Driving through downtown Hillcrest, I notice that there are quite a few little eateries; in fact, there are a lot. The area is well known in San Diego for being a district of unique, independently owned businesses. The downtown Hillcrest neighborhood caters to every generation with a sense of adventure and discovery, which has lead to a variety of bold restaurants and bistros in the area. Maneuvering down Robinson Street, I can see a restaurant in just about every other building along the narrow road. As my eyes rove the roadside for my destination, my destination jumps out at me from the mélange of storefronts with its brightly colored pink and blue exterior and neon sign out front that reads: “Crest Café.” This little restaurant has grown quite a reputation over the past two decades for serving comfort food that’s as fresh and healthy as comfort food can possibly be, along with some of the most inventive breakfast, lunch, and dinner around.
I stand outside, staring at the decidedly pink paint and neon sign, trying to think of what the exterior of the restaurant reminds me of, and only one thing comes to mind: A 1950’s surfside diner. The space was turned into a “Mom and Pop” restaurant in 1982, and became the Crest Café in 1985 when it was purchased by Luis Moreno. At the time the restaurant was purchased, Mr. Moreno was working with Food Maker, a local company that was famous for starting the “Jack in the Box” franchise as well as the Boat House in San Diego.
The fresh and organic California cuisine at Crest Café is inspired largely by Luis’ mother and father, natives of Mexico, and Luis’ native California. The current owner and manager is Cecelia Moreno, Luis’ daughter, who began working at the restaurant shortly after college. Luis’ son used to be a dishwasher at the restaurant when it opened, and then worked his way up to run the kitchen. Luis Moreno still comes in to work at the restaurant for his daughter from time to time, a practice that makes Cecilia smile when she mentions it. She kept the concept but expanded the menu and the physical confines of the restaurant, adding a bar at the front of the restaurant. Cecilia says she still gets older customers that come in and tell her that they used to visit a dentist’s office where the bustling café now sits.
The neon light and bright colors scream of a Malibu of yesteryear, and continue to shout it as I enter the restaurant. Immediately the blues and pinks and greens on the walls and floor tiles excite my senses and bring me to the welcome area by the door, which features the sign-in book and comment cards. As I glance up from the book I see a small bar near the entrance that holds wine, beer, and an espresso machine. While the restaurant is more independent than most of the bigger fine dining establishments in town, they manage to present a good selection of domestic and international beers as well as wines by the glass and bottle. The colorful pink and turquoise bar accentuates the diner feel even more as I am whisked back to a table by a passing server.
I’m shown my table and sit on what looks like a long wooden bench that stretches across one of the walls of the restaurant; there are also other small tables and even a couple of comfy booths scattered around the restaurant. I lounge for a moment, acclimating myself to the seat, and another familiar sensation flows through me as my veteran years at Catholic School recognize the feeling in my posterior: church pews. The pews – which I found out later had been there quite some time – had been taken from a church and bound together to form elaborate bench-like seating throughout the restaurant.
As I adjust in my seat, reacquainting myself with a long forgotten piece of furniture, I gaze around the restaurant. The bright hues of pink, blue, turquoise, and green cover the restaurant, along with a menagerie of interesting decorations, all of which were donated by customers and each of which has its own story. There is a collection of beautiful, scenic photographs on one wall that seem crisper than they would look in reality. There is also a collection of dog-related paintings that pops up around the restaurant, including a painting of New York City with various breeds of humanized dogs that represent each area of the city.
While sitting and browsing the menus, I glance over and see the owner/manager, Cecelia Moreno, wiping down a table as she looks over with a warm smile and friendly wave. Since I arrived at the restaurant around noon, there is a lunch/dinner menu and an all-day breakfast menu to browse through, each one packed with so many appetizers, salads, omelets, pastas, and sandwiches that it’s tough to make a decision. Some of the dishes that jump out immediately are the beer battered Onion Loaf, Boobies (linguini with ham, pears, and pecans in a gorgonzola cream sauce), Adobe Pork Chops rubbed in homemade adobo chili paste, and a Butter Burger that’s stuffed with parsley butter, topped with parsley butter, and then rounded out with garlic mayonnaise and spices. Since the restaurant opens at 7am and closes at midnight, there was a demand to offer the breakfast menu all day, and apparently it has become so.
One very unique appetizer jumps out at me off of the page, as it is one of the restaurant’s specialties: Cheese Butta Squares. They soon arrive alongside my glass of fresh tangerine juice, and look like grilled cheese sandwiches on multi-grain bread. Upon my first bite, however, I realize they’re filled with gorgonzola cheese and much, much more. The first bite is filled with the sweet taste of pear mixed with the gorgonzola, making it very sugary. With the next bite I taste the salty, tangy combination of sun dried tomato and gorgonzola. After that, the sweet pear and sun dried tomato combine with the cheese to create a symphony of slightly tangy sweetness that I’ve never tasted before. The butter on the bread adds a salty taste and the crunchy texture ties the whole dish together.
With my appetite whet, I decide to sample some dishes from the all-day breakfast menu, starting first with the Ortega Omelet. I watch as it makes its way from the kitchen via the pass-through window that offers a glimpse of the action. It arrives at the table with a side of hash browns and wheat toast; all of the bread used at the restaurant comes from Bread and Cie, probably the best bakery in all of San Diego. The omelet is toasted golden on the outside and warm and fluffy on the inside, with pepper jack cheese dripping out as I press my fork in making thick slices of browned sausage clearly visible. I take a bite loaded with cheese, spicy chicken sausage, and Ortega chile and the flavor invades my senses. The spicy sausage and chile create a mild heat in my mouth, but not so hot that I’m scrambling for water. The tang of the chile, tomato from the salsa fresco, and pepper jack cheese is wonderful alongside the taste of fresh egg. The hash browns are also excellent; golden brown and crispy on the very top, smooth and warm on the inside.
The next breakfast dish to come is the Tuscan Benedict: Eggs Benedict with an Italian twist. I instantly notice that the sun dried tomato and herb sauce on top has a reddish hue, almost matching the pink of the restaurant walls. As I cut into it, I realize that instead of an English muffin underneath all the sauce, egg, and ham, there’s a warm and fluffy croissant -- a very nice surprise indeed. Also to my delight, I observe that instead of Canadian bacon, there sits two thickly cut slices of baked ham that are bursting with flavor. I’m, at this point, filled with foodie excitement as I cut into the eggs to find that they have been expertly poached: A thick shell of soft egg white encasing gooey golden yolk. The sun dried tomato sauce tastes flavorful and rich and the secret herbs that are added lend even more flavor to the cream sauce. The fresh flavor of the asparagus spears complements the sauce nicely and the whole flavor experience is unforgettable. Even the side of breakfast potatoes –clearly hand cut- is fried to a crisp, golden brown, and tastes great when dipped in the creamy sun dried tomato sauce.
As I move from breakfast territory into the lunch and dinner menu, I begin with Cecelia’s Chopped Salad, which is a spinach salad topped with turkey, mango, walnuts, gorgonzola cheese, jicama, and apple. The salad arrives in a large bowl and it takes me a moment to get past all the fresh accompaniments to get to the spinach. The walnuts are huge, the jicama flavorful, and the apple crisp and refreshing. The thick bits of turkey are seasoned with a mystery blend of spices and tastes naturally fresh and delicious. The most impressive ingredient is the basil dressing, which nicely spices up the spinach greens. I’m also very impressed with how well the salty gorgonzola and the spicy dressing play together.
After the salad is whisked away comes a special for the week: Macaroni & Cheese with bacon, chicken, and broccoli, baked casserole-style and served with a fresh garden salad. This special is unique from the regularly featured Macaroni & Cheese on the menu, and I am glad to be able to have it. Cheese sits baked on the top of the dish, sealing in all the heat and making the cheese inside ultra melted. The quality of the bacon used in the dish is excellent: thickly cut strips that have been fried crispy, not crunchy, overflow with the flavor of cheese as well. The chicken used in this dish – and all the other dishes – is of the highest quality and locally sourced. It’s thick, not chewy, with a smooth texture and bursting with natural, organic flavor. It too is cut into thick strips and the taste gives a respite from all the cheese flowing in the bowl. The broccoli serves the same purpose; its fresh, clean texture adding a crisp taste to all the cheese and helping to achieve an ideal balance with hearty and healthy.
Already staggering from the mass of food I’ve eaten, the meal ends with a bang: East Texas Fried Chicken. Before my adept and attentive server Kent even sets the plate down, I can already see thickly sliced jalapeno protruding from the buttermilk coating surrounding the chicken breast. The massive helping of meat is accompanied by a heap of mashed potatoes and dark gravy. The first thing that strikes me is how incredibly light and flakey the buttermilk crust is when I cut into it. It is a combination of buttermilk, garlic, jalapenos, and Tabasco, which, as I soon find, makes for an incredibly savory and spicy mix! The chicken helps neutralize a bit of the spiciness and again I am in awe of how great the quality of the meat is at the Crest Café. The boneless, skinless chicken breast is incredibly soft and easy to cut through, while still remaining thick and juicy. The “mashers & gravy” are also delicious, with the potatoes coarsely mashed and some of the skins still visible in the swirl of creamy white. The gravy is very dark and smoky tasting, obviously made from quality beef stock and, together with the mashed potatoes, creates an ideal side dish for this mountain of Southern cuisine.
I and the wooden pew groan in unison as I head for the exit. They have quite the list of delectable desserts (some homemade, some from an amazing company in LA called La Mousse Desserts), but I was far too full for dessert and coffee. After sitting and gazing at the décor while dining, hearing the history of the restaurant, its patrons, and its design, the restaurant takes on a new, familiar feeling. I understand why so many families, couples, friends, and neighbors have come back again and again, year after year, and why they will continue to do so. As I walk out the front door I actually read a few of the customer comment cards tacked to the wall and smile at the kind words that have been imparted on this place that has become a warm place in so many people’s lives.