One weekend last fall, I took the woman for whom I'd fallen to visit two of my favorite places in San Diego, Kitchen Creek and The Whaling Bar: wilderness and civilization. I liked seeing her captivating eyes take them in like black holes absorbing the energies of surrounding stars. I may never know what the visit to the former meant—lunch in a secluded ravine, blackberries on her lips as tantalizing as sweet talk, a screwy accident and a blood-stained T-shirt that I never threw away—but I understand the latter completely: a timeless, perfect moment in a tiny corner of San Diego that had actually stayed classy.
The reason there's nostalgia for the modern era (when most of the stuff we call ìretroî was designed) is not just because it looked better than our postmodern era's crass cheapery, but because even though it was monumentally destructive, it was also productive of ideals like refinement, manners, eloquence, wit, style, grace and chivalry. And also of tangible things like destinations for the intangibles to flourish, places like La Jolla's elegant La Valencia Hotel, the "pink lady," built in 1926.
In the quiet back room of that hotel's stellar bar—at a little, cloth-covered table, topped with fresh flowers and a lit candle, surrounded by red booths, dark wood walls, moody whale-hunting murals and icy, dry martinis after a nighttime walk by the sea—that perfect moment in the perfect place gazing into those unfathomable eyes seems unrepeatable. And not just because of the woman.
In 2011, San Diego-based Pacifica Company bought the hotel and is currently compromising it to monetize it. They should've sought a way to revive the marketability of the classic Sky Room restaurant and Whaling Bar, instead of gutting and replacing them. In the early 1950s, Dr. Seuss and Raymond Chandler sat in those booths, which will now be auctioned off by the end of this month.
So, with The Whaling Bar to be gone the way of The Pelican Room, The El Cortez Sky Room, King Louis Inn and so on, where the hell in San Diego can you still get a martini and be transported to that era before douchebags in baseball caps were allowed indoors? A few old haunts still remain, dear reader. Allow me to present three of them, while they still exist:
Albie's Beef Inn: Albie's (1201 Hotel Circle S. in Mission Valley) and its brother establishment next door, Adam's Steak and Eggs, opened in 1962 and have remained practically unchanged. CityBeat writer Amy T. Granite calls Albie's "the restaurant time forgot." The furnishings are intact, as are those in Adam's (a classic spot for a morning corn cake and Ramos Fizz). The service and food in both are top-notch. The gilt-framed paintings of naked stewardesses by late artist Larry "Vincent" Garrison are the ultimate throwback and a story in themselves. There's piano-bar entertainment Tuesday through Thursday, so Monday is my favorite night—after football on the bar TV, when it's dark and quiet and comfortable and just you and the stewardesses.
Café La Maze: Namesake Marcel LaMaze opened his first café on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in 1935. The flamboyant maître d' liked to hob-nob with movie stars and played poker with the Marx Brothers. The café's primary owner, Tommy Thompson, opened the National City location (1441 Highland Ave.) in late 1941 as a last-chance to gamble—in the secret upstairs gambling room—for Hollywood elites returning to L.A. from Tijuana's popular Caliente race track. The place was busted in 1949 and the gambling stopped, but the joint lives on. I wrote about it for CityBeat in detail last year. Take one of the large red booths in the spacious dining room, dig into your baked potato and imagine Clark Gable upstairs, calling Harpo's bluff over a strong Manhattan or three.
The Red Fox Room: If you're a CityBeat reader, it's unlikely you've never had a drink at the Red Fox. Inside the renovated Lafayette Hotel (2223 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park), the enduring steakhouse / piano bar with beautiful dark-wood décor reassembled from the furnishings of a 16th-century British inn needs no renovation. The young and old patrons come for the swanky atmosphere and stay for it, too. Expect no-frills, cheap drinks, live jazz duos and guest vocalists of varying skill-levels. But don't just do the piano bar; after all, its mainstay for decades, the effervescent Shirley Allen is long gone, even though her absence is a palpable presence. Come for dinner and try the solid old-world fare in the elegant, ancient dining room.