2600 Golf Course Drive, Balboa Park
The sun glinted off oak trees. Golf carts waddled down the fairway. A dry, light breeze signaled an impending Santa Ana. I gazed upon this glorious scene, sipping Stella Artois, happy to be alive and honored to have such a setting within walking distance of my house.
You might think I was dining at A.R. Valentien and looking out across Torrey Pines Golf Course at the sparkling ocean beyond. But you would be wrong. I was, in fact, at Tobey’s 19th Hole Cafe, perched above Balboa Golf Course and savoring a panoramic view of downtown’s skyscrapers. I was also drinking the most gourmet thing on the menu. Which was just fine.
My family and I had hiked up to Tobey’s on this lazy Saturday afternoon because we’d heard from our Golden Hill neighbors that the café serves solid diner food and that you couldn’t beat the location.
Both reports were true. From the chorizo-and-egg breakfast burrito ($5.75) that my husband inhaled to the basic cheeseburger on a fluffy, freshly baked bun ($5.50), which my son ordered, the food is designed to fill you up after you’ve trudged around the golf course for 18 holes. Or, we realized, as groups of haggard-looking 20-somethings wandered in, this is the place to go for a little hair of the dog after a hard night drinking beer and hanging out in South Park.
The clientele is an amusing mix of retirees sporting loud Bermuda shorts and perky visors inside, and youngsters in garish, overly large sunglasses outside on the patio. It makes for fun people-watching, if you can tear your eyes away from the view. Tobey’s 19th Hole Cafe sits on the edge of a mesa, 100 or so feet above the golf course. A fairway winds down the hill beneath picture windows that line the rear of the café, housed in Balboa Golf Course’s clubhouse.
As for the food, it’s basic but well prepared. Don’t look for elaborate dish descriptions or sourcing of ingredients. My husband’s giant breakfast burrito came mostly unencumbered, with a lone piece of iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato. When he bit into the burrito, the filling nearly oozed out over his dish. The chorizo was smoky and piquant, made more so by generous slatherings of the tasty house green salsa that’s provided in a large squirt bottle on every table. Our son’s burger came topped with American cheese and a dollop of ketchup, mustard, onions, and pickles (which he promptly scraped off in favor of his usual mayo). His fries were crispy and salty, exactly as they should be.
I ordered a BLT on wheat toast ($5.50) and was surprised at how thick and perfectly crisped the bacon was. So often BLTs seem to be vessels for leftover breakfast bacon — cold, limp, and overwhelmed by the L and the T. In my sandwich, the bacon took center stage; good, because the L was iceberg and the T was bland. But while I appreciate a competent BLT, what really won me over were the tater tots. I realize that tots are everywhere these days, often dressed up in elaborate outfits that end up obscuring their delicious tot-iness. Not at Tobey’s. Here, they’re deep-fried balls of potato joy. I made a mixture of mayonnaise and the herby green salsa, took a slug of my beer, and dipped my tots. Life was grand.
Tobey’s 19th Hole Cafe opened in 1934, 19 years after the Balboa Golf Course, which was built in 1915 to coincide with the first Panama Exposition. Thus, Tobey’s came into being on the eve of the second Exposition, which ran from 1935–’36 and celebrated “modernist” San Diego. The Tobey family still owns the diner, and there’s definitely an old-world feel to it. The waitresses (the servers are all women) smile upon you kindly and make sure your food is okay, but they don’t hover. This allows you to recover from whatever ails you — whether it be strenuous golfing or a wicked hangover.
On that note, one more breakfast item should be mentioned. The chicken-fried steak topped with gravy and eggs and served with hash browns and toast is a great deal at $8.25, since you won’t have to eat for the rest of the day (and quite possibly into the next one). All the ingredients are fresh, the crust on the steak shatters upon impact, and the gravy, while thick, isn’t gelatinous. Break your egg yolk over the top and make sure to mingle it with the hash browns. Then order a mimosa to balance out the richness of your breakfast and to take the edge off your headache. Sit back in your patio seat and relax while you digest. Sometimes, it’s really cool to live in San Diego. ■
Tobey’s 19th Hole Cafe 2600 Golf Course Drive, San Diego, 619-234-5921; Tobeys19thhole.com
Vibe: amazing views, fresh-off-the-course golfers, hungover hipsters
Fare: American diner; chorizo and eggs; BLTs; burgers
Seating: counter, tables inside, five tables on the patio
Must Try: Chicken-fried steak and eggs; tater tots