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Lee’s Café, long a familiar sight if you could ever manage to find it (738 Fifth Avenue) among its hoity-toity neighbors, has apparently bid adieu to its patrons and habitués. The seemingly 1940s vintage chow house (reportedly established in the late ‘60s) was closed up a couple of weeks ago, its walls stripped bare of the Chinese-calendar art and cereal boxes that adorned it.

A glimpse through the barricaded window showed only a bare room with a long counter and the wooden stools that once held the derrieres of the down-and-outers (and their upper-crust emulators) as they scarfed down the panoply of breakfasts available at Lee’s. Eggs with some kind of meat was the order of the day, this reporter always getting sausage and three eggs over easy with hash browns and wheat toast, and, yeah, I’ll take some of that terrible coffee, too.

After overdosing on huevos rancheros, frijoles, y arroz con tortillas in TJ, it was refreshing to horse down a big American farm-style breakfast while surrounded by the wizened wise guys and hard-luck dames that frequented the place…and for so cheap, too. I’m sure it was a sad day when each regular showed up at the screen door and tried to pull it open…it usually stuck, but this time it was stuck for good.

You could see ’em all at Lee’s…the good, the not-so-good, and the struggling ugly, but the even-keeled waitress behind the counter kept things moving with militaristic discipline while the radio behind her crooned out ‘70s-era soul music. Not a bad way to start off the day. Too bad I never got to try the meatloaf at night.

When I first came to San Diego to stay, some ten years ago, there was a slew of Lee-like, cheap-breakfast joints around town, and you could get eggs and whatever with coffee for a couple of bucks. I’ve seen them bite the dust one by one, but I thought there was something insurmountable about Lee’s. I guess not.

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Ken Harrison Nov. 11, 2009 @ 8:22 a.m.

That is really sad. I had the Lee's article that the reader's rest. guy wrote a few months ago, so that next time I was down there, I was going to go. I ate their last in the early 80s. Would love to know what really happened? Greedy landlord? Heavily financed new restaurant?


nancyr Jan. 18, 2010 @ 8:19 p.m.

This is such a well-written story and commentary on the disappearance of comforting, cheap food! I wish I had been there, but now will never have the chance. Thank you for this history of one of San Diego's downtown landmarks.


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