The Girl in the Painting

"See that horse?" says Charlie. I swivel on the low bar stool. But all I see is a naked lady staring down at me. She has wide hips, a wicked smile, and I swear she's winking.

"To the left, the left," says Charlie. Oh. Yes. The smaller painting, farther along. It's of a svelte-looking black horse standing proud in green grass.

"That horse created this place," Charlie says. "His name was Don B. Without Don B, no Bully's."

"How come?" I ask.

"The Derby. Do you realize that 40,000 thoroughbreds are born each year, and only 20 of them make it into the Kentucky Derby? He was one."

Jeez. I'm desperate to hear the rest, but Kahala the server is bringing out my burger, and at 9 bucks, I ain't gonna let that baby get cold. I mean, the burger's the only thing I can afford. This is Bully's prime rib joint, and I shouldn't be here at all. Prime ribs start at 18 buckaroos and head north from there. Guess I had a weak moment walking past this evening around 8:00. Felt a Jackson in ye olde pocket and thought: "There must be some damned thing I can afford in there. Hell, I'm worth it."

So I climbed up the steps, swung open the big, carved, varnished, driftwoody door. Inside's this pubby, clubby place with cream walls, patches of brick, heavy Elizabethan timbers, a central bar with a rack of barflies propping up one end, and at the other, a nice lower counter with stools around it. A little club area. It's a bar, but without that "Drink! Now!" feel to it.

So that's where I sat. I scoured the menu, looking for anything I could afford. Ha! Bully's Prime Rib, petite cut (8 oz.), $17.95, half cut (12 oz.), $20.95. Filet mignon? Twenty-five bucks. Baby-back ribs? Twenty. These all come with extras, of course, like soup or salad, bread, and choice of fries, mash, baked potato, veggies, or rice, but it's still out of my league.

Pity, 'cause I see the menu says they're kind of organic about their meat. "No antibiotics or hormones are used in our all-natural Montana-raised 100 percent Angus corn-fed beef." Great.

I check the egg section first. They have eggs and potatoes for $7.25 but for "Lunch Only." Lessee...salad, soup? French onion soup with toast and side salad goes for $7.45. That's my choice.

Then, oh boy. Breakthrough. Praise the Lord. The "sandwiches." "Bully Burger, $8.75," $8.95 with cheese, $9.95 with sautéed onions. That, I can handle. Just.

Kahala brings over a petite cut prime rib to Mitch, the guy on my left. "Decided?" she asks me.

I go whole hog Bully Burger. When she brings it, I fold the top bun over onto the big cross-burned meat patty.

I chomp in. Ay, carumba. Thick, juicy, smoky, tasty, and rare, just as I asked. Maybe one of the best I've ever had. I dig into my baked potato, stab a couple of pepinos -- pickles -- and then back to the meat. Perfecto.

"Only one thing better," says this guy Robb, who's watching them from the high bar. He's been coming in here since he was six. "Next time ask for the buns to be sourdough, and grilled. Can't beat it, except for the French dip [$11.50]. That's exceptional here, too."

"Anyway," Charlie says. "This place wouldn't have started without that horse over there. Don B. 'Cause his trainer, Lester Holt -- he's the guy in that next picture -- entered him in the Kentucky Derby. Don B came fourth, then the first-place horse was disqualified. So he placed third. And on the basis of that, for the next 20 years, Lester hired Don B out for stud at $20,000 a go, 80 times a year. And when George Bullington, who was English and working as a barman here in town where Lester drank, said he wanted to start a prime rib place modeled on an English pub, my wife Beverly told Lester..."

Rest, history. So, wow. George Bullington the English barman started up Bully's right here in 1967, with Don B's dough and Beverly's help. This Bully's here in Bird Rock is the original one of several that have grown up around town over the past four decades. Charlie shows me the very first menu, hand-lettered by Betty. Oh boy. They charged $4.95 for full cut prime rib ($26.00 now). And $1.50 for a Bully Burger ($8.75 now).

'Course, time has passed. George has passed on, and Charlie and Beverly now own all this.

"So," I ask, "what's the story about the naked Madonna?"

"Come look," Charlie says. I get up and we cross to the back wall where it hangs.

"This couple used to hang out here. He was an artist. Crazy about her. Painted this celebration of her. Then he caught her cheating. Notice anything? One night he came back with his brushes. Painted her right eye closed, rearranged her boobs, added to her hips, and gave her a claw-hammer toe. Revenge. We have to live with it."

My check comes to $13.15, with coffee ($2.25) and onions ($1.00). I'm gonna owe Carla big-time. Come to think of it, she'd love it here. I should bring her.

Just so long as she swears to stick to the burgers.

[2009 Editor's Note: Bully's La Jolla has since closed.]

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