Downtown Whoever would have thought you needed reservations at a skyhigh expensive hotel restaurant in downtown San Diego, especially if it's located straight across from Horton Plaza's Cabrillo “always 3 big hits" Theater where you can see such muck as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls/ Paradise/ Oldest Profession in the World.
If it's the Grant Grill, you do.
Because it is, according to San Diego Tribune columnist Neil Morgan and the hotel night desk clerk who, by the way, confessed he had never eaten there, one of the three or so best restaurants in all of the County of San Diego. Because it is Old and Established, vintage 1909. And because it is. I’ve heard, the place where attorneys and judges, elected officials and city administrators rendezvous to politic over breakfast and lunch.
On Labor Day Saturday we called a little before seven to find “a full house until nine.” Reservations for nine it was, we could wait, but little did we know that we would be doing waiting-room time at the bar. “I get you a table — give me one minute, one minute," the Mexican Maitre d' kept saying until he seated us at quarter to ten.
The Grill was bustling and busy, waiters bursting out of the kitchen, warning “watch it, watch it,” sloshing the au jus onto the carpet, and this, we learned, was par for any weekend. The crowd was thick and boisterous and drinking friendly. The daytime attorneys had been replaced by Southern California nouveau and not so nouveau riche: men in white shoes and Pucci print shirts and puffy bow ties and bright plaid jackets, women with peroxide helmet hairdos, fashionable white leather handbags shaped like lunchboxes, and Las Vegas pants suits. While we were considering our salad, an older man in a spiffy double-breasted Navy-blue jacket and a martini, him down for the races from L.A. where he was proud to live with his '‘two adorable little girls and two French poodles" approached our table: “So many people go out to eat with tired faces, but you look like you're enjoying yourselves, would you say you're enjoying yourselves? Here, shake my hand.” We shook his hand. Sitting next to us was a very blonde Ann-Margaret in flaming orange ruffled acetate-chiffon, across the way a man who was a double for Nasser, and to our other side, believe it or not, a man who in the midst of all this had dozed off.
Composition of the crowd was about forty per cent Jewish, forty per cent Mexican, with the remaining twenty per cent allocated to the Unexpected: student types in dumpy sweaters and pants, a couple in from El Cajon for a night on the town. One large party impossibly combined it all by speaking Spanish, singing “happy birthday to you” with the waiters led by the choirmaster Maitre d'. and then later launching into “Hava Nagila.”
But all this crazy activity doesn't mean that the Grant Grill is just another phony Hotel Circle-Shelter Island restaurant. It's not, it’s not at all. It's a real restaurant, a big city restaurant with white tablecloths and napkins nicety folded on your bread-and-butter plate, wood paneling such as you'd find in a gentleman's club. Silver Springs Water, red velvet drapes, high lighting, large black leather booths, a Ponce de Leon poster, and the inevitable aquarium that forms part of a window.
The only false note is the bar, right there in the thick of things, its TV posted up at one end. but if this doesn't make for elegance, it does make for life, which is, after all, ten times better. Scott, the new bartender, adds to the cosmopolitania of it all. He's a distinguished looking middle-aged Londoner dressed up in red jacket and black pants who doesn't push drinks and is pleasantly polite: “Thank you for being so patient. In New York, you know, they'd throw glasses at you.”
And the food? You can find almost anything on the huge parchment a la carte menu, but the emphasis is on fish. Appetizers such as melon prosciutto ($2.25) and cold assorted seafood ($4.95). Soups such as turtle and French onion running between $.85 and $I.00. Salads such as Kodiak (a seafood salad for $2.50) and Caesar ($1.50). There are at least nine kinds of fish ranging from river salmon to rainbow trout for about $6.2S, brochette of scampi and nero steak for $6.95, tournedos Acapulco for $6.95, sweetbreads for $7.95. And the wine list numbers fifty-four selections, but most. I'm sorry to say, can be found at any Safeway.
That Saturday we experienced a local version of Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In one of the movie’s most hilarious scenes, the ladies go to a tres elegante place for tea only to discover that that afternoon there is indeed no tea left, no coffee, and. impossibly, no water. At the Grill we found that there was no turtle soup left, no gazpacho left, and no vichyssoise. No Almaden split of champagne (they later located one), none of the green beans that come in those little china side dishes. And no crepes Suzettes that night because “the kitchen is swamped," said the Maitre d', “come another night during the week. I make you everything you want.”
But what we did order was good, first-rate, although not so extraordinary that I'd trade heaven for Grant Grill cuisine. First, thinly sliced toasted rye bread topped with cheese was brought to our table for pleasurable munching while we read and battled with the hide-and-seek menu. Second, the Grant Grill Specialty Salad, a mountain of crisp romaine, croutons, and a delicious blue cheese vinaigrette. Third, the main course: beef stroganoff (very rich, very smooth, very generous) and totuava Sea Bass, beurre noire (the fish itself was adequate — thick, fresh, moist, and attractively served — but the beurre noire was unaccountably beurre blanc, plain melted butter which had never reached the browning stage). As we finished we watched a couple near us being served Chateaubriand for two — a huge plank mounded with an enormous piece of beautiful beef surrounded by whipped potatoes and color-fresh vegetables, broccoli and finger carrots — and realized we had made a mistake: next time. And for dessert, hot yes hot apple pie topped with a melted' slab of Cheddar cheese ($1.00) and their own rather peculiar recipe for cheesecake (also $1.00) which I do not recommend; it has no crust, a no-cooked taste and consistency, and is rather sickeningly sweet.
All tolled it came to $30.00 for two including tip and $5 for wine but no drinks, and we had ordered with restraint — no appetizers, no crepes suzettes for $2.75 a person. The prices of the Grant Grill run as high and higher than the Westgate since even the Westgate offers a few complete dinners here and there. But on the whole I prefer the Grill which in a way is saying I prefer the 20th century to earlier. Service at the Grill is amiable and professional but not scrupulous or impeccable, and the place fairly bounces with life and all of its carrying-ons.