224 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
"Got a lighter?”
It’s this girl. We’re both waiting to cross Fifth and E.
“No,” I say, and wrestle my way through the crowds down to F, just as the signal turns red.
“Got a lighter?”
Here she is again, same question. Forgets I’m the same guy.
Whatever, by the time I get down to K, I’m glad to spot Lou & Mickey’s, the steak and seafood place, right before the railroad tracks. Duck in under the wrought-iron entrance.
Actually, I’ve been waiting for this a long time. Desperate to try their patio. Counting on happy hour to make it possible.
But now, I look around me. Wow. Major redesign. They have opened this sucker right up like they took a can-opener to the walls. A row of brown-cushioned benches and classy cork-top tables lines the sidewalk. And beyond, an entire horseshoe bar has been exposed to the world.
Normally, no way is this my scene. Lou and Mickey’s has been the primo conventioneers’ trap for years. Like, 50-dollar steaks and 30-dollar pork chops. But I still sigh when I go past, because they’ve got the best patio in town. No severe iron grills like the rest in the Gaslamp. Just planters with flowers to define the edges.
So, tonight, I head inside. Then back out, escorted by one of the welcomers.
No, not kicked out. I could have sat at the cool, white tile bar, with all the sports screens and chatty barkeeps. But, no. Need to be out on the street. And at L&M’s, you can sit anywhere, even if you’re just here for happy hour.
So, I sit up to one of the high tables alongside the sidewalk, let a frisson of satisfaction ripple through my bones, and take in the scene. Purple trees shine out from the Hard Rock Hotel across Fifth, guy struts up and down with two dobermans, clipped ears, clipped tails, enjoying the power the mutts lend him. A new Starbucks right next to Nobu is already bulging with customers.
And right outside, this guy flicks lighted parachutes into the air and lets them float down like glow worms. A pedicab with a blonde doing the pedaling trundles by. One of the Ukraine girls who stayed after the summer season? Probably. Only thing to interrupt her is the railroad crossing bells. And, boy, once they start, they don’t stop. A three-engine freight train comes hauling slowly past. This could go on forever.
Time to check happy-hour bargains. Gabby, the red-waistcoated server, comes up with the big main menu. “Happy hour?” I ask. Feel bad. She hunts out a slim green-bordered card. One side says “sips” and the other “bites.” Main thing in “sips” is they have pints of Coors Light, Coronado Island Pilsner, or Stone Pale Ale going for $4. And on the “bites” side I see you can get chow for $1, $2, $4, $6, or $8. A buck’ll buy you one Cherrystone clam or an oyster (“shucker’s choice”) on the half-shell. Two buckeroos will buy a Peruvian Bay scallop, a basket of shoestring fries, or a small Caesar salad. We start hitting real food at $4. Like, an “authentic cart hot dog,” a “filet mignon taco with pico de gallo,” half a grilled jumbo artichoke, or “steamed Mediterranean mussels.”
Then, for $6, the most popular item, I’ll bet: “Lou & Mickey’s bar burger.” Or they have a three-shrimp shrimp cocktail, fried calamari, or beer-battered fish and chips. Eight bucks? Open-faced steak sandwich or teriyaki filet mignon tips.
For me, no questions, no hesitations. Mainly because I see the witching hour of six is only ten minutes away. End of HH!
So, mussels, check. That’s four bucks. Then, can’t resist that half “jumbo” grilled artichoke, also $4. And, what the heck, the burger, $6. And need a brewski. Get the Island Pilsner from Coronado Brewing ($4). ’Course, as soon as Gabby disappears with my order, I realize I’ve gone over the top. Lessee: Four, eight, twelve… ayee! Eighteen Washingtons. And that’s before tax’n tip.
Ten minutes later, a kitchen guy lays out the goods, and it’s a pretty impressive array. Except, that half “jumbo” artichoke turns out to be two little piles of artichoke leaves. No actual artichoke. Bummer. But the first leaf I dip in the creamy garlic aioli sauce, and then scrape off with my lower teeth...oh, man. Total taste heaven. The mussels come swimming in an iron skillet, in a white-wine sauce with garlic, parsley, butter, salt, and pepper, and they taste great with a chunk of bread. They make a satisfactory clank! when you toss the shell into the shucking bowl that every table has.
But, okay, I guess the big prize has to go to the burger. For starters, it just looks so danged beautiful, wrapped like an overfed babushka in its paper shawl. But that’s what I like: there’s nothing mean about it. And for happy hour, they could have skimped and who’d complain? Above all, the meat patty is big and squelchy and deliciously rare.
Just this and a beer would have come to $10 and been totally enough.
Turns out burgers was what the original Lou and Mickey King were about from the get-go. Started off with a burger joint in 1945, ended up with a chain. Their sons Jeff and Sam opened this and named it to honor them.
Honestly, it’s a struggle getting through it all. I walked in and waddled out. Just fit through the wrought-iron arch. Kidding, but that’s how it feels.
I join the sidewalk swirl. Now if I can just avoid that gal with the unlit cigarette.
Happy Hour Prices: One Cherrystone clam, $1; one oyster, $1; Peruvian Bay scallop, $2; fries, $2; small Caesar salad, $2; hot dog, $4; filet mignon taco, $4; grilled artichoke, $4; steamed mussels, $4; burger, $6; shrimp cocktail, $6; fried calamari, $6; fish and chips, $6; steak sandwich, $8; teriyaki filet mignon tips, $8
Happy Hours: 4:00–6:00 p.m., Monday to Friday
Buses: 3, 11
Nearest bus stop: Fifth and Market
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Gaslamp, 20 yards away