By Frank Sabatini Jr.
One of San Diego’s oldest and most cherished restaurants has been reborn. If you haven’t set foot into Hob Nob Hill since Covid reared its menacing head in early 2020, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.
The restaurant, which doubles as a bakery, was given one of the most careful facelifts I’ve seen performed on any old culinary landmark. The drabness that progressed with age has been completely eradicated. So has all of the kitschy bric-a-brac that stood as dust collectors in the main dining room.
To some, such renovation may sound alarming. But rest assured, the building’s history and its spirits of past generations can still be felt somehow.
Now, the walls are white with black trim, a look that beckons mildly to the Art Deco era. Clean lines are reflected in the ceiling beams and molding. Booths and banquettes are freshly upholstered—plus new ones have been added. And in a whimsical touch—a big, colorful mural of characters from the Wizard of Oz dominate a wall at the far end. There is also outdoor seating.
The food is without ego. It always has been. Which is what keeps me forever attracted to the place. I skipped my usual standbys on this recent midday visit: Classic pan-seared pork chops, the reliably joyful Reuben sandwich, the well-endowed French dip, and the turkey and bacon-studded Cobb salad.
As I stressed to my companion before arriving, we are going to explore some of the tempting new menu items. No exceptions. So one of his faves, liver and onions, would have to wait for another time.
As a result, he was rewarded with his first-ever taste of Cincinnati chili. The dish was added recently to the lunch-dinner menu—and with a good level of accuracy and volume.
Hob Nob could have taken a shortcut by using Ohio-manufactured Skyline chili from a can to capture this celebrated, regional dish. Instead, the kitchen prepares its own finely textured, spiced ground beef before interspersing it with spaghetti and scads of shredded cheddar.
Sure enough, the meat carried the hallmark hints of allspice and cinnamon, and with a smidgen of tomato paste used as a rich-tasting binder—just as you’ll find it made throughout the Buckeye State. As our waitress attested, “Cincinnati transplants love it.”
Note: The leftovers I toted home afforded me two additional meals. Priced at $16, we’re talking excellent bang for the buck.
French onion soup au gratin is also a newcomer—perhaps an overdue one considering that it’s ubiquitous in so many old-timey restaurants across the nation. It comes in one large size that is easily shared by two.
The broth sported a clean, judiciously salted flavor. It was capped fittingly by house-made bread and a decent mantle of melted Swiss cheese. Underneath were onions galore, not quite caramelized to their classic brownness, but sweet, tender and thrilling nonetheless.
Fish and chips graduated from “an occasional special” to a permanent menu item, according to our affable, experienced waitress. It featured two medium-size pieces of cod cloaked in thin, light batter, plus a heaping of crinkle-cut fries that took as much of a liking to the pickle-kissed tartar sauce as did the fish.
The order came with a side salad, and a choice of either a pineapple muffin or a big, hot, puffy sourdough roll—both made onsite. We chose the latter and slathered it in softened butter.
It should be known that the remodel didn’t put an end to some of the restaurant’s cherished traditions, such as presenting chilled salad forks to customers on a tray.
Hob Nob Hill dates back to 1944, when it was founded by Kansas transplants Harold Hoersch and his wife, Dorothy. They originally opened the business as Juniper Cafe before changing it to Melody Grill, then Dorothy’s Oven, and finally Hob Nob Hill around 1970. It was some 22 years later when current owner Tania Warchol (and her ex-husband) bought the restaurant and kept all the original recipes.
Despite its fresher look, plus new menu items and a cocktail-espresso bar slinging craft beer and Indo Noir coffee drinks, the restaurant still stands as a beacon for all-American comfort fare. It’s a place where homemade turkey dinners and pecan-lemon pies remain in the offing, but only now in the company of other new arrivals such as loco moco, steak frites, shrimp pasta, and the famed Italian seafood stew known as cioppino.
In addition, happy hour is held in the bar area from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, when you can score a variety of libations and small plates ranging from $4 to $7.
Hob Nob Hill
2271 First Ave. (Bankers Hill)
Prices: Breakfast dishes, $9 to $18.50; Lunch and dinner: starters, $8 to $16; burgers and sandwiches, $12 to $17.50; entrees, $13 to $26