311 Island Avenue, Downtown San Diego
"Please don’t call me ‘Queen Cheese,’” Sandy says.
Wish she hadn’t. Now it’s all I can think of.
Because, in a way, that’s what she is: Sandy rules the downtown Cheese Shop.
Funny thing is, I’ve come across her and her Cheese Shop in the courtyard of the Horton Grand Hotel. (I thought the place was up on Market.) Other funny thing is that, even though they’re a full-on breakfast/lunch eatery, they don’t have, uh, cheese.
“We came here two years ago,” Sandy says. “We’d been in the Gaslamp since ’87, where Rock Bottom is, then by Hooters on Market Street. But in this location, we have the hotel guests, room for weddings, special gatherings. Like…see this?”
She hauls out her iPhone, slides up a picture. Lord! It’s Sandy, fangs bared, leaning over to rip a jawful of roast beef from a gi-normous joint.
“That’s a 60-pound ‘steamship round’ of beef,” she says. “For a police chiefs’ convention. I didn’t actually bite it. It was just to scare my husband, Tom.”
I found this place by accident when I wandered into the Horton Grand Hotel off Island (right by the William Heath Davis House, the oldest building in all of downtown). It’s a fabbo, Victorian-style brick hotel (expensive, you can tell), constructed at the site of two old Victorian-era hotels, the original Grand Horton — built by a German immigrant in 1886, it was a replica of the Innsbruck Inn in Vienna, Austria — and the Brooklyn Hotel, a less fancy, redwood-and-brick outfit. In the 1970s, when several downtown blocks were demolished to put up Horton Plaza, both hotels might have been history but for a bunch of crazy preservationists who bought them for $1 each. They took them apart, then rebuilt them as one hotel around this really cute courtyard. There’s spillover onto it from the hotel lobby’s bar, with balconies looking down, and vines and four spreading ficus trees that reach for the open sky. Scattered among the trees are white wrought-iron tables and chairs, and you can see into the warm-lit dining rooms beyond.
It was Hannah, the waitress, who came up first with a menu. “The Cheese Shop is a family business,” she said. “They still make their own everything. Like, they chop up their own corned-beef hash.”
Hmm…not the cheapest: corned-beef hash with two poached eggs on rye costs $10.95. Figure that’s the homemade premium.
The premium’s also for eating in this green, hidden world. People (families, mainly) are chowing away at other tables. Kids run around, but the trees and plants dampen the noise, so it’s not the echo chamber you might expect. Whole thing makes you think of...I dunno, Paris?
Cheapest breakfast item is a bagel and cream cheese for $3.95. A breakfast sandwich goes for $6.95, and pancakes start at $7.50. But, mostly, we’re talking $10, $12. Like the Breakfast Feast, which is two eggs, pancakes or french toast, with bacon or sausage, $11.95.
It’s old-line cooking, and looking ’round, there’s plenty of it.
I order the corned beef. It’s good. The beef bits aren’t the ground-up processed stuff but actual chopped-up chunks, sticking out of the whole fried-up hash mess.
“So, why aren’t you open in the evenings?” I ask Sandy when she comes by to check on customers. “The place must be magic.”
“It is,” she says. “We’d like to stay open, but we’re still a family business, and there’s not enough of us. Just my dad — and, really, he’s retired — who started our first Cheese Shop in 1972 in La Jolla, plus me, Tom, my husband, and the boys, Andrew and Dave. We decided we wanted to give people a good breakfast at a fair price. And lunch. The irony is, we started off as a cheese-and-wine place, a deli, in La Jolla, but we don’t have any special cheeses here. It’s just that we can’t bear to change the name.”
She says lots of famous people have eaten at the Cheese Shop. One was John Cleese, from Monty Python. “He comes in, and…have you seen their ‘Cheese Shop’ sketch? The one where he asks for a hundred different kinds of cheese, and Michael Palin doesn’t have one of them? I didn’t have the courage to tell Mr. Cleese we didn’t have specialty cheeses anymore, either. Luckily, he only wanted a sandwich.”
The Cheese Shop has also become famous for its $1 Frisbees. “Every week, just about, we get a picture from a customer holding his Cheese Shop Frisbee in some crazy place.” She shows me photos on the wall in the dining room. “Like this one in front of the Eiffel Tower. Or Africa. Or…” She points to a picture of Saddam Hussein shouting in the courtroom at his trial in Baghdad. There’s another photo of his empty black chair, with a blue Cheese Shop Frisbee in it. Sandy swears this wasn’t Photoshopped, that a customer was there, placed the Frisbee, took the pic, and emailed it to her.
I’m waiting for Hannah to come back with my take-home — Carla needs a teaser, ’cause I’m definitely bringing her here for breakfast — the sandwich Hannah said was the best: roast pork loin with cilantro, garlic, other seasonings, melted jack cheese, and avocado, plus chips, potato salad, pasta salad, or coleslaw, for $9.95.
Back at the ranch, Carla and I devour the little monster. It has honey mustard in there and that delicious, garlicky medallion of roast pork.
“So, why don’t they do cheese anymore?” Carla asks.
“Health,” I say. “Cheese is getting a bad rap.”
“And what we’re eating here is healthier?”
“Well, maybe you should give me the rest of yours…Ow!”
Carla has given my hand a flicky slap.
“It’s not just cheese…” I say.
“Not just cheese, what?”
“That gets a bad rap.”
The Place: The Cheese Shop in the Horton Grand Hotel, 311 Island Avenue, at Fourth and Island, 619-232-2303
Prices: Bagel and cream cheese, $3.95; breakfast sandwich, $6.95; buttermilk pancakes, $7.50; Breakfast Feast, two eggs, pancakes or french toast, with bacon or sausage, $11.95; roast pork loin, with cilantro and garlic, other seasonings, melted jack cheese, and avocado, plus chips, potato salad, pasta salad, or coleslaw, for $9.95; corned-beef hash (with two eggs, toast, $10.95)
Hours: 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., daily; from 7:30 a.m., Saturday–Sunday
Buses: 3, 11, 120
Nearest Bus Stop: Fourth and Market
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Convention center