Feels Like 1913

Brian's 24

828 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

“Be nice or go away,” says the sign above the bar. Hmm...none too welcoming. But, hey, I’ll be nice, ’cause what a bar, and what a backboard! Huge, with baroque carving, big mirrors. Victorian, I swear.

Plus, we need this place. Why? Because it never closes. At last, downtown has a night ’n’ day cafe. “We were the only town without a classic 24-hour eatery,” says Steve, the owner’s father, “till we came along.” Well, if you don’t count Denny’s-type places, could be true, I guess.

This is Brian’s. Used to be Brians’. Apostrophe after the s. This is subtle. Meaning, two partners named Brian used to own the place (they still have their well-known American Eateries on Washington and Balboa). And now, Steve’s son, whose name also happens to be Brian, has bought their third location, shifted the apostrophe, and gone 24-hour.

But not much else has changed. Which is good because this is a living relic of San Diego. It’s part of the St. James Hotel (now owned by Ramada), which was put up in, like, 1913, ten stories high, downtown’s first skyscraper hotel. Its two elevators — they’re the same elevators 96 years later — were then the fastest in all of California, according to Ira, the hotel’s receptionist.

Brian’s is separated from the hotel’s reception area by a glass wall. It feels like 1913 in here. Chandeliers, waiters’ voices echoing as they hurry up and down the cream floor tiles, the giant bar-counter with a little curly art nouveau lamp at either end, and a massive, single-plank, polished mahogany surface.

“See the dents in the bar top?” asks Missy, the waitress. “They’re Joan Crawford’s stiletto heel marks. She used to dance on it.”

Wow. Joan Crawford. Legendary bitchy goddess. The Women…all those ’30s movies. Missy says this whole counter and backboard were part of a house Joan had in Italy. Seems they shipped it over to the States, and since she died, it has been in a bunch of bars. Now it’s here to stay, says Missy.

She brings me a menu. “Ready?”

Uh, oh. Man, it’s huge. “I’m a speed reader,” I say. “Just give me half an hour.”

So, okay, t’ain’t cheap-cheap. Gotta pay for all that overtime, I guess. I’m looking at the breakfast pages. Biscuits and gravy (with two biscuits, two eggs, two bacon or a sausage patty or spicy link and home fries) runs $9.49. “krab” cake Benedict, with two poached eggs, hollandaise, and home fries is $12.99. The pity is, I’m just too late for the two breakfast specials, which are way cheaper. Two hotcakes/toast/muffin, two eggs, and one bacon/sausage patty/spicy link is $5.99; and the one I really have the hots for, the “megabreakfast” of three eggs, six bacon, three sausage patties or links, with home fries and toast/hotcakes, is $7.99. Alas and alack, they stop that deal at 11:00 a.m.

On the regular menu they have a mobey-sounding fried chicken waffle (fried chicken in honey batter, plus a plateful of waffles, $13.99) and, wow, an “absolutely everything” omelet with — check this out — six eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, cheddar cheese, mushrooms, peppers, spinach, tomatoes, onions, all topped with cheddar cheese, $12.99.

But in the end, I decide on a good ol’ Italian frittata ($11.99). Ten minutes later, another waiter, Rodrigo, delivers the goods. He brings out two big china plates, one with hotcakes steamin’ away, the other with this mess of eggs loaded with Italian sausage (of course), peppers, mushrooms, black olives, marinara sauce, and mozzarella, and a pile of grilled-onion-strewn home fries. This is going to see me through the entire day.

Fast-forward two days. It’s afternoon. Find myself sitting down at the same nicely worn black wooden table, checking the lunch menu. Spot some good value from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., specials like fish and chips for $5.99; pasta with marinara, alfredo, or meat sauce for $5.99; or a 1/4 lb. Vienna beef hot dog with sauerkraut and french fries for $6.99. I’m figuring I’ll settle for the shark and taties when clang! My eye settles on…can this be right? A peanut-butter burger? “Don’t be afraid,” says the menu. “Our H lb. patty is topped with peanut butter, bacon, and cheddar cheese, $11.99. If it wasn’t great, we wouldn’t serve it.”

What can I say? Missy brings out a big sesame seed bun with the half-pounder glistening evilly inside and bacon waving about like rusty roof iron, lots of oozing cheese, and a second giant ooze — this crazy peanut butter. A Farberware steak knife is plunged through the bun’s heart. A pile of pickles, tomato slices, lettuce sits waiting to see if you want to tuck them up in bed with the peanut butter. Thicket of french fries surrounds the monster. I dive straight in. Need that knife, too. And — maybe it’s my sweet tooth — but this is great. Oozy, sloppy, bacon-salty, sweet…almost like a Thai burger with that peanutty thing going on. Have to say, it’s the most refreshing take on the hoary old burger idea in a while. It’s big, but mine’s gone before you can say Mommie Dearest.

Next? Brekky at 4:30 one morning. Maybe catch Joan admiring her ghostly self in the backboard mirror.

The Place: Brian’s 24, 828 Sixth Avenue (between E and F Streets), downtown, 619-702-8410
Type of Food: American
Prices: Two eggs, two bacon/sausage patties/spicy links, two hotcakes breakfast special, $5.99; “megabreakfast” (three eggs, six bacon, three sausage, home fries, hotcakes), $8.99 (these two till 11:00 a.m. only); anytime breakfasts include biscuits and gravy (two biscuits, two eggs, two bacon/sausage/spicy link, home fries), $9.49; Italian frittata, $11.99; Krabcake Benedict (with two poached eggs, hollandaise, home fries), $13.99; 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m. lunch specials include 1/4 lb. beef hot dog, sauerkraut, fries, $6.99; light eaters’ fish and chips, $5.99; pasta with marinara, alfredo, or meat sauce, $5.99; peanut butter burger (1/2 lb. patty with peanut butter, bacon, cheddar cheese), $11.99
Hours: 24 hours, seven days
Buses: All downtown
Nearest Bus Stops: Fifth and Broadway

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