By Frank Sabatini Jr.
It was my great escape from Super Bowl Sunday, where a comfy television-free environment sent me on a culinary journey back in time — like to seven decades ago.
In the offing were scratch-made meals and an obliging selection of all-American pies. Nary a loud-mouth jock was present. Only a mixed bag of quiet customers in the care of folksy waitresses donning 1940s-style coffeehouse uniforms.
Hob Nob Hill is a San Diego institution that I never want to see go away. It’s an irreplaceable restaurant blending layers of history with gaudy, crystal chandeliers and recipes that haven’t budged in 75 years.
Only here can you score salads served on chilled plates — and with chilled forks — and turkey croquettes rising from ponds of brown gravy. The cone-shaped wonders are accompanied by cranberry relish lopped into scooped-out oranges. They’re quirky but lovable accompaniments that look straight out of a forgotten Betty Crocker cookbook.
For soups, you’re provided warm spoons. And with many of the meal plates, you can bet they’ll come garnished with sprigs of parsley, just like restaurants began doing after WWII to fancy things up.
Such precious captures of yesteryear give Hob Nob Hill the status of a well-kept museum rather than some outdated restaurant you should skip over. To consumers under 40 years old drawn always to trendy kitchens, this is your ticket to authentic retro-ness. No gimmicks. Just pure nostalgia.
For years I’ve effused to friends that Hob Nob Hill’s Reuben sandwich is the greatest I’ve found in San Diego outside of my native New York state. They are architecturally accurate, thanks to chipped non-gristly corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, fluffy sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. The rye bread is grilled with generous butter. And sacrilegious mustard, which would screw things up, stays far out of the equation.
Now, after my latest visit, I’ve discovered a French dip sandwich that meets my ideal. It’s made with shaved prime roast beef tucked into a crusty house-baked roll, and with a thin layer of cheese. The final, important element is the au jus for dipping. If there was bouillon or other sodium-heavy enhancers in the jus, I didn’t detect them. This seemed like pure beef drippings mixed with broth.
Just as you would have found in nearly every breakfast eatery in the early 1950s, the Denver omelet remains a staple at Hob Nob Hill. It’s a nostalgic rush of diced ham, onions and green peppers bound by eggs and cheese. My only caveat was that the omelet was a tad well-done. But mouthwatering spiced apples served as a sidekick offered a forgiving distraction.
Another breakfast inclusion is house-made coffeecake that changes daily — orange, apple, grape, pineapple, and blueberry. Where else are you going to find that? Their recipes date back to the original days and wash down best with Farmer Brothers coffee, or as of recently, brews and teas by Cafe Moto.
The menu is loaded with enduring standbys for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They include biscuits and gravy, eggs Benedict, chicken and waffles, liver and onions, roast turkey dinners, breaded shrimp, and braised lamb shank with minted Jardinière sauce.
Not until recently did I notice (and order) a very French-inspired caramelized onion tart listed as an appetizer. It’s a relatively new addition that emerged several years ago. Richer than standard quiche, and sweeter because of balsamic drizzle on top, it’s made with a blend of eggs, Swiss and blue cheeses, bacon and onions. Buttermilk serves as the binder, and you get two slices per order. Couple it with one of nearly 10 salads on the menu, and you’ve got yourself a bellyful of sustenance.
May marks the restaurant’s official 75th anniversary, when Kansas transplants Harold Hoersch and his wife, Dorothy, opened the business as Juniper Cafe. They later changed the name to Melody Grill and then Dorothy’s Oven before settling on Hob Nob Hill around 1970.
Today it is owned and operated by Tania Warchol, who has kept the place anchored to its history while appealing to young consumers with occasionally new menu additions and contemporary coffee drinks such as cold immersion brews.
Also, look for upcoming promotions featuring throwback pricing on select items, including 75-cent slices of pie from a lineup that features such rarities as lemon-pecan, double-crust lemon and other homespun choices.
—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 email@example.com.