There are bars, and then there are bars. Most of us go to neighborhood taverns for the drinks, ambience (or lack thereof), conviviality and not much more. Food in many of these lounges is often an afterthought, something I can attest to after an evening of bar-hopping with four pals. One place offered only a bag of cashews or beef jerky for $2.50. Not all was nuts, however.
If the idea of a nighttime, noisy, chock-a-block scene is more than you can bear for a burger and a drink, then think about lunch. You'll see a whole new bar scene of workers, suits and old-timers. This is the first of occasional columns on noon meals in neighborhood bars, most of which are San Diego institutions. Order ahead for take-out if the bar isn't your thing.
Nunu's in Hillcrest is a neighborhood lounge where, when the door opens, people at the bar turn to see who's coming in. Not much has changed here since the '40s, when it opened as a lounge restaurant called Cosmos, then became Bono's and then, in 1978, Nunu's. Ten large studded-and-tucked red leather booths line the mirrored room, '70s Tiffany-style lampshades light the tables, and the food is terrific.
Once in, veer right and then left to the walk-up window to order food. The kitchen, separate from the bar, is serviced by The Corner Stone Grill at Nunu's, with owner Wesly Raja cooking up everything from mile-high burgers and straightforward tuna sandwiches, to homemade greaseless beer-battered onion rings, BLTs and jumbo shrimp cocktails.
When Raja delivered my Ortega chile, bacon and cheeseburger on a whole-wheat bun, a bar regular turned and said, "Bet you can't eat it all," but three of us did. It's huge and arrives with a knife plunged into the bun to cut through the nearly 4-inch stack of ground meat, fresh tomatoes, red onion, green leaf lettuce, mayo and pickles. We also downed a tuna sandwich, carnitas soft taco on a flour tortilla with chopped cilantro, onions and tomatoes and zippy salsa and onion rings, all for $22. Most items range from $6 to $7.50, tacos $2.50 and shrimp dishes a dollar or so more. 3537 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest. 619-295-1258. Breakfast Saturday and Sunday only, from 9 a.m. No food service on Monday.
I took my trainer to Rocky's Crown Pub in Pacific Beach. An institution? Absolutely. You go to Rocky's for three things: burgers, fries and beer. Period. This place is a great example of a simple concept very well done that draws an eclectic clientele of house painters, businessmen and women and locals. It's a classic wood-paneled room with pictures of the Chargers and other sports figures scattered on the walls, brown bar stools without backs, nine televisions with a baseball game on and no servers-just the bar gal who takes your order, calls your name, runs a tab and collects when you leave. Bring cash; Rocky's doesn't do plastic.
You'll find the menu written on chalkboards on the wall. Choose one of four burgers-one-third-pound hamburger or cheeseburger or a half-pound hamburger or cheeseburger and a side of fries. That's it. The meat is flavorful, and my guess is that you don't bother asking for it medium-rare-these burgers are not the kind that'll send juice running down your arm. They come with mayo, a slice of red onion, tomato, lettuce and pickles on the side. Mustard and catsup bottles and a stack of napkins are all you'll need. We didn't love the fries; though crisp, they're the frozen kind that lack flavor. Burgers run from $4.50 to $5.75, and fries are $2.50. The Monday-through-Friday lunch special features a one-third-pound cheeseburger, fries and a large beer or soda, all for $8.95. 3786 Ingraham St. at La Playa Ave., 858-273-9140. Open from 11 a.m.
Little Italy's Waterfront Bar, the oldest tavern in San Diego, as the website says, isn't a typical dive bar. Not den-like, here you'll find glass doors open to outdoor seating, so as the temperature warms, lunching in the sun makes for a nice option. Sit inside and you can amuse yourself watching one of six televisions or glancing at the walls loaded with fishing, sailing and old San Diego pictures. At lunch, the crowd is all-ages, some in back playing pool, businessmen making deals, even a grandma out with friends.
The menu lists many half-pounders, most $6.25 to $8, including fries. My Ortega-chile burger came with good meat, lettuce and tomato, a basket of condiments (no catsup bottles here) with pickles, mayo, catsup, mustard, relish and peppers. I prefer Nunu's for the same price. The Charlie Jones chili is made with pinquito beans grown in Central California (as noted on the menu) and was a not-too-spicy satisfying mix served with sour cream, cilantro, onions, salsa and jalapenos. The Waterfront also serves breakfast. 2044 Kettner, Little Italy. 619-232-9656.
Patrons of the long-running Fifth and Hawthorn Restaurant can soon enjoy the restaurant in its new home, Hawthorn's Restaurant in North Park. Expect a May 1 opening inside the renovated Stephen and Mary Birch North Park Theater. The menu will emphasize local and artisan producers and California wines served in the lobby bar and restaurant. 2895 University Ave. at 29th St., North Park. 619-544-0940.