105 E. 8th Street, National City
History’s in the air. Talk about hidden jewels. Turns out that here in National City they have the only original transcontinental railroad terminus in the United States still standing. Since 1882, the depot has been at West 23rd Street, the end of the line, transcontinentally speaking. Then, a little closer to San Diego — up off East Eighth Street — there are those cool old Philadelphia-style brick row houses. Sign says they were built in 1887 for executives of the Santa Fe Railroad. People still live in them.
And last but not least, at Eighth and A — drum roll, please — here’s yours truly sitting in the oldest restaurant in San Diego, period. McDini’s. They’ve been serving corned beef and cabbage since 1890. Okay, this isn’t the original location, which was at Fourth and Market downtown, but McDini’s has been open without a break for 119 years. Last year, Mick Dini sold out to the guy who owns the furniture store across the road, and that was nearly that; this institution almost became an extension of the furniture store. Then the new owner’s son persuaded his dad that McDini’s should not die. This ol’ place just needed to be brought up to date and given a lick of paint and some new energy.
I knew something was different this mawnin’ as soon as I got off the 929 bus. I’d been here before, in ’04, when it was known as “McDini’s Baja Bar and Restaurant.” The “Baja” part was always secondary to the Irish thing. Back in 1890, the three Italian Dini brothers, who first called their place the Goodwill Cafe, added a “Mc” to their name and had themselves an Irish eatery. Mike Dini Sr. was known as the “Original Italian Leprechaun.”
All this comes flooding back as I sit in one of the newly upholstered half-round booths. I staggered in under the brick arches of this ’50s-style building and found — wow. Not the dark, dank Irish pub of old, but this light-painted–brick place with shocking-Irish-green booths, half a dozen big screens, a couple of pool tables, a mile-long bar with a low-slung wooden trellis overhead to make it more intimate, and a list of over 85 beers. And a brave new sign, “McDini’s Sports Bar, Diner, & Live Music Venue.”
Most important for moi, though, is the new menu. Yes! This pub now serves breakfast. Actually, I’m just in time. “Breakfast till twelve,” I see, and it’s coming up to midday. Been working since crack o’ dawn. Star-ving. So I walk up to the bar to check it out.
“Just under the wire,” says the waitress, Sara Leigh.
She sets me down in this sparkle-flecked green booth with a big plastic-covered menu and flips me to the breakfast page. It’s a pretty straight-down-the-middle selection. Cheapest thing is two eggs any style with potatoes and toast, $4.99, and it goes up to $12 for a top round steak, two eggs, hash browns, and toast. ’Course corned beef is their Irish specialty — still! — so the McDini’s corned-beef omelet ($8.95, with bacon, peppers, mushrooms, and cheese) should be pretty good.
A hungry man wouldn’t want to miss the number 16, two pork chops: “large tender boneless cuts, hand breaded and grilled,” with two eggs any style, “dirty potatoes,” and toast. Sounds just what the doctor ordered. Ten bucks, though.
So what — when it comes time to order, that’s what I ask Sara Leigh for. And, okay, there’s certainly plenty of it. Two big chops. Only thing is, there ain’t nothin’ boneless about them — in fact, I have to watch for little tooth-breaker bone chips — and second, ain’t nothin’ breaded.
But they taste fine, and with what turns out to be hash browns, plus the two over-easy eggs and the toast, it fills me up. The $1.75 bottomless coffee is a good deal too.
This breakfast is a new thing for McDini’s; a tough sell for a bar. I know these guys really fill up in the evening, ’specially on Monday karaoke nights and Thursdays through the weekend, when they have live bands.
But what everybody says, including Tessa, a waitress who’s seen it all, is: Ya gotta be here Saint Paddy’s Day. “We plan this out months ahead. It starts around ten in the morning and goes all day. We’ve always done Saint Patrick’s Day best. Best Irish bands, best crowds, best corned beef and cabbage. Hey, 100 years’ practice, we’ve got it down.”
She has a point. Definitely going to get Carla for this one. Except, dammit, just missed it for ’09. Oh well, pencil it in for ’10. Hey, that’ll be their 120th anniversary. Should be one for the history books.
The Place: McDini’s Sports Bar and Diner, 105 East Eighth Street (at A Street), National City, 619-474-6771, www.mcdinis.com
Type of Food: Irish, American
Prices: Two breakfast eggs, potatoes, toast, $4.99; short stack, $3.95; egg, hotcake, bacon, $5.95; two pork chops, two eggs, dirty potatoes, toast, $10; “a wake-up from McDini’s” (two pancakes, Bloody Mary), $8; Wednesday special, meatloaf sandwich, $7.95; fish 'n' chips, $10.95; prime rib, $15.95
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–2:00 a.m., Monday–Friday; noon–2:00 a.m., Saturday; closed Sunday
Buses: 929, 932, 955, 962, 963
Nearest Bus Stops: National City Boulevard and Eighth (929, and southbound 932); National City Boulevard and Plaza (northbound 932); Eighth and B (955); National City Boulevard and Plaza (962, 963)