By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1997 Gourmet Magazine
Embroidered bywords on a sampler on the wall of Hob Nos Hill offer this assurance: “Pleasures In Life Are Few, One of Ours Is Serving You.” There isn’t a more benevolent restaurant in America. Its gentle dining rooms put us in mind of mid-century domestic science brochures that give advice to the new bride: Set an attractive table, cook wholesome meals to keep your family healthy, and, to show you care, add a little garnish to every plate. So it is at Hob Nob Hill.
For all its homespun features, San Diego’s Hob Nob Hill is not a homey place; it is very much a restaurant, one of the last of a special breed of three-meals-a-day coffee shops that once thrived in Southern California. The specialties that have attracted a loyal clientele through the decades are the sorts of things most people only eat when they go out. When, for example, was the last time you prepared eggs Florentine for breakfast or a triple-decker club sandwich (built around both ham and turkey) at lunch? In fact, near the cash register is a decorative wood plaque that shows a shoe print with a plea across its arch: “Help Stamp Out Home Cooking.”
No matter what time you come to this worthy establishment just minutes from the airport (it’s a great stop for those who arrive in town hungry), you will likely wait in the vestibule until a table opens up. It seems always crowded, any time of day. Businesspeople come for lunch because it is such a comfortable escape from the pressures of work. Young couples and families come for breakfast because the price is right. Senior citizens make their way to Hob Nob Hill all day long for such bygone taste pleasures as chicken ‘n’ dumpling or braised lamb shank with minted jardinière sauce, followed by double-crusted lemon pie or hot blackberry cobbler.
Despite perpetual crowds, the wait is never maddeningly long. The line moves fast, due in no small measure to the speed of the waitstaff. Outfitted in hunter-green uniforms with crisp white aprons, the women who tend the two small dining rooms are as brisk as they can be, but they are never, ever brusque (they might call you darling or hon, but never Bub or Mac). Their allies include a staff of similarly, outfitted men who bus tables, guided by the almost imperceptible loudspeaker system, and three hosts who patrol the floor, rushing to a microphone whenever they see a customer who needs something.
Unless you tell a waitress otherwise, she will assume you want your food just as soon as the kitchen can plate it; it is not unusual for the house-cured corned beef and cabbage (a Monday special) to arrive before you have finished your Waldorf salad. On a recent visit, we actually out-paced our waitress, who set down a couple of fresh spinach salads that looked so delicious, their big supple leaves glistening with sweet-and-sour dressing, dotted with crumbled egg and bacon, that we picked up forks and dug in immediately. As we munched the delicious greens, remarking how rare it is to get spinach with such robust flavor, the waitress returned. It was only fifteen seconds after the salads’ touchdown, but we had already moved ahead of her. She looked a little sad as she held forth a small tray with forks on a clean napkin. “Chilled fork?” she asked.
Another time, when June, our waitress, set down a Fiesta Salad (a Mexicali-style lettuce bowl topped with chunks of yellow cheese and warm taco-flavored beef), she asked, “Would you like Burgundy?”
“Huh?” said we, only vaguely aware that Hob Nob Hill does have a short wine list.
“Burgundy wine!” said June, and when we still looked puzzled, she explained, “For your salad.” She returned with a cruet and sprinkled on dark red wine as if it were vinegar—cautiously measuring it out with an expert eye. “Isn’t that good?” she asked a few minutes later when she saw us enthusiastically forking up the meaty salad.
Hob Nob Hill is known for serving certain special meals each day of the week, a tradition dating back to 1944, when Harold and Dorothy Hoersch opened their fourteen-stool lunch counter called the Juniper Cafe. The name may have changed to Melody Grill, then to Dorothy’s Oven, and finally to Hob Nob Hill, but Wednesday’s lunch of beef stew with dumplings never wavers. Nor does the traditional choice of pot roast with buttered noodles or leg of lamb on Sunday, and German sauerbraten with potato pancakes and red cabbage on Thursday night.
Tuesday happens to be our favorite day, for that is braised-short-ribs-of-beef day. The big, dark pieces of slow-cooked meat, saturated with natural gravy and served steaming hot, smell so good that people at neighboring tables will watch with envy if you’ve ordered them and they have not. The beef is tender enough so that gentle nudging with a fork separates it from the bone; it quite literally melts in your mouth. On the side, of course, are lovely white mashed potatoes without a single lump or fleck of skin.
Most San Diegans think of Hob Nob Hill as a breakfast spot; and if you can eat but one meal here, breakfast is the one you want. The restaurant is joyous in the morning, and to start the day with its freshly squeezed juice, good coffee, and a wedge of spicy rhubarb sour cream coffee cake or a pumpkin muffin, is to taste Pacific Coast heaven. Amid the rush and crowds, waitresses schmooze with customers they have known for years and enthusiastic pastry-hounds rhapsodize over the individual bundt cakes, cinnamon buns, and pecan rolls in the glass case that everyone admires while waiting for a table.
Pastries are the signature of the Hob Nob kitchen, but big, hot breakfasts cannot be ignored: luscious patties of roast beef hash dotted with red bell pepper; crunchy waffles strewn with pecans; lacy-crusted pancakes studded with tart blueberries; and slabs of French toast sheathed in their eggy envelope and dusted with powdered sugar. Eggs are expertly made in all configurations and accompanied by hashed-browns or peppery O’Brien potatoes or warm spiced apples—as well as a choice of biscuits, muffins, or coffeecake.
We were panic-stricken when we heard in 1993 that the Hoersch family, who created and sustained this kind hearted restaurant, had sold it; but our worries were unfounded. New owners Jeff and Tania Kacha treat Hob Nob Hill like a precious legacy. Tania told us that ten years ago, when she and her husband first came here to eat, he said he would love to own a place just like it someday. At the time they ran an 800 square-foot coffee shop in San Diego (he cooked, she was the waitress); Tania thought Jeff’s dream was farfetched, out of their league, but they worked hard, built equity, opened a couple of other coffee shops in town, and finally did manage to get this landmark restaurant for their own. When they did, they vowed to change nothing.
“We painted and put in a new carpet, but that is all,” Tania says emphatically. “The menu has stayed exactly the same. People know they can count on us for pumpkin pie and double chocolate cake, boysenberry bundt cake, and a sweet bread every day. All these things are made from scratch, which is how it has to be. Our chef, Fidel Martinez, has been here fifteen years, some waitresses longer than that, and some customers practically since the beginning.”
She told us about a white-haired woman named Frances who has been coming in for twenty-five years, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, to eat poached eggs or silver-dollar pancakes; she sits in the booth where Tania does her paperwork between meals. One week Frances surprised everybody by coming on Tuesday. “I had already seated a man in my booth—a retired doctor who asks that I call him whenever we have rhubarb sour cream coffee cake—and when I saw her walk in the door, I thought, Oh, no, what have I done? I told the doctor that he could have lunch for half price if he would move. He said he would be happy to move but would pay full price, because Frances had seniority. He’s only been coming in for ten years. So she had breakfast in my booth, as usual, and I sent her home with dinner, as usual. Meatloaf and tuna macaroni are the evening meals she likes best.”
Tania says that it was difficult to live up to the august reputation that founder Harold Hoersch had established, and customers were skeptical at first. But no more. “Now, when I’m not on the floor, people ask, ‘Where’s Tania?'” she says proudly. “Jeff and I bought this restaurant, but I don’t really think of it as belonging to us. It’s more like we belong to it. That is why we could never change anything. Oh, I know I could start opening cans instead of making everything fresh, and life would be easier—but that would be the end of Hob Nob Hill.”