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A half century of prime rib and martinis at Bully’s East

50 years later, anachronistic prime rib steakhouse can still pack its booths

A "half cut" of prime rib, still served at Bully's East
A "half cut" of prime rib, still served at Bully's East

If not for the flat screen TVs and masked servers, walking into Bully’s East would feel like entering a time capsule. At the center of the dimly lit restaurant stands a grand mahogany bar, from which classic cocktails are shuttled to a series of discrete dining rooms banked by large, plush booths upholstered in dark red “leather” (really, a vinyl approximation). Perhaps more than anything, the fact the place is packed feels like a throwback. I’m not talking limited capacity due to Covid packed, but every table taken, no available seating til after 8 on a Saturday night packed.

Place

Bully's East

2401 Camino del Rio South, San Diego

I might call it vintage Bully’s, except that era existed before my time. It was 50 years ago this year that the steakhouse and sports bar took over an A&W Root Beer location in Mission Valley. In San Diego, it’s one of few such restaurants remaining. Nearby Albie’s Beef Inn shuttered after 53 years at the end of 2015. North Park’s Red Fox Steakhouse closed in 2019, after 60 years being a part of the Lafayette Hotel (though a second edition being built across El Cajon Boulevard, slated to open this summer, it remains to be seen whether the venue can recapture the magic).

Fifty-one years ago, this was the site of an A&W Root Beer.

Bully’ East was actually the third Bully’s restaurant opened by its namesake, George Bullington. Bully’s North made it 40 years in Del Mar, before the 2008 recession ended its run. The original Bully’s, established in Bird Rock, La Jolla, had just hit the half-century mark when it wound down in 2017.

The vintage bar of Bully's East, busy on a packed Saturday night

I’m tempted to see this spate of closures as evidence modern diners lack interest in the classic, midcentury styled steakhouse. (Unless maybe it’s a gaudy, Vegas-style modern day re-creation of one — I’m lookin’ at you, $6.5 million Born and Raised in Little Italy.) I’m tempted to believe that prime rib can no longer headline a successful restaurant in 2021.

But again, here I am, just off the freeway in Mission Valley, barely able to get a booth at the unlikely last Bully’s standing. Here comes my three-olive martini, and here comes that prime rib. It’s available in 8-ounce “regular cut” ($31), all the way up to the 38-ounce “beast” (market price).

A martini served in a plush, red vinyl booth

I settle on the relatively modest 11-ounce “half cut,” ($38) cooked medium. It shows a charred edge next to a thick ribbon of fat, but it’s mostly smooth and pink, with just a hint of bloody red seeping from the tender steak. Ramekins of beefy jus and horseradish cream come standard, as does a dinner salad. Brussels sprouts covered with caramelized onions are my chosen side dish, beating out broccoli, mac and cheese, and four different preparations of potato.

It’s a plate some may call nostalgic, and others may deem an anachronism. Certainly, the median age of Bully’s diners has to be at least double that of those standing in line at a hot Nashville chicken counter. But hey, coming back from an uncertain year, from stacks of take-out containers and streaming video, there’s a warmth and comfort to dining inside a time capsule. Maybe that’s why so many of us are here, dining on prime rib, steak, and seafood this unofficial summer evening.

Or maybe it’s the city’s most loyal set of regular customers, coming home to a San Diego classic that’s kept up a winning formula for five decades.

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A "half cut" of prime rib, still served at Bully's East
A "half cut" of prime rib, still served at Bully's East

If not for the flat screen TVs and masked servers, walking into Bully’s East would feel like entering a time capsule. At the center of the dimly lit restaurant stands a grand mahogany bar, from which classic cocktails are shuttled to a series of discrete dining rooms banked by large, plush booths upholstered in dark red “leather” (really, a vinyl approximation). Perhaps more than anything, the fact the place is packed feels like a throwback. I’m not talking limited capacity due to Covid packed, but every table taken, no available seating til after 8 on a Saturday night packed.

Place

Bully's East

2401 Camino del Rio South, San Diego

I might call it vintage Bully’s, except that era existed before my time. It was 50 years ago this year that the steakhouse and sports bar took over an A&W Root Beer location in Mission Valley. In San Diego, it’s one of few such restaurants remaining. Nearby Albie’s Beef Inn shuttered after 53 years at the end of 2015. North Park’s Red Fox Steakhouse closed in 2019, after 60 years being a part of the Lafayette Hotel (though a second edition being built across El Cajon Boulevard, slated to open this summer, it remains to be seen whether the venue can recapture the magic).

Fifty-one years ago, this was the site of an A&W Root Beer.

Bully’ East was actually the third Bully’s restaurant opened by its namesake, George Bullington. Bully’s North made it 40 years in Del Mar, before the 2008 recession ended its run. The original Bully’s, established in Bird Rock, La Jolla, had just hit the half-century mark when it wound down in 2017.

The vintage bar of Bully's East, busy on a packed Saturday night

I’m tempted to see this spate of closures as evidence modern diners lack interest in the classic, midcentury styled steakhouse. (Unless maybe it’s a gaudy, Vegas-style modern day re-creation of one — I’m lookin’ at you, $6.5 million Born and Raised in Little Italy.) I’m tempted to believe that prime rib can no longer headline a successful restaurant in 2021.

But again, here I am, just off the freeway in Mission Valley, barely able to get a booth at the unlikely last Bully’s standing. Here comes my three-olive martini, and here comes that prime rib. It’s available in 8-ounce “regular cut” ($31), all the way up to the 38-ounce “beast” (market price).

A martini served in a plush, red vinyl booth

I settle on the relatively modest 11-ounce “half cut,” ($38) cooked medium. It shows a charred edge next to a thick ribbon of fat, but it’s mostly smooth and pink, with just a hint of bloody red seeping from the tender steak. Ramekins of beefy jus and horseradish cream come standard, as does a dinner salad. Brussels sprouts covered with caramelized onions are my chosen side dish, beating out broccoli, mac and cheese, and four different preparations of potato.

It’s a plate some may call nostalgic, and others may deem an anachronism. Certainly, the median age of Bully’s diners has to be at least double that of those standing in line at a hot Nashville chicken counter. But hey, coming back from an uncertain year, from stacks of take-out containers and streaming video, there’s a warmth and comfort to dining inside a time capsule. Maybe that’s why so many of us are here, dining on prime rib, steak, and seafood this unofficial summer evening.

Or maybe it’s the city’s most loyal set of regular customers, coming home to a San Diego classic that’s kept up a winning formula for five decades.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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