The Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego is alive with the usual Saturday night crowd as I head to my destination: the Hard Rock Café. The large, lighted sign out front makes the restaurant easy to spot, and the Horton Plaza parking structure conveniently located across the street makes parking a breeze. I cross the street and eagerly walk up to the front doors.
My guest and I are immediately greeted by the friendly hostess, Alyssa, who expertly maneuvers through the teeming and lively restaurant. The first thing I notice is the long bar, filled with an energetic crowd on this Saturday night. We walk through this first part of the restaurant, filled with tables and chairs, to get to a raised dining room where we sit in a cozy wooden booth with a window that allows for stealthy people watching. I notice booths line the windows, while tables compose the rest of this raised dining room. A small stage takes up the furthermost wall. As I look around, I am struck by the amount of rock memorabilia covering every inch of the restaurant walls. Guitars, pictures, records, and even some apparel worn by famous rock stars are encased and on display. Above our booth sits a double neck guitar that belonged to the legendary Jimmy Page.
Alyssa gives us a few recommendations for drinks and starters before she tells us that our server Sheila will be with us in a moment. Not even a full minute passes before Sheila comes bouncing up to our table. With her bright blue hair and bubbly personality, she instantly wins our table over. She thoughtfully recommends a few drinks for the table, pointing out an “Alternative Rock” section full of fruity, non-alcoholic beverages. I order the Blended Mango Berry Cooler and am pleased when it arrives within just a few short minutes. I noted that the consistency was just right as I took my first sip and had the fruity flavors explode in my mouth. While the strawberry was delightfully noticeable in this drink, the pineapple is the real MVP. Looking at the other beverages on the list, I notice that the selection is a long, diverse menu that could easily stand on its own. Hard alcohol, wine, and fruity drinks are all offered in many selections. There are even some small bites for diners that just want to visit the bar within the Hard Rock Café.
While sipping our drinks, my guest and I peruse the menu looking for the most appetizing selections. The long lists of appetizers, burgers, sandwiches, and entrees leave us drooling, but still undecided on what to order. We are happy when Sheila returns to our table and offers her recommendations. We decide to start with the Jumbo Combo—five appetizers and four dipping sauces (blue cheese dressing, sour cream, honey mustard, and barbecue sauce) combined onto one platter. When it arrives, I am unsure where to start. Every item looks amazing, but I reach for the Tupelo Chicken Tender first. Dipping it first in the blue cheese dressing, I take a bite. The crispy breading has enough of a spicy kick to complement the tender chicken inside. I move onto the Santa Fe Spring Rolls next. I am reminded of an egg roll when I first pick it up, but am pleasantly surprised upon trying it that it is filled with ingredients commonly found in burritos. Beans, peppers, and lettuce mingle together to give this crispy, fried roll a southwestern kick.
The Hickory Smoked Chicken Wings beckon me, and I finally give in, soiling my fingers as I greedily snatch one up and bite into the flavorful skin before coming to the tender meat of the chicken. The perfect combination of sweet and spicy makes this version the quintessential chicken wing. The large pile of Onion Rings seems to taunt me, and as I taste one, I am surprised at how easily the onion melts in my mouth. It is clear that it has been cooked just right as it is neither too chewy nor too tender. The breading is perfect: just fine enough to complement the natural flavors of the onion without overpowering it. The last of the appetizers left to try are the Potato Skins. Filled with bacon, green onions, and a blend of melted cheeses, this appetizer is a signature of the Hard Rock Café. As I take my first bite, the soft texture of the baked potato and melted cheese is delightfully interrupted by the crunchy bacon. My companion and I sit back and realize that this appetizer is too big for just the two of us, and resolve to take the rest home.
The ever-cheerful Sheila quickly returns to our table with her recommendations, and it is clear that she, along with the rest of the staff, is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the very diverse menu. We surrender to her expertise and are rewarded when the food comes out in no time. First on the table is the Local Legendary Burger. Each Hard Rock Café creates their own Local Legendary by using regional ingredients and cooking techniques. This one is an A1 Steak Sauce burger topped with crispy bacon and a generous serving of thin Onion Straws. Fresh lettuce and tomatoes complete this burger. Upon tasting it, the juice from the pink patty mixes with the A1 Steak Sauce to give it a flavor that sets it apart from the average burger. The Onion Straws, much like the Onion Rings of the appetizer, have the perfect ratio of breading to onion and definitely complement the fresh flavor of the beef patty. In my haste to get to the tasty burger, I neglect to notice the heaping pile of Garlic Fries on the side. Finally, the aroma of garlic and parmesan cheese wafts up to my nose, making further neglect impossible. Every single fry is covered with garlic, parsley, and parmesan cheese, and we later learn from Sheila that the equal distribution is due to the fact that the fries are tossed. These fries are firm and crispy, not at all like wimpy fast food fries that droop when held up.
Next to be brought to our cozy booth is the Twisted Mac. This entrée comes highly recommended by all of the staff at Hard Rock Café and is one of the most unique dishes that I have had the pleasure to try. Curly, twisted noodles are cooked al dente and covered in a white cheese sauce. The Hard Rock Café puts their own twist on this classic dish by adding bacon, red peppers, and broccoli into the mix and garnishing it with a healthy chicken breast. As we take our first bites of this unique dish, I am struck by the creamy texture of the sauce. The red peppers give a nice little kick to the dish while the chicken, lightly seasoned with pepper and citrus, tops it all off. It is clear that children and adults will appreciate this spin on a classic American dish.
For our next entree, Sheila gives us a taste of something that has yet to be put on the menu: the Texan Pulled Pork Sandwich. The bun of this sandwich is the same as the Local Legendary, however the Texan has a completely different flavoring. The pulled pork, marinated in a barbecue-like sauce that is made from scratch, is topped with a blend of three cheeses and a generous helping of jalapeños just spicy enough to do the meat justice. The flavors in this sandwich are reminiscent of a good old American barbecue. Although this sandwich packed more than enough meat for me and my guest, Sheila helpfully tells us that when this option does become available on the regular menu, diners can opt for even more meat by ordering “The Big Texan.”
The brief lull between the entrees and desserts allows our food to digest while we listen to some classic rock music. In this lull, we meet Stacy, Hard Rock Café’s “Vibe Host.” Her role in the restaurant is to walk around and meet each and every customer. She controls the music and is open to requests, even if they aren’t “hard rock.” Her enthusiasm makes it clear that she loves her unusual job, and it is from her that we hear the interesting story about how the Hard Rock Café began in the 70s. Eric Clapton, a regular, came in one day to find that his usual seat had been taken. Upon asking the owners if the other customer could be moved, he was told that everyone that walks into the Hard Rock Café is considered equal; no special treatment would be given. The next day, Clapton walked in, handed the owners his guitar, and asked them to hang it above his booth to reserve it. It has hung there ever since, and the collection of rock memorabilia as well as the number have Hard Rock Cafes has grown. This location was opened in 1998, lasting over a decade already and making a name for itself in the bustling Gaslamp Quarter.
After her anecdote, Stacy is off to chat with other guests, opening up our table for the incoming desserts. Sheila gives us a quick run down of all the sweets offered for the night, and we pick out three. They come out quickly, and we start off with the two small bites: the Chocolate Mousse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie. Both are rich and delicious, but the former is decidedly lighter and more fluffy. The Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie comes topped with chopped peanuts, making this a delightfully sweet blend of two flavors. Next, we try the generously portioned Hot Fudge Brownie, which comes in an old fashioned dessert glass. A soft, warm brownie is topped with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, walnuts, and a bright red cherry. Each layer is sweeter than the last, and I am delighted that such a flawless dessert concludes our meal.
As we take our last bites, Karissa Decker, the friendly kitchen manager, introduces herself and offers to give us a tour of the rest of the restaurant. We weave through the crowd that has not died down since the beginning of our meal until finally coming to the room that is reserved for large parties. Although this room only sits up to 40 guests, Karissa thoughtfully tells us that different sections of the restaurant, such as the one in which we sat, can be taken out for parties of a larger size. As our restaurant tour comes to a close, all the servers and hostesses give us warm good-byes. We step out into the chilly winter night and can still hear the rock music even after the doors close.
Insider Tip: If you want to skip waiting for a table, look into the All-Access Pass that can be acquired either in the restaurant or on their website. This handy little card allows guests to bypass the line for a table as well as enjoy a lot of other perks.