238 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
“La Dolce Vita,” reads the sign above the counter where I’m sitting. Well, my vita’s in no way dolce right now. Whose is? But this place I had to try. Even though I knew I was in chi-chi territory coming in. After all, the shop next door has a sale on sunglasses…for dogs. Seriously. This is at the bottom end of Fifth, the Convention Center end, where eateries line up to capture conventioneers like bears at a salmon run.
But, as they say, there’s one born every day. Or in my case, reborn every day, ’cause eating in the Gaslamp always looks so glorious. And here, on the corner of Fifth and K, I spotted this coffee-winey place that looked, well, clubby and warm inside. Plus it had this sign mentioning “Happy Hour.”
Good enough. So here I am, sitting at the granite counter. Another sign above me says “In Vino Veritas.” Hmm... Let’s check if I can afford vino, let alone food. Verily, sandwiches rule. Breakfast, which goes till 11:00 each morning, has choices such as a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich for $8.95 or a grilled-cheese sandwich for $6.95. And I guess when you think about it, $6.95 ain’t outrageous — not hereabouts, anyway. And, okay, a three-egg omelet for $12.95 sounds positively Hilton (we’re in the Hilton building) till you see that the “French Authority” omelet comes with grilled chicken breast, scallions, and Brie cheese inside. Right now, it’s academic. Light’s fading. We’re heading for 6:00 in the post meridian.
I check the lunch sandwiches. And, yes, they serve them till closing (at 10 p.m.). They’ll set you back a Hamilton. Must say, I like the look of the “Veggimaginary,” with Gruyère cheese, mushrooms, onions, tomato, lettuce, and alfalfa ($9.95), or the prosciutto panini with Havarti cheese ($9.95). And then they have three or four “wine appetizers,” such as a cheese plate, a salad, an olive plate, salmon with cream cheese and sliced olives, or prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella, going for $5.95 each, as long as you buy a glass of wine. Except the wines cost anywhere from $5 to $14 per glass.
Getting desperate here. I turn to the back page. “Happy Hour,” it reads, “2:00–6:00 p.m. daily.” Okay, the food’s not all-u-can-eat buffet-style, but I appreciate the gesture. Four items: nachos, $4.50; cheese quesadilla, $4.50; buffalo wings, $4.50; and a cheese plate, $6.95. Then — and this might be the cincher — the happy-hour beers, on tap for $3 each, are really good ones. Arrogant Bastard’s a great San Diego beer, if you like armies of hops marauding around your mouth, and so is Ballast Point’s Yellowtail Pale Ale, and also their Calico Amber. They have Newcastle Brown Ale, a goodly northern English taster that natives call “the dog” (as in “I’m going to walk the dog,” meaning “I’m off to the pub), plus a couple of others I’m sure do the job. Blue Moon from Colorado, a white Belgian ale, and, okay, Coors Light. Point is, they’re trying to give you an interesting bang for your three bucks.
The server, Lance, comes up. “Something to drink? Eat, maybe?”
Well, seeing as it’s happy hour, I go for the nachos and a glass of that Arrogant Bastard. (“Fuzzy yellow beer is for wussies,” it says on its label.) I have to say, not only is the dark ale hoppin’, but the nachos are rockin’. That is, they come on a classy square white china plate, loaded with chips, cheese, sliced green jalapeños, tomatoes, and daisy chains of sliced black olives.
Yum. I sit on my stool at the marble counter, holding my Bastard, munching, glugging, checking out the maroon floor, orange chairs, peachy wall colors, and dark, glinting wine bottles stacked in diamond-shaped shelves. It’s nice. ’Specially since I’ve only paid out $6 for the whole experience.
Around me, conventioneers talk decimated 401(k)s. They’re down to their last BMW. I see they’re drinking coffee. I order one too ($2). “All our coffees are organic,” Lance says. “And all our paper cups are recycled.” Good. Turns out he opens up at 6:00 every morning. Hey, maybe we are talking real-world café, after all.
Next day, I stop by and have some onion soup, on special for lunch at $6.95. It’s scattered with rosemary. Even though the bread doesn’t have melted cheese on top, as advertised, it’s pretty good value for the money, and tasty. Dunno, seem to be taking to the place. Maybe the Gaslamp’s getting its first genuine neighborhood corner bistro. For regulars down here, that could make life sweet.
The Place: Toscana Cafe and Wine Bar, 238 Fifth Avenue (at K Street), Gaslamp Quarter, 619-231-5788
Type of Food: American
Prices: Grilled-cheese breakfast sandwich, $6.95; ham, eggs, and cheese sandwich, $8.95; “French Authority” three-egg omelet, with grilled chicken breast, scallions, Brie, $12.95; “Veggimaginary” lunch sandwich (Gruyère cheese, mushrooms, onions, tomato, lettuce, alfalfa), $9.95; prosciutto panini with Havarti, $9.95; Chinese salad (with mandarin oranges, almonds, noodles, sesame-ginger dressing), $10.95; happy-hour specials (2:00–6:00 p.m. daily) include nachos, $4.50; cheese quesadilla, $4.50; buffalo wings, $4.50; happy-hour draft beers include Arrogant Bastard and Yellowtail Pale Ale
Hours: 6:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 3, 11, 120
Nearest Bus Stop: Market and Sixth (3, 11); Fourth and G (120)
Trolley (best option): Orange Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp Quarter