It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, two days after “Black Friday,” a term originating (according to Wikipedia) with the Philadelphia PD in the 19th Century to denote this holiday’s weekend traffic that is a bitch to police. In weeks I will turn 59 years old, and I find myself with a menu in my hand at Hob Nob Hill, at 2271 First Avenue at Juniper Street.
Hob Nob has attracted much publicity over the years and recently was featured on the Food Network. I didn’t see it. And if Mr. Bedford has recently written about it, I am unaware. No matter, anyway, this is no restaurant review. I do not even get to coffee this particular morning.
The seating capacity for HN must be close to 200, and some ten to a dozen folk are waiting for tables, though I am assured by some pleasant staffers (the pleasantry key in HN’s appeal) that this is far from heavy traffic for a Sunday around 11 a.m. I find I am recalling my first visit to this establishment sometime in the early ’80s, when I had first moved from New York to Curlew Street, up the hill.
It had seemed to me (and this, through shredded gauze of memory dressings) a feeding place for the elderly, much like the Chicken Pie Shop, near my then-new home (long since relocated — both my home and the restaurant), and that the menu consisted of food that was almost exclusively colorless: white or beige. My then-wife shared a memory with me of the basement of a hotel in Pocatello, Idaho, where my country/Top 40 band was engaged for two weeks. We played the bar upstairs but were advised of the early-bird specials below, patronized largely by seniors. It would seem their fixed incomes compared with, say, Top 40 band-musician budgets. The image of dentures and gums, mashed potatoes, white corn left unattended on the plate, fish or chicken, deep fried and with a pale, floury sauce, milk or a tan coffee, apple pie with a prison-pallor crust — these details provided our 26-year-old selves with the laughter of the immune.
It now occurs to me, still breathing hard after a small hill on the walk over, that less than a year from now, considering lung congestion and the faulty ticker, that I might well be waiting for my name to be called for a table while seated on this same sofa, taking up two seats...one for myself, another for my oxygen tank.
The two seats to my left are in fact taken up at the moment by a young couple, reminiscent of that couple in Pocatello in 1972. Ryan Chambers is, he says, 27 years old and Katie LaFollet, 25. “I guess you could say I’ve been coming here for 20 years, but I left for college up in San Francisco. This is probably my first time back to Hob Nob in maybe ten years.” This is LaFollet’s first visit to the restaurant. “I live at Fourth and Laurel,” Chambers says.
“I live at Fifth and Maple,” says his friend. Neighbors to each other, but there are certainly other dining choices near them. Chambers has made a point of bringing his brunch date here, it would seem.
The food? “I really like the food,” Chambers says.
On my trip to the men’s room and back, I had noticed the plates of seated patrons sported multicolored foodstuffs: tomatoes, fruit, and vegetables. Even clay-colored frijoles and cheddar cheese offset the popular biscuits and gravy, and Cream of Wheat or oatmeal, and the memory of Hob Nob as a sea of white gruel for the toothless. The most expensive item seemed to be filet mignon and two eggs at $15.25. “One thing I like is that they write out the price in cursive. I haven’t been back in so long, I guess I’ll find out if it has improved.” Chambers does point out the larger number of patrons under 60 than I recalled from years ago.
Chambers and his friend get up when their name is called, and several women of age replace them next to me. Beverly Shipe is a fine-looking senior from Escondido. “I’ve been coming here for 10 or 15 years. We don’t have many places like this. It’s something special.”
Hob Nob’s origins involve Harold and Dorothy Hoersch in 1944 and their opening of a 14-stool lunch counter called the Juniper Café. In 1946 it became the Melody Grill, then Dorothy’s Oven, and finally Hob Nob Hill, San Diego’s oldest restaurant in the same location.
I turn to a new arrival, introduce myself, and ask her name. “I don’t like your politics,” she smiles and turns away toward the women’s room.
I stand there open-mouthed, wondering what they are.