It's early on a Tuesday morning at La Mesa Bistro & Bakery, and customers are lined up at the counter to place their orders: a mix of coffee and bagels or muffins, omelets or one of the restaurant's popular specials, like the "1, 2, 3"—one pancake, two eggs and three pieces of the breakfast meat of choice.
Tony Jackson, as permanent a fixture here as the tables and chairs, sits at the counter right next to the cash register, a large, steaming to-go cup of coffee in his hand, a freshly baked bran muffin on a small plate and a copy of the day's paper in front of him. His large cowboy hat, cowboy boots and turquoise jewelry make him stand out a bit, but he mostly keeps to himself until someone he knows walks through the door or someone he doesn't know sees his name, "Tony," carved into the back of his chair and asks him about it.
"I had to find a place to hang out when I retired," says Jackson, who earned the monogrammed chair by frequenting the spot for more than five years.
He's lasted through three different owners and says the current owner, Jaime Osuna, who runs Swami's Café in La Mesa and Carlsbad and a few other restaurants, is the best so far, having dramatically improved both the food and the décor, in his opinion.
"It's just a place to come and socialize," he says. "Better than sitting in a bar somewhere; I get in trouble doing that."
He's a jovial old guy, and people seem to take to him right away. Another regular, Jackie, walks through the door, places her order and immediately starts giving him a hard time.
"Are you getting your life story down, Tony?" she asks, noticing the journalist sitting by his side.
"Yeah, I want to see how it turns out," he quips.
Before Jackie darts out the door, she mentions that she and Jackson are part of a robust and reliable crew of regulars who frequent La Mesa Bistro & Bakery. Every time she shows up, she knows she'll see at least a few familiar faces.
"I call this place Cheers without the beers,'" she laughs.
Two more regulars, Brad Stevens and Celeste Harty, are sitting at a booth behind Jackson and can't resist chiming in, praising the old cowboy as the breakfast-and-lunch joint's unofficial god, due to his omnipresence.
Stevens himself stops by the restaurant at least a few days a week. Harty almost religiously has breakfast at the Bistro every Tuesday.
"There's such a sense of community here," Harty says, agreeing with Jackie's assessment of the joint. "It is kind of like a breakfast Cheers place."
La Mesa Bistro & Bakery is the early-morning version of the old-fashioned, late-night diner depicted in Edward Hopper's famous "Nighthawks" oil painting or described in Ernest Hemingway's A Clean Well-Lighted Place. It's what one imagines the romanticized, old-school, small-town diners must've been like, but with fruit smoothies instead of chocolate shakes.
Located in a bland storefront in a strip mall at 8697 La Mesa Blvd., La Mesa Bistro & Bakery isn't much to look at from the outside, but hidden inside is a warm, cozy place where lonely souls can find friendly faces. Coffee refills are free and the staff don't care if patrons linger. If you hang out long enough, it's hard not to feel the sense of community that the regulars describe.
It's comforting to know that places like La Mesa Bistro & Bakery still exist—restaurants where folks flying solo don't bury their faces in their iPhones and, instead, actually talk to one another. This sort of hub serves as an important, albeit casual, public center of activity and exchange.
Early the next day, Wednesday morning, The Bistro Boys fill the back room of the restaurant. A group of older gentlemen who meet there every Wednesday from about 8 to 10 a.m., The Bistro Boys take advantage of the good food and coffee, but they're mostly there for friendship and conversation.
"This all started when Hank, one of our guys, lost his wife, and I started taking him to coffee once a week," says Joe Hughes, the group's ringleader, who had official "Bistro Boys" business cards made up for members. "Then Chuck joined us. Then Harvey joined us, and, pretty soon, it's 12 or 15 guys every Wednesday morning, and we solve all the world's problems."
There's a framed poster hanging on a wall in the back room that announces The Bistro Boys' weekly presence (a poster they took the liberty of creating and mounting themselves). The boys use the time the restaurant gives them to conduct their own grownup version of show-and-tell. One of the members often brings something from his collection of antique tools, while others bring books, movies or interesting articles to share. Mostly, though, they talk about what they're up to—cataract surgery, hospital stays and other health issues are common topics. Hank, one of the original members, is struggling with double vision and hasn't been showing up to the weekly meetings lately.
"I'm just going to talk to the boys here about how everybody needs to go by and see him," Hughes says. "We'll give him a hard time about crawling into the hole and pulling the hole in after him. We'll get after it and get him back here."
The group of old buddies has turned heads and gained some notoriety over the years. La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid has even been known to drop in on them, using The Bistro Boys as an unofficial advisory council. While politics and more serious conversations do arise, they mostly try to keep things light and just enjoy the community feel the restaurant provides.
Hughes sums it up: "The food's good, the coffee's good and we know all the people."