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Four San Diego Restaurants with a Vibrant Past

Hotel Del Coronado
Courtesy Photo

If you’re hungry to experience San Diego’s vibrant past, dig into some of the area’s best historic restaurants, serving up the ambience of yesterday, while catering to the palates of today.

Go back in time at The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant on 2660 Calhoun St. in Old Town. It was built in the 1820s as the home of San Diego pioneer Juan Bandini. After Bandini’s death, stage coach line owner Albert Seely, added a second story and opened it as The Cosmopolitan Hotel in 1869. Over the years, the building lived through various incarnations, and in 1968 it became part of the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. New ownership has brought an extensive remodel, enhancing the modern amenities while restoring the gentility of its past.

The restaurant’s menu, served by a period-costumed wait staff, focuses on American grill specialties including delectable Apple Cider Glazed Pork Cheeks, and interpretations of signature Mexican dishes such as Pozole, a hearty pre-Columbian soup made with hominy, meat, and spices.

Partner/owner Catherine Miller recalls a day several months ago when, in unplanned synchronicity, the great-great-great-great grandson of Juan Bandini and Albert Seely’s great-great grandson each visited the Cosmopolitan a few minutes apart! The two had never met, and Miller was able to arrange a lunch for them the next day. “It always amazes me,” she notes, “How interconnected the past and present are at The Cosmopolitan.”

The Hotel Del Coronado on 1500 Orange Ave. has enjoyed the status of a grand beachfront resort since opening in 1888. Its iconic Victorian architecture, with red shingled and turreted roof, has served as a backdrop for movies, and played host to legendary celebrities and 11 U.S. presidents. In 1920, the most notable guest was England’s Prince of Wales, who, when king, notoriously gave up his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, whom he may have met at the Del,because she lived in Coronado at the time. Other notables who frequented the Del included L. Frank Baum, who not only wrote some of his Wizard of Oz books while staying there, but also designed the chandeliers in the Crown Room, where today, the tradition of elegance continues with a weekly spectacular Sunday Brunch.

These days, at 1500 Ocean, the Del offers a contemporary destination restaurant within the landmark Victorian structure. Chef de Cuisine Brian Sinnott’s menu features fresh, regional food and wine selections. Luxurious dishes, such as the rich Diver Scallops, nestled among peas, beech mushrooms and carrots with a tangy caper-raisin emulsion, are beautifully enhanced by the stunning ocean views.

In La Jolla Cove, the romance of dining lives on at Brockton Villa, with cliff-top oceanfront views, the comforting ambience of an historic home, and an excellent aroma lingering in the air during a summer sunset. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the restaurant at 1235 Coast Blvd. was built as a weekend cottage in 1894 by a San Diego physician, who bought the oceanfront lot on the then-barren hillside for a whopping $165. The bungalow was named by its next owners, whose family hailed from Brockton, Mass. For the next century, the cottage was home to various occupants, including a woman in the 1940s who kept a piano-performing pet turtle. Brockton Villa was renovated and adapted for use as a restaurant, in the early 1990s and awarded the prestigious Orchid Award for its pristine preservation and distinctive renovation.

Today, Executive Chef Mareyja Sisbarro presents a menu of coastal cuisine emphasizing fresh and seasonal ingredients. The signature “Epic Chowder” is loaded with sea clams, blue crab, bacon, Yukon potatoes and saffron cream, while the famed Coast Toast, soufflé-like French toast with a sophisticated orange essence, makes breakfast worth getting up for.

On October 15, 1910, the luxurious U.S. Grant Hotel, built by the son of President Ulysses S. Grant for an astounding $1.9 million, opened its doors in a lavish celebration attended by California’s social elite. Its signature restaurant, The Grant Grill, opened in 1951 and quickly became the home of power lunches, where the city’s movers and shakers would meet to conduct business while sampling mock turtle soup and exceptional cuisine. Make that the male downtown elite, as women were prohibited before 3 p.m., until 1969, when a group of female attorneys staged a "sit-in” and proceeded to return during the span of a year until the policy was reversed. Today, “the Grant Grill invasion” is still applauded as a turning point in San Diego’s history, and a brass plaque commemorating their feat is on display outside the Grant Grill’s lobby entry.

Now, classic elegance meets the flavors of today at this recently renovated bastion of sophistication where all are welcome. The original Grant Grill mock turtle soup is a must-try, as is the succulent local California Sea Bass with sweet potato puree or, for lunch, crab cake sliders lightly kissed with yuzu aioli. Nightlife gets sophisticated in the GG Lounge, where you can sip classic cocktails and enjoy live music at San Diego's original speakeasy, an urban and grown-up alternative to the frenetic youthful downtown scene.