It’s less warm than in its Casa De Bandini days, but Cosmo Bar at Old Town’s Cosmopolitan Hotel is a good place for happy hour wine, shrimp tacos, and conversation.
2600 Calhoun Street, San Diego
The ghost comes and sits in Chanel’s husband’s chair.
“I heard the chair creak. Then I looked, from ten feet away, right here by the curtain, and I saw it, the empty chair, bounce back a foot or so. On its own. In daylight.”
This is Chanel. She works at the Cosmopolitan Hotel’s restaurant in Old Town’s plaza. Me, I happened in on my way to the trolley, and found out they have a happy hour. Except — erk! — only five minutes to go. Ends at 6pm.
It’s dark already, of course. The whole courtyard is lit up and music is playing. Then I see this sign pointing to “Cosmo Bar.” Guess I’ll just zip up these steps, see what’s happening back where the music’s coming from.
“Happy hour?” says this guy in black when I ask. “Well, you’d better come over to the bar here, pretty quick.” His name’s David. Says he tends that open-air bar I can see in the far corner of the courtyard. It has about ten stools around it and a bunch of tables under trees.
In an old greenhouse, “I found a bell that was made in 1972, of fine bone china, in England.
I always felt that Casa de Bandini had the life sucked out of it when it decided to go accurate to what it was in 1869 — the Cosmopolitan Hotel. They narrowed those stucco columns to thin iron ones and changed the colors from warm golds to a chilly blue. Historically authentic, they say.
It’s like meeting up with a wild old girlfriend who’s decided to join the Amish and wear sensible clothes. You just hope it’s still her inside.
I followed David through the courtyard, over to the open bar, and found me a stool next to this couple and their big ol’ German Shepherd dog. The dog’s munching on chips the gent passes him.
“Watch it, matey, don’t chew my hand off,” he says. “That’d make a proper mess.”
English accent. Turns out to be an English bobby on vacation. Name’s David, too.
But, first things first: got to get that order through before happy hour’s gone.
D’agh…speed-reading the special menu…
“A steer and a beer — an Angus burger and any draft beer for $9.95.”
“The ‘Drunken Pescador’ — a fish taco and the house margarita for $6.95.”
Can’t beat that.
Except, I see you can have the Angus burger alone for $5.95, the fish taco alone for $3.50…
A shrimp taco’s $3.95. A cheese quesadilla is $4.50, or $6.95 with chicken. With a selection of three cheeses, $7.95. Calamari with dipping sauces, $5.95. Sweet-potato fries are $3.95, and — aha! paydirt! Steamed mussels and clams go for $5.95. Now we’re talking.
“Dave! Quick!” I say to Dave #1, the bartender. He’s waiting across the bar. “Steamed mussels and clams, a shrimp taco, and a glass of house red. In time?”
He punches the items into the computer-register.
“Just,” he says.
’Course, I realize too late I shoulda got the house white wine to go with the shellfish and shrimp. Hey, don’t they say red wine with shellfish can kill you? (Okay, maybe they just cause an allergic reaction? Or is this all another urban legend?) Well, wine’s only $4, so no big loss if it doesn’t work out.
Besides, it’s worth it just to get in on the conversation flying back and forth. David, the rapid-fire-funny English bobby is telling his lady friend, Nancy, how he was based in London’s Bow Street police station. It’s the site of the first professional police station in the country, which dates back to 1749. “They called the cops the Bow Street Runners,” he says.
Now the other David, the barman, gets my attention. He’s arrived with my shrimp taco and plate of mussels.
I start off with the taco. It has a rich sauce, a salady layer underneath, plenty of blushing shrimp, then layers of different shredded cheeses. A wedge of lemon to squeeze over it, and, boy, does that finish it off. The flour tortilla’s nice and thin. We’re talking a tangy, squelchy mess. Not the dried-up doughy little taste-desert that some shrimp tacos can be.
But even this pales before the steamed mussels and clams. They’re in one of those deceptive plates that look shallow but have a deep middle section, where all the clams and sauce hide out. David says it’s a devil’s mix of linguiça (Portuguese sausage bits), roasted garlic, stewed tomatoes, mussels, clams, white wine, butter, and broth. And a few sticks of toasted focaccia bread.
I swear, there’s something about that combo that’s magic. The golden broth in the bottom is almost better than the wine.
And here’s the thing — the other combo: the courtyard, the old building, the new moon overhead, this friendly clump of strangers, and this slurpy food and wine...it transports you. You feel like you’re in a 1940s movie or on vacation.
Now David the bobby’s telling tales of patrolling Jack-the-Ripper streets in East London. And Chanel, who’s arrived in 19th-century dress, talks about the ghosts she’s seen around here, working as the hotel’s hostess.
“I’m sure it was Don Juan Bandini who moved my husband’s chair as soon as my husband left the dining room,” she says. “You feel Don Juan likes the ladies. He’s flirtatious.”
Don Juan built this house, when? 1827? And for the next 40 years had famous parties, with dances like the fandango and the wicked waltz. You can believe he’s still whirling around here.
Think I’m gonna grab Carla, haul her down, load her up with food, like that Drunken Pescador — the fish taco and house margarita deal for $6.95 — get back into the $6 steamed mussels and clams and a glass or two of, uh, white vino, and then my girl as bait for the Dancing Don. Maybe he’ll ask her to take a turn on the floor.
“Someone who can actually dance?” Carla will say. “That’d be refreshing.”
Happy Hour Prices: “Steer and a beer” (Angus burger, draft beer), $9.95; Angus burger alone, $5.95; Drunken Pescador (fish taco and margarita), $6.95; fish taco alone, $3.50; shrimp taco for $3.95, calamari, dipping sauces, $5.95; sweet-potato fries, $3.95; steamed mussels and clams, $5.95
Hours: 11am–9:30pm, daily (till 10pm, Friday–Saturday); Sunday, 10am–9pm; happy hour 3–6pm, daily
Buses: 8, 9, 10, 28, 30, 35, 44, 88, 105, 150
Nearest Bus Stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street
Trolley/Train: Blue Line, Green Line, Coaster, Amtrak
Nearest Trolley/Train Stop: Old Town Transit Center, 4005 Taylor Street