By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
We were seven strong, a modern family of two same-sex couples, two high-achieving college girls we collectively and proudly call our daughters, and their grandmother visiting from Missouri.
If this were 1971, when Bully’s East — which now has “Prime Bistro Sports Bar” tagging the name — we’d be paying only 15 cents for bottomless coffee and $4.50 for prime rib with side dishes. We would have also been brunching in an insufferably discriminating climate, no matter where. (I’ll take today’s prices any day with the bonuses of freedom and acceptance.)
Given its fossilized environment — red booths, heavy carpeting and drab, wood paneling — Bully’s offers a welcoming atmosphere staffed with young energy. Though loaded with sports memorabilia and flat screens, it’s one of the last classic steakhouses in San Diego stamped with the same level of nostalgia as The Red Fox Room in North Park, The Butcher Shop in Kearny Mesa, and not long ago, Albie’s Beef Inn in Hotel Circle before it vanished.
A couple of old menus are showcased just past the heavy-wood entrance doors, which feature a horse jockey carved into them. The insignia reflects the restaurant’s roots when it first debuted 50 years ago in La Jolla by a racing agent and a thoroughbred trainer.
That spot has since closed. But Bully’s in Del Mar and Mission Valley, born shortly after, still survive amid scores of local restaurants housing expensive, contemporary designs and fame-seeking chefs.
Steaks of various cuts are the stars at Bully’s, which also happens to offer brunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. This wasn’t my first time stepping into the time capsule for a plate of eggs and a morning cocktail — preceded always by an urn of French onion soup au gratin.
Nor will it be my last, given the satisfying food and efficient wait service our party encountered.
The “game day” breakfast is a top seller, if only for its painless price of $7.50. It fuels you with two eggs any style, savory country potatoes, French toast or pancakes, and either smoky bacon, a sausage patty or ham steak. (The latter gives you maximum bang for the buck.)
On this visit, our waitress touted the corned beef hash listed as a special, saying that customers were commenting favorably about the dish all morning. Indeed, the lightly brined meat, pulled from an actual roast, was divinely tender.
Nary a speck of unruly fat was to be found. And the mingling peppers, onions and potatoes were soft to the bite. Crowned with two eggs over-medium as requested, I couldn’t have asked for better.
Other protein options for hash are salmon, brisket and prime rib, the latter of which impressed me a while back with its payload of supple meat.
My fork was in reaching distance to a tablemate’s chilaquiles set in a shallow pond of tangy tomatillo sauce. A vegetarian, she substituted refried pinto beans in lieu of carnitas or chicken breast.
The tortilla chips were just wet enough to strike that precious balance between soft and crunchy. The standout ingredients, which added depth of flavor, were roasted poblano chilies and a little crème fraiche.
At the far end of the table, “Nana” from Missouri opted for biscuits and gravy, requesting a ham steak and sliced tomato on the side.
She was happy with the accompaniments, but the rest didn’t pass her Midwestern standards. She said the biscuits were too doughy and the rosemary-spiked gravy was oddly sweet, lacking the crumbled sausage and tomato bits she uses in her recipe.
Another in our party ordered the breakfast burrito, a colossal thing stuffed with three scrambled eggs, ham, bacon, cheddar cheese and salsa fresca.
Draped in enchilada sauce, she gave it two thumbs up and took half of it home.
Other brunch options include country-fried steak and eggs; prime rib and eggs; chorizo con huevos; lemon-ricotta pancakes; and bananas foster French toast.
Though not listed on the morning menu, certain items such as the French onion soup or burgers are also available upon request.
In addition to standard mimosas and bloody marys, the bar offers a full slate of cocktails, both classic and trendy, should you require something stronger — like a Haley’s Comet martini or a tequila-loaded spicy Paloma — to wash down your hotcakes and hang out longer in a red pleather booth to watch a televised sports game.
—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.