Anti-Gaslamp Experience

The evening sun streams through the window. So does the sound of distant hand-clapping. That comes from the nearby Amistad Cristiana de San Diego. Those guys certainly put soul into their singing.

I'm sitting in the high-chair window seat, chomping into my BLT. I like this part of town. And this place. How many times have Hank and I passed it in the early morning, seen homeless-looking guys coming out with 99-cent fries and buck coffees for breakfast, then looked at the prices ourselves and just shaken our heads? "This is cheaper than eating at home," Hank said last time. "Burgers $2.49, sourdough guacamole bacon cheeseburger, $3.75, Philly cheesesteak, $4.99. We're coming back, bro!"

Except we never did. So tonight, I took the plunge. It was maybe 6:30 when I swung in through the front door. Wow. I was the only customer in a vast, cavernous place. Wa-ay at the back, I spied a figure behind a counter. It was sorta like being the only person at a church service. You and the priest.

"Hi," the priest said when I made it back there. Okay, it was just this guy Matt. He was working among the stoves and coolers of this, like, huge kitchen. I looked up at the menu. Wha...? Not what I remembered. No $2.49 hamburger. No sourdough guacamole bacon cheeseburger, $3.75.

Now, it was a much shorter list, and the standard burger was $5.50, including 1/3-pound patty and fries. Cheeseburger was $6.25. Then they had things like hot BBQ pork sandwich for $5.75 with fries and a "Grilled chicken Sando" for $5.75, plus a bunch of burritos and quesadillas for mostly five bucks. So I guess you couldn't complain.

"Don't judge us by this," said Matt, the guy. I think he means the menu and the decor. "We've just taken over, and we're waiting for permits. We're going to completely transform it into an up-market place. But still affordable. Like an anti-Gaslamp experience. Down there, you're talking entrées in the $20, $30 range. Our dinner dishes'd be, say, $15. Lunchtime, $7, $8, up to $12, maybe."

Wow. Echoes of Vagabond. This sounds like a healthy trend.

I end up ordering a coffee ($1.45) and a "Very Best BLT" with caramelized bacon, sliced tomato, romaine lettuce, mayo, Dijon mustard ($4.95). For a buck extra you can get an egg so the yolk oozes over everything. Dammit, I'm too mean to spring for the extra buck. I'll spend the whole sandwich dreaming of egg yolk.

I sit down and chow in. Actually, the BLT, even minus the egg-ooze, is pretty crunchy and delicious. The caramelized bacon makes it really nice. And the T-factor -- tomatoes -- is great. Matt has piled those suckers in.

It turns out this barn of a place dates from the 1920s. Just imagine: people coming in here, talking, flirting, eating, laughing, crying for 80 years. Outside, right now, it could be World War II, or the Depression, or Vietnam. You start to appreciate the room the way it is. The tinkly old upright piano, the big California flag, the empty coffee sacks from El Salvador hanging on the cream walls, the well-used sofas, the nature photos. A man can relax, be himself here, not have to try and be cool. But it's not all time warp. Like, they have a couple of computers set up that you can buy time on.

A gal comes in. Julia. She orders a glass of Pacific Ridge pale ale ($3.50) and 15 minutes on one of the computers. "I used to come and get the grilled chicken club sandwich," she says. "They always gave you large portions. And this computer, a dollar for 15 minutes. Can't beat that."

Yeah, for as long as it lasts: after these next couple of months, those renta-computers'll be history.

But Matt's not getting all teary-eyed about it. This is a big thing for him. He and his old friend, a chef, Scott Watkins, have been talking about doing this for years. They're staking their fortunes and reps on what they hope to create, a haven for what they're calling "new American comfort food. Things like braised short ribs, with roasted garlic, whole-grain Dijon, and celery root mashed potatoes." Or Maine lobster pot pie with a "homemade fennel-infused pastry crust." Pork chop'll be flavored with cinnamon and come with sweet corn spoon bread. Spoon bread? Seems it's an old settlers' tradition, 'specially among Southerners, a cornmeal bread that's fluffy enough to serve with a spoon. Yum.

Of course, this whole transformation'll take time. They'll probably close sometime in September and not open the new op till November. The building's owner is playing along. He'll create a green shutter and bricky New Orleans--type frontage, while Matt and Scott hire builders to gut the Big Room, set up an eat-drink bar along one side, put nine-foot-high French windows in front and on the side, and turn the parking area into a bougainvillea-strewn courtyard for maybe 40 customers.

Sounds great. On the other hand, this, as it is here, now, is real. A few tables, a piano, and that flag, which, turns out, is up there to cover a hole in the wall. You can't help thinking: We might miss this, a lot. 'Specially the guys Hank and I used to see coming in, the homeless guys looking for a breakfast of French fries and coffee.

The name? It'll change to, uh, "Urban Solace." Trendy, but hard to fall in love with, as you can with "Vagabond." I reckon they should get more personal. What's wrong with Matt 'n' Scott's?

Meantime, I'm definitely coming back for their most popular single item, the breakfast burrito. Scrambled egg, cheese, diced ham, salsa, sour cream, and guacamole, $4.50. You can bet that won't be on the new menu.

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