2015 North Marshall Avenue, El Cajon
First time I see the sign, I think hot diggity: A pie café on an airfield! So I walk in off Marshall Avenue to where all the hangars with the apartments above form a little village here. “Speer Hangars,” says the plinth outside. Then you get this bunch of buildings for flying schools and the small offices of aircraft companies. Closer you come, more you hear the sound of propellers whirring and engines coughing into life.
And then, whoa! Rumbling right past on the runway behind the hangars, this huge bomber. Like, World War Two bomber. Four engines, red nacelles, drab green fuselage, “Witchcraft” painted along the nose. Guy’s sticking up through a roof hatch. Talk about witchcraft: feels like we’re in some time-switch here.
By now I’m on a cool patio looking out onto the apron. Oh, right. So, not Gilles Pie Café: Gillespie Cafe. And actually, Gillespie Field Café.
I head inside, to this bright, totally diner diner, with cream walls decorated with airplane pictures, an ancient-looking wooden propeller, and arched windows looking out onto neat rows of parked planes. One red-ochre wall has a really cool copper model plane. Another has a poster honoring two lady pilots who won the 2009 “Palms to Pines” air race from Santa Monica to Bend, Oregon. Fran Bera and Mary Ford. Huh. Oh yeah. Fran Bera. I met her once. Incredible lady. Lived above her plane in one of these hangar condos.
“So how much do I need, to buy one of those babies?” I ask a couple of guys eating away at burgers. They look as though they’re part of this flyboy world. I’m pointing to the planes.
“Oh, new? Half a million to four and a half million,” says one of them, Dick. Turns out his company makes fuel management systems. “That’s fuel lines,” he says. “Unlike most parts of flying, that hasn’t changed in maybe 50 years.”
“And what about that old bomber out there?”
“B-24 Liberator,” says this guy Len.
Huh. Isn’t that the plane they say won WW2? When I crane my neck, I can see it now, parked over to the right, a quarter-mile away. Dick tells me the B-24 was a San Diego plane, designed and built right here. Reuben H. Fleet, the man himself, made it happen. He ran Consolidated. They made 19,000 of them. More than any other plane in the Second War.
But Lisa, the bright-eyed waitress, is waiting. Turns out they open early (7 am), and close early (3 o’clock). We’re creeping towards that hour.
That’s the bad news. The good news is they do breakfast all day. And today’s breakfast includes a special scrawled on the white board: “Apple pancakes with two eggs and choice of meat.”
“You can make that two sausages, or all bacon, or I can give you one sausage and bacon with it as well,” she says.
Costs $11.95, not the cheapest, but sounds as though you get plenty of banger (as the Brits would say) for your buck. I do a quick check of the menu. Other items are straight off the diner playlist. Country fried steak, with two eggs, hash browns and country gravy, plus toast, muffin, grits or biscuit, costs $12.95. Eggs Benedict with potatoes or fresh fruit, $12.95. Also, deal of the day looks like something called the Gillespie Slam (basically eggs, bacon, toast) for $7.25, but that’s just 7-9 in the morning, Monday to Friday. For lunch, the house burger’s $10.50; club sandwich goes for $12.75, veggie sandwiches are $11.75, and these all come with sides like a homemade potato salad, salad, or fries. Also, today’s specials include the “ultimate tuna melt,” with bacon, tuna, cheese, and fries, $12.50.
Man, could almost go for that. But whatever, clock’s ticking. Need time to eat. I go for an endless cawfee ($2.65), and the apple pancakes.
And totally glad I did. It’s two pancakes covered with apple slices in a wicked syrup, creamy butter, with a light snowfall of icing sugar, plus bacon that’s way-thick and full of crunch, but not brittle, and one fat sausage. Have to say, that is one really good sausage. Sawing through the skin unzips flavors I’d fly in from Denver for, if I had a plane. And the bacon? When I think of some of the paper-thin excuses I’ve eaten, and then taste this gnarly, thick-cut real thing, I go hats off to Lisa. And because Lisa says it’s down to them, to Cesar and Antonio, the two chefs through the hatch. Really, I haven’t had such a good brekky for ages.
By now, the conversation is onto, uh, electric planes. Len, come to find out, helped design Lear Jets. And now he’s on the advisory panel of an LA-based start-up called Ampaire. They’re seriously designing a battery-powered airliner. It’s about time, he says. Figures fly: Today’s planes dump 800 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. And just in California, small planes throw out 70,000 pounds of lead. These electric planes will supposedly wipe out 99 percent of CO2 emissions. And be super quiet.
Quiet ain’t the case right here. The Cessna outside is starting up. The pilot’s going through his check list just feet away. And hey, on the runway, a P-51 Mustang is taking off. Another WW2 era icon. Man, I love this. Like a free breakfast airshow. “That,” Dick’s saying, “was the greatest fighter. Once they put Rolls Royce Merlins in, they outperformed the Germans, Spitfires, everyone.”
In the end Lisa has to kick me out, along with the rest of them. “I’ve got a kid to pick up,” she says.
I guess that’s what this talky airmen’s geedunk is like.
Hmm. Think I’ll mosey over, see if I can get a ride somewhere aboard that B-24.
Prices: Apple pancakes, two eggs, sausages, bacon or both, $11.95; country fried steak, $12.95; Eggs Benedict, potatoes or fresh fruit, $12.95; “ultimate tuna melt,” with bacon, tuna, cheese, fries, $12.50; Gillespie Slam, $7.25; house burger, $10.50; club sandwich, $12.75; veggie sandwich, $11.75
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gillespie Field Station. Walk 11 minutes south-east on N. Marshall Avenue