La Gran Tapa

611 B Street, Downtown San Diego




“Spare change?” says the guy sitting on the sidewalk. Must know I just cashed a paycheck. It’s Friday night, around 6:00, at Sixth and C. Me, I’m staring at a sandwich board in front of this recently renovated old eatery, La Gran Tapa. Can’t believe it.

“$3 tapas, $3 drinks,” it says. “Happy Hour 5:00–7:00 Tuesday to Friday.”

“Here’s a down payment,” I tell the guy. I hand him one of my hard-earned Washingtons. “I’ll double it if this means what it says.”

Ha. Mr. Big Shot.

I amble through the door into a low, woody place with thick, brown roof beams, salmon walls, brass rails, chandeliers, art on the wall (Spanish señorita babes, mostly), ornate mirrors… Somewhere, a live guitarist plays flamenco-sounding music. A group at a table yaps about the concert they’re going to see at Symphony Hall, across the road. Man, it all feels über-Euro. Sure hope the happy-hour promise means what it says.

“Absolutely,” says the barman, Scott.

“Absolutely,” says the bar lady, María. “And you have a good hour left.”

“And it is good,” says this customer, Rita, sitting at the bar. I see she has a glass of white wine and a couple of small plates of food. One’s marinated mushrooms, the other looks like a quiche or frittata.

“Wine…$3?” I ask, when Scott comes to take my order.

“Or beer, draft.”

I go for a ruby-red Cab-mix wine. Reasonably sized glass, too, and a surprising taste for only three bucks. I mean, what do I know, but to me it’s fruity, gentle, seductive.

While I’m waiting, a couple of guys come up speaking Spanish. They order caprese — tomatoes with discs of buffalo mozzarella on top (normally $10) — and gambas al ajillo — prawns “sautéed with sliced lemon, garlic, white wine, red pepper flakes, and fresh parsley” (not included in happy hour, $9). “I’m a lawyer in Tijuana,” says one of them, the big guy next to me, Angel Fernández Margain. “This is the one real tapa place in town. Not BS for tourists. The real thing.”

So the tapas choice ranges from marinated olives to frittata di giri, “Sicilian-style frittata made with fresh bell peppers, chard, onion, cheese, and egg,” to pulpo, “wild caught octopus sautéed in extra virgin olive oil and garlic garnish with fresh Spanish paprika.” When it’s not happy hour, most tapas cost in the range of $8 (for pulpo) to $12 (for clams and mussels in a white wine sauce).

So I order up a frittata, a plate of marinated mushrooms, and a plate of bread and olives. Oh, and this is great: while I’m waiting, I see a note at the bottom of the menu that claims they never use aluminum or Teflon-covered pans. María — she’s Bulgarian — says the owner refuses to use microwaves, too. Man, I’d come back for this alone. I hate aluminum, don’t trust Teflon, and who knows what those nasty little microwaves do to the food?

The plates come, and they’re great. I like the frittata’s onion-cheese-egg combo, and the olives and bread and mushrooms all marry nicely with the vino. They won’t save a starving man, but they’re nice. Rita and I get to talking so much we hardly notice Scott has topped up our glasses. Free. When I ask him about this place, he calls over a guy named Basilio. The owner. “You’re sitting in what was the first nice place downtown,” Basilio says. “Paul Dobson, the bullfighter and pioneer down here, opened it in 1984, way before the Gaslamp. I bought it in 2007. I wanted to carry on the tradition. We renovated.”

He and María exchange looks. “We both worked on it,” Basilio says, like it was a hard grind. “It took us 11 months. This is part of the Southern Hotel. It was built back in 1916, to house workers constructing the Pan American exhibition in Balboa Park. It’s still a boarding hotel.”

Pretty soon I’m ordering one more tapa, before happy hour ends. Tortilla española, “the classic potato, onion, and egg combination famous in bars all over Spain,” the menu says. “We put caramelized onions with the home-fried potatoes and eggs,” Basilio says. “You can’t taste them separately.” And, yes, it’s delicious. ’Specially with the last-chance $3 glass of wine I get in. ’Course, by now, we’re talking about the whole tapa idea. “I’m Sicilian,” says Basilio. “My grandfather came over. So this is not all strictly Spanish food.”

It turns out Basilio runs the Turquoise eatery in P.B. too. He’s a tax accountant, learned wine-making from his grandpa, and produces 12 gallons a year from his own 20 vines. He happens to have a half-jug right here, which he pours for both of us. Good. Robust. “It’s just for friends,” he says. “I’m not allowed to sell it.”

Then he’s off to join the guitarist John Moore (not the Padres guy), or “Juan Moro,” as they knew him in Spain. And, man, this guy can sing, alegras and soleás — heart-ripping Gypsy-style laments. Who knew? A tax accountant...

It’s way past happy hour. Outside on B, the guy’s still sitting on the sidewalk.

He gives me a look. “So does it mean what it says?”

The Place: Cafe Bar Europa, La Gran Tapa, 611 B Street, downtown, 619-234-TAPA (8272)
Type of Food: Tapas (dinners and lunch too)
Prices: Selected tapas, e.g. tortilla española (with potato, onion, egg, $6), marinated olives ($4), frittata di giri (with bell peppers, chard, onion, cheese, egg, $6), pulpo (sautéed octopus, $8), and caprese (tomatoes, mozzarella, $4), most $3 each during happy hour (5:00–7:00 p.m. Tuesday–Friday); also selected wines, beers; lunch paninis, e.g. ham and Brie, $10; soups, e.g. gazpacho, $9 or $5 half; salads e.g. La Gran (with asparagus, mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, onion, tomatoes, green beans) $9, $5 half
Hours: lunch: 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m., daily, but check ahead every day; dinner: 5:00 p.m.–late, Tuesday–Sunday (closed Monday evenings)
Buses: all downtown
Nearest Bus Stop: Sixth and Broadway
Trolleys: blue line, orange line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Fifth and C

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