4941 Newport Avenue, 4, San Diego
I feel this warmth in the palm of my hand. Oh, great. It-Bit “Washtub” Boots McGee has just peed into my hand. He’s a couple of months old, max. Golden Lab pup. Looks like a wind-up velveteen toy. Belongs to Stinky Pete and his band, who are whackin’ out a great song called “Hobo Stew,” right here where they’re sitting on the sidewalk. Stinky Pete’s face is young, but his voice is old — he sounds like Tom Waits. The band? Basically Charlie Baby, a bright gal in a squatty top hat, like the one Justin Timberlake wears, and playing a, yes, saw with a violin bow; and Pete on percussion, tapping an empty penicillin pill bottle that happened to be handy. A piece of blue cardboard in front of them suggests donations: “Fruit, ice cream, tobacco, coffee,” or “cool shiny stuff.” Did I mention we’re in O.B.?
I leave some cool shiny stuff and head for someplace where I can rinse It-Bit off my hand. And also, eat.
I don’t have to go far. “Breakfast Specials, served from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.,” reads a sign. The place is all blue and white, with “Old Townhouse Family Restaurant” painted on the giant windows. I head inside. You can tell most customers have been coming in for years by the way they sit and talk, sort of like they own the place. Blue booths on the left, cream Formica counter on the right, Tiffany lamps dangling. I head for the washroom first, scrub-a-dub, then come back and hoist myself aboard a counter chair.
Guy in a yellow baseball cap is pouring tomato juice, adds one, two, three shots of vodka, flick of Worcestershire sauce, some pepper, then a stick or two of celery. Hands it to a gent along the counter. Lord. Bloody Mary at 11:00 in the mawnin’? Hair of the dog? Charges $4.25.
“Like one?” says this gal, Caryn.
“Uh, coffee,” I say. She brings the coffee urn over and pours. She’s the kind of bustly, mothering, chatty gal men love to have fussing over them. I know she’ll be back to top me up every second slurp. It’s that kind of place.
I’m dog-hungry. Worked three hours already on an empty gut. I check out the big-board comfort-food menu. Breakfast prices start at $4.50 for three eggs, any style, with toast and hash browns. Add ham, bacon, or sausage, and it’s $6. Or with a pork chop or a chicken-fried steak, it’s $7.75. Pretty good deal. Oh, lookee here…you can get one biscuit with gravy for $3.50. With two eggs, you still pay only $4.25. Omelets, like the bacon, mushroom, and cheese, average $6.50.
Think I’ll order me up that BMC omelet. But then I see four specials, just below. They’re all $7. Biscuits and eggs, with sausages or bacon. Corned-beef hash and eggs. French toast with three eggs, sausage or bacon, and hash browns. Or three eggs, two pancakes or one waffle, sausages or bacon, and hash browns.
This last one hits the spot. For starters, I’ll get to eat a waffle, which I never seem to do. And I can drown everything in syrup. Cholesterol city, but considering the number of buses I run for, I’ll use up those carbs by nightfall. So that’s what I order.
Oh yes, it’s bad. But in the mornings, you’re immortal. I do have the eggs poached, and with lots of ketchup. (Don’t they claim ketchup’s good for you now?) And waffles and pancakes, I’ve heard, are some of man’s oldest forms of bread — if it was good enough for our cave brothers, we’re just honoring tradition here.
Caryn says that Ted, the Bloody Mary mixer, is the owner, also son of the original owners. Ted says his parents had to learn restauranting on the trot. “They were born in Greece. But they met in Canada. Dad was a highly skilled aircraft mechanic. He came down and worked at Convair during the time of JFK and the space race. It was pretty exciting, but he left because of the bureaucracy. And then he found this place, in 1973. No restaurant experience. Stole menus. Learned how to cook. Somehow made it. Mom’s the glue. She still comes in every morning at 6:30 to prep. Old men turn up just to see her. She has fans.”
And his dad? “Dad specializes in ‘seagull management’: he comes in, he shits on everybody, and leaves.”
Ted breaks out laughing. “Kidding. He gave us our chance in life. And they’re both good to everyone around here. Staff and customers. The homeless, the schools. They won’t let us stop that, even though business has been down 10 percent compared with last year. Even though my wife Kathy and I have pretty much taken over now.”
And is he into seagull management? “Well, I leave my staff alone. My joy is giving our customers a hard time.”
Stinky Pete’s still playing as I head out for the number 35 bus. Just make it in time. Except, there’s a girl getting on ahead of me. Kerplink, kerplink. She’s paying her bus fare in dimes, 23 of them. I swear it takes her five minutes. ’Course, this is O.B. Nobody minds.
The Place: The Old Townhouse Family Restaurant, 4941 Newport Ave., Ocean Beach, 619-222-1880
Type of Food: American
Prices: Three breakfast eggs with toast, hash browns, $4.50; with ham, bacon, or sausage, $6; with pork chop or chicken-fried steak, $7.75; one biscuit with gravy, $3.50; with two eggs, $4.25; bacon, mushroom, cheese omelet, $6.50; roast beef lunch with soup or mashed potatoes and veggies, $7.25; fish and chips, $6.75; New York strip steak, $9.50; tuna salad sandwich, $5.50; meat loaf, $7; cottage cheese and fruit, $3
Hours: 6:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., daily
Buses: 35, 923
Nearest Bus Stops: Cable and Newport