Hideaway Too Hidden

Sixth and Market

625 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

Clock’s ticking toward midnight down here in the deepest Stingaree. I’m heading for Ciro’s, the pizzeria. Why? Because I’ve spent the last couple hours holding up the beautiful old (1885!) Tivoli bar, listening to a friend tell me every last one of his troubles. Love the Tivoli, but boy, do I need a breather — and a nibble — before I head home.

I see Ciro’s red-and-green sign in the distance, but by chance, right where the Park It on Market is, I glance right. Wha…? Do a double take. All that construction, all that walking through wooden tunnels they had here — gone. Instead, tucked into the Park It on Market is this little café-bistro. Lights blazing. Just what I need. Tables with classy, tall, darkwood chairs cluster under a cocoa-colored canopy, with more tables behind glass inside. I spot a cabinet loaded with pink pasta salads, bottles of beer and wine, croissants, and gâteaux. And behind that, a hotshot kind of Italian Gaggia coffee machine and a glass-fronted cabinet with bottles of Champagne inside.

Too good for me, but I step inside anyway. Straight off, you feel the healthy feng shui of the place. It has forest-green and mustard-yellow walls, a nicely angled blond wood counter with four stools. To the right of that, a golden-yellow curtain only half covers the window that looks onto one of the parking lot’s entrance driveways. To contrast with that cold outside, a swoopy red velvet settee makes this whole inside feel über-cool, cozy, and warm. To the left they have a cigar humidor, an ATM, and a brand-new hookah pipe. And two flat-screen TVs on the wall deliver news in stereo.

“You know what?” I say to the guy behind the counter, a bright-looking gent with straight, straw-blond hair. “This is like those bistro bars where you’d expect, like, Edith Piaf to be drinking a glass of absinthe and singing ‘La Vie en Rose.…’ ”

“Well, I guess you could say I’m a Europhile,” the guy, Lee, says. “My dad was an airline pilot, so he’d take me to places like Italy, Paris, all the time, and I grew to love those cafés there. That’s what I am trying here. Can I get you anything?”

Jeez, yes. If I can handle the prices.

“What do you have to eat?” I ask.

“I just made up this penne pasta in the bowl there. Or the broccoli pasta salad next to it?”

Behind him, a blackboard menu says he has sandwiches for $5 to $5.50, small frozen pizzas shipped in from Italy for $6, or pasta salad from $3 to $4. Or just croissants for $1.75.

Wow. Such low prices, such a classy little place.

“I can heat up the penne pasta and throw Parmesan on top,” Lee says. “Four bucks.”

“Great,” I say.

“Something to drink?” he asks. Man. I’m tempted by the bottle of Newcastle Brown in the cooler cabinet. It’s only $4. But, late as it is, I’ve still got work to do. Sigh. So I ask for a coffee. He says he can brew some. “Two dollars okay?”

Too late — ’cause he’s started brewing — I see he has Coca-Cola, the original bottles, in the cooler.

“Yes, from Mexico. They still use cane sugar. After that, you can’t drink our corn-syrup Coke anymore,” he says.

He brings out my pasta. It’s on a cardboard plate but comes hot and steaming from the microwave, with Parmesan melting on top. I mean, it’s just a pile of ribbed, slant-cut pasta tubes mixed together with garlic and a tomato-and-cream sauce. But simple, red, filling, and pretty darned delicious.

“So how come I haven’t noticed you guys before?” I ask. “Are you new?”

“No, I’ve been here a year and a half. Except we’ve been closed off by construction, sidewalk tunnels, concrete trucks. We were invisible!” Turns out Lee is usually only here nights because he has a day job. He’s a lawyer who’s into securities. Stocks, bonds, all that kind of stuff.

But he’d always dreamed of running a Euro-style bistro. “My wife calls it my midlife crisis,” he says. “But she says it’s better than me getting a faster car and a younger woman.”

His hours here right now are…vague. If you were Raymond Chandler, you might call this “The Long Hello.” And Lee’s still not even sure about the name. On the canopy outside, it says “Ball Park Café.” But on the menu blackboard, he’s written “Sixth and Market.”

Me, I can’t help thinking something smoky, romantic might fit better. The Green Parrot? Café Mimi?

’Course now I want more. Keep staring at the plate of gâteaux he’s got in the display cabinet. Blackboard says they’re $3.75 each, except for tarts, which are $4.50. And hey, the raspberry tart has caught my heart. I’ve got to have her. Oh, Lord. So fruity, so good.

“I get them every morning at the French Gourmet in P.B., where I live,” says Lee. “And their baguettes and croissants. I want people to come by in the morning, just like in Paris, and have their coffee and croissant and read a paper and head for work. Or nights. We’ll have wireless soon.”

He’s not there yet. “But I’m always here Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, through till maybe 2:30 a.m.,” he says.

While I’m chowing and chatting, this security guy comes in. Bill. He’s in charge of the parking building tonight. “I come down, make sure Lee’s okay,” he says. “He’s on his own here. And also, he makes a mean latte.”

The screens have Letterman on. I just sit here wondering at my luck. The pizza line across the road at Ciro’s curls around the corner now. It’s getting noisy. Hey, suckers! No line over here! That’s what I want to yell…On the other hand, bunch of rowdy barflies could ruin this beautiful little joint. I hold my tongue.

STOP PRESS! Can you believe it? More construction. The whole awning’s off, so right now the place is hard to recognize. Lee says the next month could be messy, all in the cause of renovation. But he’ll still definitely be open till late each Thursday through Saturday. The Long Hello continues.

The Place: Sixth and Market, 625 Sixth Avenue (no phone yet)

Type of Food: Euro-American

Prices: baguette sandwiches, $5–$5.50; small frozen pizzas from Italy, $6; pasta salad $3–$4; croissants, $1.75

Hours (during continuing soft opening): “probably” most days (Monday–Friday) from around 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.; “definitely” open from around 9:00 p.m. –2:30 a.m., Thursdays–Saturdays

Buses: 3, 11

Nearest Bus Stop: Sixth and Market

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Thanks for the heads up. After my trip to Borders at 6th and G tomorrow (zines and books) I'll have to check the place out.

Absolutely THE best adult hangout in the area for a nosh, a coffee, a glass of wine, and warm conversation. Lee is the ideal bistro host: engaging, interesting and not obtrusive. If you need a place to mellow out after listening to the latest music downtown, or a great bite to eat while club hopping, this is the perfect place to be on a Friday night. One visit and you feel like you have been coming there forever. (And those frozen pizzas from Italy are pretty darn terrific!) But the real draw is Lee, who has the amiable ability to tell whether you just want to unwind in quiet contemplation or you want conversation with someone who actually SEES his customers as guests. GO to the BallPark Cafe, or Sixth and Market, or Lee's Place. Whatever the name, it's a downtown treasure.

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