Most diners think they have dined. Most think they have had good service. Most think they know what ambience means. Most of them are wrong because most of them have not yet been to the Imperial House Continental Restaurant.
To begin with the beguiling, visitors to the Imperial House enter through an actual foyer, a capacious, comfortably lit, tastefully decorated reception area that divides the dining room from the lounge as a dining room and lounge should be divided. When one enters, one should not be in a rush. When dining well, grace and decorum call for patience. Allow yourself time to be greeted properly by the Maitre d', Felix Galindo. It's worth it. Señor Felix has been at his post since the Carter administration, and in that time he hasn't been ruffled once. To say he is charming is an understatement. In fact, he is nearly obsequious. One has to think his gratuitous welcome is just an act, but if it is, one doesn't care.
The dining room is open for lunch only from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays. Tuesday through Friday it's open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Saturdays, it's open for dinner only from 5 until 9 p.m. The somewhat erratic schedule seems to reflect the fact that in the last decade of its lengthy tenure as one of San Diego's finer establishments, the dining room business has slowed considerably, a fact that baffles this reviewer. But facts are facts, and the Imperial House's modest patronage is a fact that bodes well for any diner who wants fine cuisine and attentive service in a quiet environment that recalls an age gone by.
The east side of the dining room looks out upon the edge of Balboa Park along Sixth Avenue and offers high-backed, red, nearly leather booths and chairs that create a private atmosphere at one's table, perfectly suited to a first date. Don't put your napkin in your lap. That's your server's job, as is the prompt delivery of bread, butter and various other snacky-poos that you won't be able to resist. But don't fill up too quickly. You will want to stay hungry as long as possible.
On the lunch menu there are eight hors d'oeuvres. Try the mock turtle soup a l'Anglaise at $4.25. You won't regret it. There are eight different salads, but you can get salad anywhere. Don't waste your time. If you feel like a sandwich, try the French dip with fruit, cottage cheese or fries at $9.95. The grilled Reuben at the same price is a nice second choice. If you bring a good appetite, go for either the grilled mahi mahi or the black pepper fettuccine, both under $13. No matter what, you'll be out for under $20.
On the whole, however, going to the Imperial House for lunch is like going to Italy for a meatball sandwich. It might be fun, but it isn't necessary. Dinner, on the other hand, is a must-do. Of the incomparable hors d'ouevres, the blue point oysters, smoked salmon and caviar, coquilles St. Jacques and escargots are all worth the price, under $14 each. There are four types of pasta, all good, but they're not what you want. Skip down the menu to the seafood. If you are so inclined, the market-price broiled lobster is prepared perfectly, and the swordfish, at $23, is a steal.
If you're looking for steak, there are five basics under $27. However, the Steak Dianne, prepared tableside with sautéed scallions, mushrooms and bacon in sherry and Anna potatoes at $27.50 is your best bet. Just behind that, at the same price, is the roast rack of lamb jardinière and the chateaubriand bouquetiere for two at $52. No matter which way you go, don't miss the cherries jubilee, served à la flambé at tableside by Señor Felix himself. At $7.50, it's a show worth seeing.
If you feel like dining more casually, or if you just need a good drink at a great price, visit the cocktail lounge, open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. until business wanes, and Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m. For its swankiness, its service and its style, it is the best-priced and best-stocked bar in town. Although bar manager Dave Eckhart calls it “come as you are,” wear something with a collar; it's a classy joint.
The expansive wine cellar is little-known and under-appreciated, particularly by bar goers like this reviewer who head straight for the Scotch. Dave stocks 15 different Scotches. Of them, the best is the Bunnahabhain, a 12-year-old, single Islay malt that, at $5.25, is under-priced.
The dance floor shares the center of the lounge with some 10 tables seating four apiece, surrounded on one side by semi-private booths, and on the other by a long bar usually stuffed with a dozen regulars. A private room that can seat 20 for dinner or host 40 for cocktails is available at no cost, but call ahead to make sure it isn't booked.
Fridays and Saturdays feature live music with keyboardist and song stylist Rick Lyons, from 7:30 p.m. until well after midnight. If classic rock is your thing, you'll love it.
Imperial House is located at 505 Kalmia St. in Bankers Hill. 619-234-3525