902 W. Washington Street, San Diego
"Dan! It's me, CWW...remember?" "Come here. Come here."
Dan Thomas gives the lady with the blue eyes a big hug.
"Yes," he says. "'Cheap White Wine.' Of course."
They laugh. "The place looks beautiful," says the lady, Anne, looking around. "I can't believe it's been a whole year."
But it has. That's how long since a fire just about destroyed this much-beloved cafe. It happened in the kitchen, spread up to the roof when the sprinklers didn't work, and put this Mission Hills landmark, The Gathering, out of business.
So this week, I'm hurrying past, heading for the bus to meet Hank, and just happen to glance in to see how the repairs are going, when I see -- people! Sitting! Yakking! Eating! Drinking! The Gathering's in business again.
I walk around the corner from Goldfinch onto Washington, looking for the main entrance. Everything's been spiffed up. New green paint, new white umbrellas, new tables and chairs. I swoop inside and plonk down on a stool at the brand-new counter, just as Anne and her friend Christy come in, freak out, and breathe a sigh of relief. There are vases of flowers on the counter. All have cards. "Welcome back!" "We missed you!"
Dan is The Gathering's owner and longtime magician. The guy used to run a hip bar in Miami called Magic, because that's what he and friends would do there. Then he came back to California in '86 and started The Gathering, a sort of "Cheers" bar with food.
Lisa comes up with a menu. "Can I get you something to drink?"
"Coffee," I croak. "And is there a pay phone somewhere?"
"No," says Lisa. "Is it a local call?"
"You can use my cell."
Wow. That is so...The Gathering. While she goes off to get the phone from her purse, I check out the menu. It's mostly pretty traditional fare, although priced to cover Mission Hills rents. The Goldfinch Burger with fries, fruit, or a cup of soup is $7.95. The Southwest Burger with avocado, jack cheese, and salsa, plus sides, is $9.95, and the wicked-sounding Monte Cristo (grilled egg, "dipped Texas toast" with Swiss, ham and turkey, powdered sugar, and a side of jam) is $11.50. The San Diegan sounds more interesting, with crab and seafood salad, asparagus, melted jack cheese, all on grilled garlic sourdough. It goes for $9.95. Appetizers such as the Maryland crab cakes ($8.95), potato skins ($8.95), and French onion soup ($7.95) aren't that much cheaper than the "lunch entrées" -- like seafood crêpes, chicken quesadilla, fish and chips -- and salads, which all hover between the $9 and $14 mark. The most expensive thing on the menu, at $16.95, has to be the pub steak sandwich, with a New York steak on toasted garlic bread, covered in sautéed onions and mushrooms.
I'm looking all this over when Lisa comes back with her phone. A Razr.
"Would you like to order before you call?" she says.
For some reason I flip the menu to the back page, run my finger around the breakfast choices, almost stop at country sausage frittata ($7.25), then land at the Mission Hills omelette, $9.50. "Snow crab sautéed in butter with a hint of sherry and tarragon..." I order that. Then I take a drag of cawfee, flip open Lisa's phone, and start dialing. Oops. Dialed my own number. Clumsy. I close it before Carla answers, and start again. Man.
"Hello?" It's Hank.
"Come on up, dude! Mission Hills. The Gathering's open again."
"You mean, where the magic guy is, where the fire was?"
"Yes and yes. I'm just gonna have me some breakfast before you work my knuckles to the bone."
"What are you having?"
"Snow crab omelette."
"You'll be disappointed. Great looks, lame taste."
I remember now. That's what I had last time. But too late to back out. And anyway, when it comes, with potatoes lyonnaise -- flaked and sautéed -- I discover that a little help from salt, pepper, and Tabasco makes it delicious.
A young backpacker couple comes in. "Excuse me," the guy says. "Is this Old Town?"
"Uh, no," says Dan. "This is Mission Hills."
Brad and his girlfriend Nafisa are Canadians. Lost.
"Look, I've got a car," says Dan. "I'll drive you down there."
And he's gone.
"But they aren't even customers," I say to Becky, another waitress.
"That's Dan. He kept our salary going for the whole year we were closed."
By the time Hank shows up, Dan's back and showing me a couple of his famous card tricks. I notice his right hand's kind of pulsing. "I've been diagnosed with Parkinson's," he says. But before we can get maudlin, he's joking about it. "The only thing I can do in the kitchen now is toss the salad. The other day, I met Michael J. Fox. Our hands wouldn't meet."
Hank gets a coffee ($2.25, endless refills) while he's waiting for me to finish my omelette. Over at their table, Anne and Christy are chatting away like long-lost friends. That fire interrupted a lot of life up here. Christy's finishing up her favorite soup, the French onion. She hasn't eaten that for a year either.
I chomp my last bite. Good. This is the sort of place where you don't get gastro-picky and you don't count calories (though they have lo-cal choices). You enjoy yourself, dammit, and make resolutions for next week. They have been serving up many of the same dishes for years, but like Olympia Dukakis's Italian trattoria in my favorite movie, Moonstruck, they do it well. Everything's reliable, fresh. And part of what makes their formula work is that it tastes good because you feel good here. You come in through the door and let out a big sigh. You could call it magic.
"Time to work, dude," says Hank. He gets up.
"Can I use your cell?" I ask. He hands it to me. I dial home.
"Darling...I called accidentally..."
"Bedford...that was you?"
I recognize that tone. She saw the caller ID.