Sandwiched in between the theatres, bars, massage parlors and bookstores that make up San Diego's downtown exist a number of small but busy cafes catering to a unique clientele. These restaurants offer good meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served 'round the clock) without taking too much out of your pocketbook.
So for those of you who aren’t capable of living high on the hog or are just looking for places that offer very good eats at really unbelievable prices; drop your surfboards and school books and head for the depths of Broadway.
There are four cafes I’d like to take you to; they’re all Chinese-owned and located within four or five blocks of each other. The Moon Cafe, open every day but Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., is about 1/2-block from the corner of 4th and F Streets, tucked away between a bar and an empty storefront. One of the things a first-time visitor encounters as he or she enters the Moon is a large “B” restaurant rating card staring out unenticingly from the window. But don’t fear. I’ve seen some “C’’s down here, and what’s happened to your sense of adventure?
Though usually quite busy, the Moon does have its slow days, and it’s near the end of the month so welfare and retirement checks are running low. The owner is a small, thin man close to 50, with greying hair combed directly behind his ears. His English is poor, but I understand his Chinese and Spanish aren’t too bad.
The prices are the finest advertisement for these cafes, but eating in them provides varying degrees of cheap thrills. One time a friend was served a bug along with his salad, but he was immediately given a replacement. Drunks regularly stagger in and out, but most everybody looks sober today.
My meal comes quickly. Soft, tender liver, literally smothered in onions, one cup of soup, one scoop of mashed potatoes and rice topped with gravy, string beans, bread and butter and coffee. A complete meal. And the cost? Only 95 cents. Other meals here run from 85 cents to $1.20; $2.25 for a nice cut of New York steak.
The next cafe on our list is Lucky’s, located about a block up from the Moon, at 317 F Street. Small, seating maybe 20 people, Lucky’s is directly across from the Horton Hotel, and in between a bookstore and a laundromat. It’s a little cleaner than the Moon; so it earned an “A” rating. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. 5 days a week, closed on Wednesday and Thursday. My friend Jack and I hit the dinner crowd at about 6 p.m.
Sitting in one of the cafe’s 2 booths I ordered baked chicken for $1.10 and Jack, had liver and onions for 95 cents. The chicken was very tasty and Jack claimed his liver was astonishingly good. “Didn’t even have to salt and pepper it.” The menu and portions are much the same as the Moon; main course, soup, rice and potatoes with gravy, string beans, bread and butter, and coffee.
While we were eating people filtered in and out. Among them were an attractive Oriental girl, an obvious homosexual, and the ever-present older men who live in the many cheap hotels that dot the downtown area. Our waitress was a young Chinese girl, maybe 15 or 16, who very quickly took our orders and brought us the hot food.
When we left there was someone at the counter who I hadn't seen in quite a while. Stewart is one who's lived with money and without it. “With is better,” he says knowingly. At one time, many years ago. Stewart worked for the great Al Jolson. Retired now. the downtown is the only place he can afford to live. “Hi Stewart," I call, “Whatcha been doin'?”
“Oh, been busy. Joe, very busy. Working on four books: animal books for children." Always sober, clean and neatly dressed with a closely cropped beard. Stewart carries the air of a skid-row Hemingway. But this isn't the first time I've known him to have begun work on a book, and unlike Hemingway, I don't think he's ever finished one.
Our next stop is the Sun Cafe on Market between 4th and 5th Streets. Open Monday through Saturday from 5:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., many Horton Plaza vets consider the Sun the best of the downtown cafes. It's run by a Chinese family, and their Oriental dishes are especially good. For only $1.00 you get a complete meal, and it's even larger than the others.
I usually eat breakfast or their Chinese food. Rick, who joined me just after I arrived, is a professional cook. Because it was just after the noon hour we both had breakfast. Delicious pancakes (35 cents), two eggs over easy, toast and hashbrowns (40 cents!), coffee (15 cents) and, for me. a milk (15 cents). His bill was 90 cents plus tax, mine came to $1.11.
“You know,” he says, “the food here is really pretty good, as good as the El Cortez.” I agree, though there has been some awfully stale bread put in with my toast, and sometimes Ming, the waiter, isn't always in the best of moods. One time I found some dried egg on my fork. I called over the waitress, who looked at the fork and tossed it right back at me, exclaiming “It ok. You order egg anyway.” Well, I did get a new fork eventually, but scenes like that make these cafes what they are.
Lee’s is located near 5th and G Streets, and open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days a week. A little hole-in-the-wall, Lee's is also a family-owned and operated business. As I walk in. someone I know is sitting at the counter. “My name's Big John,” he'll say to anyone new. “But I don't know why they call me Big John,” he chuckles to himself as he pats his tremendous girth. John, retired from the Navy, lives on his pension and the few dollars he can make hawking newspapers on the corner of 4th and Broadway. About 55, and recently recovered from a stroke, John is about 5 foot 8 inches tall and must weigh at least 300 pounds. He is known locally for his tremendous appetite. I've seen him eat dinner and a whole pie for dessert and call for more.
Our waitress is a young girl, about 18, just out of high school this year. She is arguing about the price of crackers with some character. “That'll be 3 cents ... 3 cents." she half yells. “I've been swindled.” the man complains. I'm not sure exactly what was going on. but they hassled over it almost the whole time I was there.
She comes over to take our order, looking very tired. “I've been working every day from 8 to 8.” I asked her more and she responds, “I hope to go to City College in January.” She points to a middle-aged Chinese couple who are rushing about doing all the cooking and dishwashing. “Those are my parents,” she adds, “but I'm the only one who knows how to speak English."
Downtown San Diego can be a very lonely place. But loneliness and poverty are a part of city life that many San Diegans never see. While the street corners may be too much for the uninitiated, the cafes offer a slice-of-life everybody should see. and meals that are phenomenally cheap and just plain good.
- Omelettes U.S. Grant Denny’s Moon Sun Lee’s Lucky’s
- plain $1.95 $1.80 $ .55 $ .40 $ .55
- cheese 2.25 1.95 .85 .65 .85
- ham 2.75 .90 .75 .90
- Two Eggs 1.45 .50 .40 .50 .50
- Pancakes 1.00 .55 .35 .55
- French Toast 1.30 .45
- Hamburger Steak 3.50 2.95 .95 1.00 1.00 .95
- Fried Chicken 3.25 2.95 1.10 1.00 1.10 1.10
- Fried Liver .95 1.00 1.00 .95
- Hamburger 1.40 1.20 .55 .45 .55 .55
- Coffee .30 .25 .15 .15 .15 .15