Pork chops and nostalgia at YMCA’s Grand Central Café

Army & Navy brekky

The old station clock on the wall is battered but still keeps time.
  • The old station clock on the wall is battered but still keeps time.

Grand Central Café

500 W. Broadway, Downtown San Diego

“Seattle? Attitude problem,” says Mark. “Pessimistic outlook. Denver? Filled with conspiracy theorists. San Diego? You’re much more divided into haves and have-nots than we are in L.A., but you have a sunny outlook.”

It’s a breakfast-counter conversation. Easy to strike up here. Something I like about this eatery at the Y.

Just came in here, up those steep steps at the corner of Broadway and India, past the etched-in-stone sign that reads “Army & Navy YMCA 1924” and into this large dining room with spindle-back wooden chairs, pictures, lots of sky-blue wall, blond wood wainscoting, hooped windows, and — wow — a large fireplace with model trains running along its mantelpiece, and a huge station-type clock above.

Oh, yeah... Must have popped in here a couple of years back. Remember discovering they had an open courtyard you’d never expect, right behind.

Today, though, just a tad chilly. I slip into one of the swivel chairs at the blue counter with “Route 66” embroidered into its worn cloth cushions and wait for someone to bring me some coffee. ’Cause it’s not even eight in the morning yet. Unheard of to be up and out so early.

This is when Mark turns up. As soon as he does, there’s Desirée, the waitress.

“Omelet with mushrooms and Swiss,” he says like he’s done this many times before.

I see they have a mushroom-and-cheese omelet for $8.95. That’s the price of all omelets.

“I have it every time,” says Mark. “It’s light, it has energy, and it gets me through my day. This is the best value I’ve seen downtown. I’m here every time I’m in San Diego.”

He comes to help folks handle their 401(k)s, financial lives, whatever.

Raymundo served Bedford’s pork chops and poached eggs.

Raymundo served Bedford’s pork chops and poached eggs.

Raymundo arrives with my coffee ($2.25, with endless refills). On the back of his T-shirt is the name of this place. No mention of YMCA. It’s just called Grand Central Café. But it has the Super Chief bursting through the lettering. Super Chief was the famous train that used to haul movie stars in super luxury from Chicago to L.A. Guess this is all because the Santa Fe Depot’s just a block away.

Even though they don’t push it, you can’t help but feel the nostalgia of this place. Let’s think: 1924. What was happening then? MGM was founded. President Woodrow Wilson died and George Bush Sr. was born. So was Jimmy Carter. And this place opened its doors and peeps started eating in this room. Probably on this same counter stool. I guess they called it the Army & Navy because this was pretty much an all-military town back then.

“Hon? Sir?”

Oh, right. Desirée. Old-fashioned place, think we’d better have a good, old-fashioned breakfast. Menu starts off with oatmeal for $3.25, or a single egg, country fries, and toast for $5.50. You can have corned-beef hash and eggs on toast for $8.50. And, top o’ the line, steak and eggs for $12.95.

But my eye stops at the pork chops ($9.95). You get two of them, along with two eggs, toast, and home fries. Not the cheapest, but I’m thinking about those two pork chops.

Okay. I order that with the eggs poached.

Mark and I talk L.A. vs. SD. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “If I didn’t love my place up in the Hollywood Hills, I’d come live down here.”

Ten minutes later Raymundo puts a big oval plate in front of me. Two poached eggs in a bowl, lots of home fries, and two pieces of pork. Except...not exactly chops as you think of them. Like, no bone.

But they smell grilled and there’s plenty to them. And, boy, tender, nicely burned edges and tasty. I ordered English muffin instead of toast, stuck each half under a poached egg, and stabbed them with my fork so they’d mess all over the muffins.

We’re starting to get us a meal here.

Mark pays his bill and heads off to his first client. Me, I start reading this brochure about the Y. Yes, first thing you think about is that dang song by the Village People. “It’s fun to stay at the Y...” But, turns out this organization has been going since way before the Village People — like, 1844. That’s almost 170 years. Started off in Britain as low-cost housing for young men and women who were moving from farms to the cities, the moths of the industrial revolution. A modest English draper named George Williams started it, and the idea spread. Within six years — by 1851 — it had spread to Australia, the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, you name it.

A good deal then, a good deal now.

A good deal then, a good deal now.

But now, 169 years later, does it still work? I look around me. Mostly business people, maybe lawyers. The courts are nearby. Maybe they came here as kids. Probably not.

And they’re calling the accommodation part “500 West.” No mention of YMCA. But they do have dorm beds for around $14 a night if you book online. So, the idea of cheap beds for kids coming to town is still alive.

And, judging from this breakfast, the food’s still good.

Through the doors, too, you can see that really romantic courtyard with tables. Great place for a party!

And another break from the prim, proper past: I see the menu has a section they call the “Caboose.” They actually sell grog here! Like, $3.95 for a glass of vino, $4 for a pint of cerveza ($5 for local brewskis).

Except only till lunchtime? They close at two. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll get Carla to round up some rowdies and come back on a Sunday morning for a hair-of-the-dog brekky.

Couple of drinks and we’ll all be singing “It’s fun to stay at the WHY-MCA. It’s fun to stay at the WHY...”

The Place: YMCA’s Grand Central Café, 500 West Broadway, downtown, 619-234-2233

Prices: Breakfast oatmeal, $3.25; single egg on toast with country fries and toast, $5.50; corned-beef hash and eggs on toast, $8.50, steak and eggs, $12.95; two pork chops, two eggs, toast, home fries, $9.95;

  • Hours: 7:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
  • Buses: All downtown
  • Nearest Bus Stops: Broadway and Kettner
  • Trolleys: Blue Line, Orange Line, Green Line
  • Nearest Trolley Stops: America Plaza (Blue Line, Orange Line); Santa Fe Depot (Green Line)

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