Hard Rock Hotel, 207 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Welcome back, Baby Boomers and suburban-raised Gen Xers, to your childhoods. Minus, of course, bedwetting, skinned knees, dorky shoes, schoolyard bullies, mean girls, broken skates, school-cafeteria lunches, Dick and Jane, et al. Your second childhood will be free of the miseries of the original. At Maryjane's you will eat your recherche du temps perdu just like Proust, and it may even taste slightly better than when Mom served it hot from the oven on a disposable tripartite aluminum-foil tray.
This time around, childhood will be painless because you'll be able to look back not with anger or tears but with fond irony. A wall devoted to prints of Warhol portraits of Mick Jagger will help you maintain your sophisticated detachment. Camping it up are the other walls, partly paneled in genuine coffee-shop wood veneer (unless it's real wood disguised as veneer) and white linoleum tiles peeking out from the edges of dark brown carpeting. There are tall, dark-brown booths upholstered in the hide of the endangered wild Nauga. There are round tables with low-slung rolling swivel chairs kidnapped from a business-class airport lounge, probably Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at Idlewild (JFK), circa 1965. An acoustical-foam ceiling sprouts Mid-Century Modern chandeliers resembling long-spiked silvery sea urchins capped with threesomes of bulbs. Numerous silent flat-panel TVs cut between Marilyn Monroe's drag-show outing (Some Like It Hot) and Shirley Jones (The Partridge Family). In the adjacent long, darkish entry room are long counters with stools. (Is it a bar or a luncheonette? Oh, gee, it's either or both — milk shakes or martinis!) Rock of various ages plays rather loudly throughout.
The Mick Jagger portraits on the wall are key. Boomer or Gen X-er, you're now in 1955 viewed from 1967, or 1976 viewed from 1967: Your Childhood by Andy Warhol and the Factory crew — A Multimedia Multi-Sensory Event. Edie Sedgwick and Ultra Violet should be the hostesses, tall Mary Woronov (later immortalized as the punitive "Miss Togar" in Rock'n'Roll High School) and tough tweaker-dyke Bridget Polk the bouncers. Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling should be motherly, glam-trannie waitresses calling you "hon," with quietly observant Billy Name as kitchen expediter. Oh, maybe not. That could seem too, well, serious (although it would be serious fun, too). The real 1967 was actually awfully strenuous to live through.
This is the lite version of innocence recollected in decadence. Maryjane is a fag hag at heart, but her gay sensibility is strictly closeted, with straight waiters, standard-issue glam hostesses; only another old fag hag like me can see through the pose. The gay sensibility has become the universal urban posture now — everybody's ironic, and nobody's all that decadent, except Amy Winehouse and Babyshambles, and who'd want to be them?
Why was I there? Because we all need a little cheap comfort sometime. I needed it because we'd been planning to explore a new Southern-style BBQ on Euclid that evening, but a few minutes before the gathering of the tribe, I phoned to see if they'd take credit cards and found their line disconnected. Freak out! Needed new destination STAT, with no res needed, a place where low-rent BBQ clothes would pass. Samurai Jim, meanwhile, had just come off 18 straight working days and two root canals. He'd spotted Maryjane's when we ate at Nobu, and since then we'd seen some complimentary early mentions in print. Michelle was fine with it, too, and the Dow Jones had just totally crashed, so going to a really cheap destination seemed like a good idea to show solidarity with the suffering masses.
Maryjane's hip, jokey attitude extends to the menu: A side dish named "Bad Advice" is free, and the plain hamburger is called, in parentheses, "missionary style." The fare at Maryjane's is (like the decor) slightly upscale coffee shop. Big, certified Black Angus half-pound burgers. Big salads, including a classic Cobb. Sandwiches such as tuna melts, peanut butter and banana ("the hot Elvis"), and, especially tempting, an "Award Winning" meatloaf sandwich. A few Mex-oid plates (guacamole, quesadilla, nachos, soft tacos), with vegan versions citing Ozzy Osbourne on the menu; some pub grub (Buffalo wings, fancy fries, onion rings); plus a few simple entrées, ranging from fish and chips to rib-eye steak frites.
We ordered a starter of guacamole from our cheerful, nondecadent waiter and a side of five-cheese mac to come with our entrées. The waiter totally forgot the guac. (He didn't charge us for it.) The mac 'n' cheese (fontina, Gruyère, and three unknowns that evidently didn't include cheddar) was light and creamy but also light on flavor.
The meat loaf is better than Mom's — better than Michelle's, Jim's, and my mom's. It's really meat loaf, not cheap fatty hamburger meat filled out with crumbs or cracker meal, but good, beefy ground sirloin with a bit of char at the edges. Better yet, it doesn't have Mom's ketchup gravy. It comes with mashed potatoes lightly laced with an elusive, nearly flavorless substance called "Wavy Gravy" in honor of the San Francisco hipster-comedian — who was too flavorful a character to deserve so bland an homage. The mash tastes like instant from a box, smooth, fine-grained, lacking all potato taste. On the side are frozen peas. I like frozen peas, use 'em myself in a pinch, but in a restaurant I sort of expect fresh veggies.
The other entrée most worth eating is chicken pot pie. It's a perfected form of the Morton's frozen chicken pot pies I grew up on. It has a light, crispy top crust, plenty of substantial, tender chicken-breast pieces, firm-tender carrot chunks and frozen peas, and the classic semi-viscous chicken gravy familiar from the frozen versions.
"This is so much better than the ones I grew up on," said Jim, "where you had a crust all around and could barely taste the chicken." Michelle concurred. I knew their secret: When my mom was short of money, she bought the cheaper Swanson's brand, with more crust, more gravy, hardly any chicken. Yup, they admitted, their moms served Swanson's. Yup, this is much better, and twice the size — portioned for an adult. Don't get me wrong: This is not a great home-made rendition. (My favorite recipe has a cornmeal crust, tarragon, oyster mushrooms, and — well, it's a lot better.) This is merely an improvement on a good brand of frozen pot pie.
The nightly special is called "TV dinner" and is actually served in a disposable, divided foil tray. Our waiter raved about that night's rendition (remember, "Bad Advice" is listed on the menu, free), which featured a pulled-pork sandwich with coleslaw on top of the meat, with house-made potato chips and a soi-disant brownie.
Well. Yes, I'm a food snob at the low end as well as the high end. I've eaten pulled pork in Memphis and at Big Nate's Memphis BBQ and Memphis Minnie's BBQ in San Francisco and at the late, great Big Jim's BBQ in Encinitas. What all these places have in common is that the pork butt is smoked low 'n' slow for about eight hours, so it comes out tasting really smoky, and it's served with a tangy, interesting sauce. At Maryjane's the pork isn't smoked, and the sauce is sweet and rather simple. The coleslaw is okay, crisp and sweetened with carrots rather than excess sugar. Luckily, there's a trayful of condiments on the table. I added a tiny squeeze of yellow mustard and a good shot of Frank's Red Hot Sauce (which is not so hot). This brought the sauce closer to Memphis. The "bun" was a long, thick buttermilk roll that pretty much swamped the meat and coleslaw; I flipped off the top and ate with fork and knife. The chips were okay. The brownie, we all concurred, tasted like Duncan Hines devil's food chocolate-cake mix topped with a glutinous pistachio-caramel glaze. It was horrible.
This is not the same "pot brownie" offered on Maryjane's dessert list. But don't even begin to imagine that the brownie is made from the Alice B. Toklas recipe or that it includes a shred or seed or stem of Mary Jane. We didn't try it. Instead, we ventured on the New York–style cheesecake. The filling texture was rich, weighty, and custardy, hinting of egg yolks. The graham crust was thick and leaden. Michelle's coffee and my espresso were both so overstrong and bitter that we dumped tons of half-and-half into them.
The wine list isn't long, but it's well chosen, with below-average markups. I found a Ferrari-Carano chardonnay at a bargain price. Alas, I discovered that I actually prefer this vineyard's more common, less costly sauvignon blanc (not offered here). Milk shakes or soft drinks (or '50s cocktails) might be more amusing and appropriate choices for this cuisine, to camp it up all the way. We'd gotten our waiter to recork the leftover half bottle, but the security guards at the door wouldn't let us leave with it. After discussion, turned out it needed to be wrapped. Michelle dashed back inside, re-emerged with plastic-bagged wine in hand, and we were out of there forevermore. As they say, you can't go home again.
Maryjane's Coffee Shop
Hard Rock Hotel, 207 Fifth Avenue (L Street), Gaslamp Quarter, 619-764-6950, hardrock hotelsd.com.
- HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 6:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m.; weekends until 3:00 a.m.
- PRICES: Starters and sides, $3–$10; sandwiches, burgers, tacos, entrée chopped salads, entrées, $8–$28 (most about $15); breakfast dishes (all day), $9–$12; desserts, $6.
- CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Baby Boomer/Gen X comfort food just like Mom's (including frozen peas). Short but smart wine list, beer, cocktails, milk shakes, and soft drinks.
- PICK HITS: Meat loaf (entrée or sandwich); chicken pot pie. Other good bets: Cobb salad, Buffalo chicken salad.
- NEED TO KNOW: Valet parking (necessary on game nights at Petco); four vegetarian/vegan medium-to-main choices plus sides. Family-friendly. (Kiddie menu? It's all a kiddie menu!) No reservations needed.