Cafe in Bernardini Building, 1936
  • Cafe in Bernardini Building, 1936
  • San Diego Historical Society photo
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Food's as old as we are. It's impossible to tell whether people have shaped foodstuffs more or food's done more to shape people. The Irish and potatoes, Mexicans and corn, Asians and rice, Norwegians and salmon, me and Mom's pasta, grew together. American cookery began with the first settlers, who gobbled relatively British versions of what Native Americans taught them to gobble. In general, the early settlers felt most comfortable preparing foodstuffs that were similar to what they ate in their once-native Europe: boiled meats and vegetables, relatively bland flavors, fried cakes, and pies and puddings. But Native Americans acclimated English palates to the unusual local flora and fauna. The most important early Native American influence on colonial cookery was maize, which the settlers called Indian corn. Corn was probably the most original aspect of American cookery. Because Mexican recipes have colored our cuisine, this nation has a plentiful repertory of corn dishes. Corn is more American than apple pie.

As early American cookery developed, with African influences in the South, hearty German fare in Pennsylvania, and Dutch cakes and pastries in New York, this country's appreciation became increasingly diverse. The young nation's population moved westward in the 1800s, and these newcomers came upon indigenous groups who brought unfamiliar flavors, tendencies, and opportunities to the American appetite.

Spanish missionaries and colonists, settling the West Coast from 1769 onward, imported produce from Mexico, including oranges, lemons, bananas, and sugar cane. They also introduced New World foods not previously grown in California -- chocolate, tomatoes, and chili peppers.

For the United States, Spain's loss of Mexico in 1821 meant the end of a European threat and the expansion of culinary prospects. Americans moving westward brought bacon, cornbread, coffee, butter, buttermilk, and crackers. Mexicans dined on tortillas, beef, venison, chickens, eggs, cheese, and milk. Eventually, as the United States annexed Texas and conquered California, dietary tendencies merged into a semblance of the Southwestern gastronomy that we recognize today. By the 1880s, Mexican dishes such as Spanish Hash, Stuffed Chillies, Spanish Wafers, "Zalza," and Spanish Cream, were already incorporated into regional cookbooks.

The cookbook and, later, the restaurant menu are easily the grandest artifacts relating to food. Traditionally, foodstuffs were prepared by the woman of the house, who passed on to her daughters the knowledge of how to boil beets, crumb tables, and seal marmalade jars. These techniques grew into shared family experience. Traditions were often preserved by writing favorite recipes into household journals, which were passed from one generation to the next.

Early European cookbooks offered little orderly instruction. Quantities of ingredients were unspecified and directions vague. Fifteenth- and 16th-century books on food had health and medicine in mind; they reflected the medieval partiality for spicy foods in vinegar-based sauces.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, individual national cuisines began to emerge, though published cookbooks from that time record mostly the food habits of the wealthy. From the 18th Century on, cookery books were written by and for the growing middle class. These volumes emphasized economy in the kitchen. Not until the 19th Century did cookbooks resemble the clear and comprehensive instruction manuals we use today.

The first cookbook published in California bore the telling title How to Keep a Husband, or Culinary Tactics. It was published in 1872 by an Anglican church group in San Francisco and was dedicated to "the fair ones of the Pacific Coast." How to Keep a Husband draws more culinary inspiration from England than from California, although it does reflect an interest in the seasonal, farm-fresh produce of the West. Recipes for roasted meat and other old country favorites that would be sure to keep a husband from heading off to choicer pastures, such as calf's head soup and mushroom catsup, are listed alongside pickled California plums, Spanish flummery (custard) with local white wine, and lemon and orange puddings.

San Diego's earliest cookbooks appeared over 40 years later. The Recipe Book, "dedicated to the Girls' Home of San Diego," was published in 1915. It contained 250 recipes contributed by the women of San Diego and cost 50 cents. Page one was an advertisement for a bank located in the U.S. Grant Hotel Building, "one of the strongest banks in the West." The next pages are directions for how to serve breakfast, luncheon, and dinner. Directions include "Have fruit on table when guests are seated. When this course is finished, remove plates with left hand, placing finger bowl with right. Take soiled dishes into the pantry or kitchen. Remove finger bowls, two at a time."

Preparations in The Recipe Book range from Scalloped Potatoes and Stewed Tomatoes to Spanish Rice, Oriental Rice, and String Beans a la Francaise. Most of the dishes are accredited to the good San Diego ladies of society who contributed them.

Along with the guidelines, editorial catchphrases recommend each preparation. The Scalloped Onions from Mrs. M. Ethel Armstrong is "a very choice recipe." The Dressing for Cold Slaw [sic] from Mrs. Jennie E. Rand "makes a delightful dressing." There are also nonspecific directions. M.L. Speer's recipe for Oatmeal Macaroons, for example, "requires some time to bake."

In the Calexico Cook Book, compiled in 1914 by "The Ladies of the First Congregational Church and Their Friends in Calexico, California," recipes are personalized. This publication reveals a surprising breadth to the early-20th-century Southwestern American palate, with dishes such as Scotch Potato Scones, Virginia Corn Bread, Dixie Biscuits, Boston Brown Bread, Swiss Steak, and Spanish Loaf. My favorite recipe in the Calexico Cook Book is for a concoction called Luncheon Dish. Luncheon Dish is made with boiled ham, hard-boiled eggs, pimientos, bread crumbs, sprinkled cheese, and "white sauce." This low-fat, low-cal, low-carb, health-conscious tidbit is layered and baked until brown on top. Thanks, Mrs. Eken! Mmmmmm.

Throughout most of early human history, families have taken meals together in their homes, or when visiting, in the homes of their hosts. It wasn't until 1782, in France, that the first restaurant-like establishment opened. This occasion was precipitated by the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent French independence, which left talented chefs (chefs of the overthrown aristocrats) out of kitchens. Before this watershed incident, the best cooking was experienced in the private dwellings of the wealthy.

From the start, "dining out" was more than just eating; it was a social event. In society, food has always served as a class marker. In the early European restaurants, a court tradition of high cuisine and elaborate table manners came to be observed, distinguishing the bourgeoisie from measly rabble.

The original French restaurants featured dapper waiters and remarkable wine cellars. Individual portions were prepared out of sight and brought to each guest. Food once restricted to the aristocratic few became available to anyone who could pay for it.

But not until 1827 did the idea of the restaurant catch on in the United States. One factor in the lag was a suspicion that Americans had (and still have) regarding extravagant or pretentious things. This country was founded upon values of prudence and practicality, with a resulting antagonism toward foreign foppery.

By the 1820s, however, American tastes were more developed. The expanding economy facilitated a new sophistication in food and fashion. In urban centers, especially, Americans turned to France for inspiration.

Delmonico's, which began as a small café and pastry shop on William Street in New York City, is considered the first restaurant in the United States. By 1836, Delmonico's was a three-story "restaurant français," with inlaid floors, expensive decor, and 16,000 bottles of wine in the cellar.

There were many taverns in the United States before Delmonico's. The difference between a tavern and a restaurant may be traced to the difference between the etymology of the two words. Tavern is from the Middle English, meaning "a hut made of boards." Restaurant is from the French word for "restorative."

Throughout the countryside, in towns, and in cities for many years public dining (except for occasional feasts and events) was tavern dining. Taverns served common meals at specific times during the morning, afternoon, and evening and featured hearty, simple fare that could satisfy travelers and businessmen.

Eighteen twenty came and went, and taverns near the center of business in larger cities were becoming "hotels," which offered their traveling guests sizable meals. These establishments also kept a lavish dinner table for merchants, lawyers, and clerks in the city who did not wish to travel home to eat in the middle of the working day.

San Diego was scarcely a glimmer in the country's eye in the 1820s, much less a hotbed of California Cuisine. Over the next hundred years, San Diego grew, shrunk, and grew again. It underwent a war, changed nationalities twice, and became a military town. Although cafés and eating houses had popped up downtown by the 1880s, most cooking was done at home.

In an interview conducted with Herbert C. Kelly (1888-1984), his answer to the question "Were there any restaurants around?" in his youth was a succinct "Restaurants were few and far between." After indicating that people didn't eat out much, Kelly went on to paint the following picture of early-20th-century San Diego.

Kelly said, "On the northeast corner of Fourth and F there was a building...which was Benoit's Restaurant, where we sometimes ate out on Sundays after church. Or on Third and F Streets on the northwest corner was the Carleton Hotel, which had an extensive dining room, we thought, where a Sunday dinner cost probably 25 cents, or something of that sort."

Herbert C. Hensley writes about early scenes of dining out in San Diego in his article "Mutton Chops, and a Round" (San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, October 1956). In one hotel in the 1880s, "The tired and dust-covered passengers came streaming across the street and through the backyard of the hotel, the men lining up at the long sink just off the kitchen for their ablutions before entering the dining room.... [T]he general practice in those days was for the 'heavy meal' to be taken at noon. All three meals were good hearty ones, and the uniform price was 'two bits' -- twenty-five cents. The Horton House charged 'four bits' for dinners, which, said the knowing, weren't a bit better -- except, maybe, as regarded 'style.'... The Horton House, in the interest of that 'style,' essayed to change its dinner to the more fashionable evening hour, but most patrons weren't used to it and wouldn't have it."

Later, Hensley mentions restaurant service. "Waiters in nearly all eating houses in those days were men and, rather naturally there were no tips. The amount of any tip certainly would have been negligible, and, anyway, pennies were entirely unused then, here and throughout the West."

In two long-since-discontinued annual guidebooks for the city, The San Diego Tourist and Guidebook of San Diego, advertisements centered on the public eating experience. One food establishment in 1885 boasted a "separate entrance for ladies." In 1904, ads flaunted "one side of the restaurant reserved for gentlemen." In 1914, an eatery offered "private booths for ladies" and "the best luncheon in the city for 40 cents." (The place was called the Oyster Loaf Cafe.) In the 1915 version of Tourist, the following tidbits caught my eye: "Visitors from the East, who are accustomed to the many delightful tea rooms of the larger cities, will be glad to learn that San Diego has an up-to-date, well-managed tea room." According to another ad, "This pleasurable necessity of eating is sure to claim your attention while in this city."

Golden Lion

Golden Lion

San Diego Historical Society photo

By 1920, San Diego's population had swelled to nearly 75,000, and there were modern amenities all over town, including dozens of fine restaurants. Although most of the restaurants have long since closed, the buildings that housed them are home to other businesses. The Hard Rock Cafe downtown, for instance, in 1920 was the Golden Lion. And the Prado restaurant in Balboa Park stands on the spot where the Cafe Del Rey Moro opened in 1935.

Cafe del Rey Moro, 193

Cafe del Rey Moro, 193

San Diego Historical Society photo

The U.S. Grant Hotel houses the oldest continuously open, still-operating restaurant in San Diego. It started business on October 15, 1910. Ulysses S. Grant Jr. had come to San Diego to find a healthful climate for his ailing wife. He bought the old Horton House, razed it, and built a $1.95 million luxury hotel named in honor of his father, the ex-general and ex-president. Immediately, the U.S. Grant offered one of only a handful of fine restaurants in the booming new Southwestern metropolis of San Diego.

Sitting down to a fine dinner at the U.S. Grant Hotel in 1910, one could expect ornate and heavy gold-lined base plates and engraved silverware, showy linens, and massive floral bouquets. The staff wore aprons, bow ties, and jackets and were almost exclusively men.

The women (and children, in the rare event that children would be included in a public dining experience) entered the Grant through a separate entrance from the menfolk. The Grant did not serve women before three o'clock in the afternoon until 1971. In fact, the Grant Grill policy of "No Women Served Before 3 p.m." was a focal point of San Diego's civil rights activism in the late 1960s.

Back in 1910, the Grant's four original menus were dedicated one each to the square meals and to room service. The Grant was also host to numerous banquets and special dinners, including a fete in 1919 honoring President Woodrow Wilson, who was a guest there.

For breakfast in the hotel dining room, one might come down the wide carpeted stairs and order Stewed Prunes, Fried Cornmeal Mush, Sauerkraut Juice, Milk Toast, Shirred Eggs with Chicken Livers, Little Pig Sausage, Boiled Salt Mackerel, and then, at the end of this repast, Ovaltine, Postum, or a nice mug of Half and Half. The most expensive breakfast item, a Breakfast Filet Mignon, cost 75 cents.

For lunch, which was called "Luncheon," one might have Green Turtle Soup, a Pot of Roast Beef with Spaghetti, a Tripe Saute a la Creole, Succotash, and one or two of a total of 28 vegetable side dishes. At luncheon, the steak was $1.40.

Room service offered 12 different potato dishes, Finnan Haddie (a kind of smoked haddock), Catalina Sand Dabs Saute Meuniere, Lettuce and Tomato Sandwiches, and Pineapple Cream Cheese Sweet Relish Sandwiches.

For dinner, one might begin with Chutney, Celery Hearts, Radishes, or a plate of Green Onions, before moving on to the Imported Frankfurters, Fried Abalone Steak, or Chipped Beef in Cream. There were 15 potato dishes and 22 vegetable side dishes. Here are the potato offerings, in a poetic-sounding list: Mashed, Boiled, Baked, Special Baked, Lyonnaise, Hashed O'Brien, Hashed Brown, Hashed in Cream, American Fried, French Fried, Shoestring, Au Gratin, Long Branch, Cottage Fried, and Sweet Potatoes, any style.

For the club dinner, served 6:00 till 9:00, the cost of the all-inclusive meal, from Lobster Cocktail to Cafe Noir, was $1.50. Pretty steep when you consider that the rooms upstairs (with bath) were $3 a night for one person.

In 1919, at the banquet for President Wilson -- who earlier in the day had given the first speech ever delivered through a loudspeaker, to 50,000 San Diegans at Balboa Stadium -- the Grant served a feast of seven courses, one of which was "Punch."

Today at the Grant Grill, the decor is maintained in period style. Capacious leathern booths, rich mahogany, marble panels, and brass lighting fixtures are punctuated by dozens of 19th-century paintings of dogs, horses, equestrians, and bucolic English fox-hunting scenes. The kitchen is in full view, with everything the chefs are doing open to display.

The contemporary Grant Grill menu proffers 6 appetizers, 3 soups, 3 salads, and 14 entrées, with flavors as diverse as Caribbean Calamari, Duck Ravioli, and Beef Wellington. You can still order turtle soup, but now it's "mock" turtle, made with ground beef tongue. The cost has inflated from 40 cents a bowl in 1910 to $6 today.

One of the great early restaurants in San Diego was located downtown inside the El Cortez Hotel, on the site of Ulysses S. Grant Jr.'s former home. The El Cortez dominated the city skyline when it opened on Thanksgiving Day 1927. Back then, it was the city's finest furnished apartment-hotel. A single room with bath cost $5 a day. Apartments started at $100 a month.

The great attraction inside the El Cortez was the Aztec Dining Room, immediately to the left of the main lobby. The room offered one of the most superb dinners in town. Soon after it opened, style critics described the room's "scheme of Moorish Spanish elaboration on a fundamental Aztec design." Many praised the space as "the outstanding eating rendezvous of the community...because of its vast windows, brilliant ceiling and handsome equipment."

In one of the few available accounts of what it might have been like to dine out 80 years ago (from the Journal of San Diego History, accessible online), native San Diegan Edwina B. Sample "fondly remembers the Thanksgiving her uncle arrived at the family home in Mission Hills and announced he had a special treat for them that day. The impressionable teen soon found herself walking into the Aztec Dining Room and feeling overwhelmed by the elegance. When asked about her memory of the room, Sample responded:

" 'Glorious! The most elegant thing I'd ever seen at fifteen, sixteen years of age. Of course, the El Cortez itself was a spectacular structure, but that main dining room captivated me by its beauty. The whole atmosphere surrounding the place was festive. Nothing else in San Diego could compare to that dining room.' "

Today, the El Cortez has returned to the opulence of its heyday. After falling into disrepair in the '70s, and eventually closing, the place was renovated by the J. Peter Block Companies, "a leading preserver of fine historic properties." There are no restaurants there anymore, however. The Aztec Dining Room is now a modern-looking office space for the apartment-hotel's staff.

When I visited the El Cortez, Mr. Block greeted me in the lobby. Block has an affable face, intense and lively blue eyes, and an engaging Englishy-type accent. (He was born and raised in Kenya.) Within a few minutes of our introduction, Block and I were flipping through boxes of old El Cortez memorabilia.

Among the postcards, photos, and press releases spanning the past seven decades were menus from the 1930s and 1940s and also a picture of the Aztec Dining Room (circa 1940, by Block's guess) at the height of the dinner hour and filled to capacity.

As I studied the photograph, I was struck by the elegance, evident even in black and white. The women wore magnificent hats and showy dresses. Men were decked out in tuxes and tails, bow ties and dark suits. The room dazzled with numerous bouquets of flowers, lighted chandeliers, thick curtains and lush linens, and silver and crystal shining everywhere.

Curious what these people may have been eating, I turned to the menus Block had given me.

In 1942, "Dinner de Luxe" featured Appetizers, Relishes, Soups, Entrées, Salads, and Desserts, in that order. Items on the menu made me laugh ("filet of grapefruit cocktail," because, I guess, grapefruits used to have bones), and items made me wonder ("omelet with pineapple" was a viable dinner option?), but the strangest thing about the strange list of options was that 16 desserts dominated the bottom portion of the single-page menu, while there were only 25 appetizers, relishes, soups, entrées, and salads combined.

A 1935 luncheon menu from the Aztec Dining Room had better balance, despite 17 headings for types of dishes. Oysters, Cocktails, Relishes, Soups, Fish, Cold Dishes, From the Broiler, and on and on. The funniest tidbits from the 1930s luncheon were Stuffed Tomato Surprise ($1), Kaffee Hag in Silex (40 cents), Baby Fish (90 cents), Clam Juice Frappe (35 cents), and Cold Ox Tongue (75 cents).

Red Sails Inn (original location on G Street)

Red Sails Inn (original location on G Street)

San Diego Historical Society photo

Alongside the hoity-toity, expensive cuisines of the U.S. Grant Hotel and the Aztec Dining Room, San Diego was also giving birth to other kinds of restaurants in the 1920s. There were Bernardini's Cafe, Civic Center Cafe, Neve's, and a host of diner-type establishments, including the Bali Drive-In and Topsy's. One lower-end but still excellent eatery, the Red Sails Inn, has been around for longer than the piece of land where it now stands. The original Red Sails Inn opened near Fisherman's Wharf, on G Street, downtown, in 1927. Shelter Island, the home of the current Red Sails, is the product of a San Diego Bay dredging project begun in 1934. Today the Red Sails Inn is not actually an inn. The name was kept when it moved to Shelter Island in 1950.

From the moment I stepped into the Red Sails, I felt as though I'd been taken out to sea. Low ceiling, captain's chairs, rope motifs, shark's teeth, mounted marlins, paintings of old salts, oars, portholes, ship lanterns, propellers, diver's suits and helmets, life preservers, a ship's wheel, and dozens of photographs depicting everything oceanic.

In 1935, the Red Sails had a bar and mostly female staff, just like today. Back then, the ladies wore aprons and long skirts and collared uniforms, instead of the aprons and shorts and T-shirts of today's employees. I noticed, as I looked at one photograph, that the decor in 1935 was much as it is now. I could see that they used to sell cigars and Chase & Sanborn Coffee behind the bar, and they had a vintage AM radio console. In another photo, I could see that the old Red Sails had a real ship's mast sticking out of the roof.

One Red Sails dinner menu, dating from the 1930s, is a scaled-down, simple affair. Laid out on a single page, it offers nine fish dishes (ranging in price from 50 cents to 65 cents) and ten other entrée choices, including steak, ham, lamb, chicken, pork, or veal. The most expensive item is the Fried Spring Chicken on Toast for 75 cents. Of the fish, three come with tartar sauce and two are offered with drawn butter.

A second 1930s menu, for "Special Sunday Dinner," offers more dishes, including Cereals with Cream, Seafood Cocktails, and 22 kinds of sandwiches. The most interesting list is under the section for beer. The draught beer, Ranier, cost 10 cents a glass. The beers that came in 11-ounce bottles, for 15 cents apiece, were Ranier, Burgermeister, Lucky Lager, Golden Glow Ale, Acme, Balboa, and A.B.C.

Someone had crossed out many of the prices on the menu with a pencil and corrected the amounts to be charged for each dish. I guess this was cheaper and easier than printing a new menu. While most of the cost-corrections raised the prices 5 or 10 cents, the Shrimp or Lobster Salad went from 30 cents to a whopping 50 cents. Considerable, when you take into account that the most expensive item, a Half Broiled Lobster, cost 60 cents.

Nowadays, I love to go out to eat. Despite how far food has come, there are still places where things haven't changed much.

In Iowa, so my sister tells me, many luncheon and dinner menus offer several different potato dishes, as well as something called "hot dish," which is chunked boiled ham, cheese, Tater Tots, and white sauce. At Timmerman's Supper Club's brunch buffet, in East Dubuque, Illinois, there are 12 "salads" with Jell-O in them.

As a reaction to the industrialization of the food supply, many individuals have united under the Italian-initiated Slow Food Movement, which is all about knowing where your food came from and appreciating that. The movement boasts a philosophy of "slowness, rest, and hospitality," especially as these relate to food and to the kitchen table as a symbol of higher culture. Slow Food has undertaken projects to catalog and save foods in danger of being lost -- American Buff Goose and Delaware Bay Oysters.

For a last word on local cuisine, I turn to the website of the San Diego chapter of the Slow Food Movement ( "The San Diego region is highly diverse; from the Orfila wineries in San Diego County, to the mussels in Carlsbad, we are truly thankful. Organic farming, oceans of fish and sea life, apples in Julian, wild mushrooms, wild crafted herbs, ostrich farms, fine restaurants, and much more are everywhere. We are blessed with bounty, and we must be stewards of that blessing."

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