdsall of the Commercial HotelThe Plaza Palace was operated by Julius Buehle at 944 Third and the Delmonico was on Fourth, a little below D. Then, of course, there was the large and ornately appointed Golden Lion Tavern, Herman Fritz, proprietor, at Fourth and F Streets, northeast; quite famous for good food, though with the accent largely on liquor. The Golden Sideboard was at 1429 F (and not so far out of town as would appear now, since street numbers were changed to commence at First, instead of Atlantic as they did in those days). Harry Rudder’s Grill and Oyster House was in the Sun Building, at the south side of the Plaza, at the beginning of the century and for several years thereafter, later moving to the basement of the Union Building, on D Street.

Sargents, another high class place, took the rooms vacated by Rudder, in the Sun Building, in 1911, previously, for a number of years, having been at 1054 Fourth Street.

The old Victoria should not be forgotten. It was on the north side of D Street between Second and Third, and was a frame, two-story hotel, with family-style restaurant and bar on the ground floor. Its clientele was very largely substantial citizens, who often brought their whole families with them. There were four long tables, besides several smaller ones; and all those boards just about groaned with the platters of food set out upon them, for patrons to help themselves to as long as appetites held out. Waitresses (it was one of the few places where there were not solely men officiating) hovered about, seeing that everybody had enough and, as fast as serving dishes were emptied, rushing them to the kitchen for replenishment. Patrons were helpful about “passing” and altogether there was a jolly atmosphere prevailing always. The bar was not immediately connected with the dining room, but could be reached by a passage; if a diner wisher for some beer, the waitress would go and get it for him, adding a nickel to the “two-bits” flat rate the dinner cost. On the way out you dropped the money into a basket on a table where the cashier sat. She made change when needed by means of what was said to be the first cash-register ever used in San Diego.

In the early nineteen-hundreds our waterfront was generally a very busy place. In fact, many more longshoremen were employed then than now; this, for one reason, being that highway truck transportation and Harry Bridges hadn’t yet killed coastwise steamer traffic. Then too, there was a lack of the improved equipment which has, more and more, lightened labor on the docks in these later years. Besides there was considerable waterborne trade with Mexican ports. This preamble is leading up to, and to account for, the Greasy Spoon Restaurant, in its highly strategic situation, right at the foot of H Street. That name did not appear on the sign; I don’t recall what the name was, or whether there was any name. But Greasy Spoon was what the waterfront called it, and quite unjustly, by the way, for it served very good food and as not notably untidy.

At noontimes, or at supper-time “knocking-off,” a tumultuous horde of longshoremen might come clumping in from the long red warehouse at the end of the “Railroad Wharf” where a California & Oriental Line steamer was discharging; or it might be one of the quite numerous squareriggers (mostly English but with a few German) from Europe or Australia. Or great cargoes of coal from Nanaimo, B.C. might be pouring into Spreckels Bunkers, or huge blocks of Lower California onyx being manhandled into the big brick warehouse. The clientele was highly homogenous and no color-line was drawn. “Segregation” would have been impracticable, if not impossible, in regard to the gang from the Bunkers, just come from shoveling coal for hours, deep in the hold of the collier, with no means of cleaning up very available. And there were a good many foreigners and nondescript hangers-on of the waterfront. In fact, the atmosphere of the Greasy Spoon somewhat suggested one’s conception of Fulta Fisher’s Boarding House, that Kipling tells us of. But you fared pretty well there, if disposed to be broadminded about the service and appointments.

Stout fellows — good men and true — might be found in the Greasy Spoon. There might be Barracuda Mike or Itata Bill; Charles Steadman, (last survivor of the group of youngsters who burst the old cannon, El Jupiter, in December of 1880, by way of celebrating the marriage of Town Constable Jim Russell to Ida Bosserman); Tyson and “Old Nelse,” night watchmen respectively for the West Santa Fe wharf and the Spreckels Coal Bunkers, who might be seen later poking about in the gloom with their lanterns, more or less like Diogenes except that, instead of looking for the honest man, they were probably endeavoring to prevent inebriated sailor-men from failing overboard. Then there might be Debonair Dan, lady-killing “string-puller” at the bunkers, and Gramophone Jones, his super-loquacious understudy, besides divers other assorted picturesque worthies. They did not bother too much with the menu; they were as apt to say, “H’m, don’t see anything I want on the bill; tell you what: just bring me a two-bit beefsteak — that’s always a good bet!”