Most of us really take pleasure in going out to dinner in a pleasant atmosphere. Dining out was enjoyed by the Victorians as well! Meals in restaurants were usually quite good, and to our way of thinking, ridiculously cheap. For example – a three-course meal of soup, meat, potatoes, vegetables, and coffee was a mere “two bits” or a quarter. The assorted vegetables, served in little plates, were called a “round.” If one was really trying to impress, they could dine at the elegant Horton House for “four bits.” However, many thought that the extra quarter was just paying for “style,” as the food was not that exceptional! And – if you were willing to travel to the outskirts of town, a hearty meal could be obtained for 15¢, with a piece of pie included for an additional nickel.
Promotions, such as our “Restaurant Week,” also played a part in the early restaurant businesses. While modern day diners appreciate a “special” or a discount, early San Diego restaurant hosts featured other amenities and novel “extras” to lure their customers in. A Mrs. Mary Birdsall was the manager of the restaurant at the Commercial Hotel, located at the southeastern corner of 7th and I (now Island Ave.), She sent a wagon to meet the steamers arriving at Mr. Horton’s pier – free transportation to the restaurant! For her patrons arriving on the Julian Stage line, she had a trough of water in the backyard so they could wash up before being seated for dinner. Mrs. Birdsall claimed she aimed to make travelers feel right at home and provide them with a good meal! It must be noted, however, that most of the wealthier travelers or notable personages made their way to the Horton House!
Singing waiters were also quite popular. A notable one was Charley Farwell, whose day job was in the police force. He would come to the tables clad in his white coat, napkin draped over his arm, and sing the menu to his customers.
Waiters, like Charley, were usually men, who served as waiters for additional income, in other words, a side gig. Tipping was not the custom in those days, but occasionally a few pennies might be left for exceptional service.
Victorian San Diego, like our modern Gaslamp, has always had a plethora of restaurants to choose from. Marco Bennis’ place at the corner of 5th and J, featured red and white checkered tablecloths and a bottle of inexpensive red wine on every table. Further north was J.T. Kaidel’s Minneapolis Cafe, and just a little further, one could find the Mercantile. The Manhattan, situated just east of 5th on D Street, was a favorite of professionals for lunch, just like our modern Grant Grill. There was the Plaza Palace at 944 Third and the Delmonico on Fourth below D Street. The Golden Lion Tavern on 4th and F was known for its good food with an accent on excellent liquor! Sargeant’s was another high-class place on Fourth. If you were in the mood for French cuisine, the Maison Doree on 5th was the place to go.
For the more family oriented, there was the Victoria, featuring large tables groaning with food served family style. To please everyone, there was a bar accessible through a passageway. Drinks were paid for when leaving by means of what was said to be the first cash register used in San Diego. This venue was a favorite of local politicians and the well-to-do who liked to show off their large families!
No town would be complete without a Greasy Spoon. San Diego’s was located at the foot of H Street, now Market St. Nobody really knew the actual name of the eatery, as they didn’t even have a sign out in front; hence, it became known as the Greasy Spoon. It was frequented by dockworkers, ship loaders and those not caring to “dress” to dine out. They all claimed the food was quite good.
Light eaters could patronize the Coffee Club, which moved around quite a bit – from the Lawyer’s Block to 4th and E and finally to 5th and H (Market). They claimed to not cook anything, but served up coffee, milk, doughnuts, and a few brands of the earliest dry cereals. Everything cost a nickel.
Victorian restaurant dining sounds rather palatable – and the price was certainly right! Worth a try, and better than having to cook!