Popular Uptown mainstay got its start Downtown
Morgan M. Hurley | Downtown News Editor
San Diego Chicken Pie shop is celebrating its 75th year in business, and customers on April 19 – 20 joined in the fun with a jumbo-sized cake and card to sign, as well as special offers.
The iconic restaurant, with a large collection of paintings and antique ceramics depicting roosters and chickens adorning its walls and shelves, has had four homes in its 75 years.
The first Chicken Pie Shop opened in 1938 at Fifth Avenue and B Street, Downtown. A second location opened during the 1950s, with a short stint at the southeast corner of Fifth and Robinson avenues in Uptown. During the next decade the Downtown pie shop closed and the Uptown location had moved across the street to the northeast corner, spending nearly 25 years in the spot where Starbucks operates today.
In 1990, new owner-partner John Townsend moved the business to its current location on El Cajon Boulevard in North Park, where the restaurant expanded in square footage and continued to thrive.
After Townsend died in 2011, his wife Lynn took over, redecorating, painting, getting new lights for the parking lot, opening for breakfast and expanding the menu, which now includes a variety of pastas, steaks and salads.
One menu item she has not changed is their “Famous Chicken Pie Dinner,” which, for $7.50, still comes with a hearty chicken and turkey pot pie, mashed potatoes and chicken gravy, the vegetable side of the day, coleslaw, a roll and one slice of eight different dessert pie options.
Daily specials are also still in place, with their rolled chicken tacos on Wednesday nights and fish tacos on Fridays.
Lynn Townsend said the employees are the heart and soul of the establishment, many having worked there for decades. Manager Linda Real, who started as a server in 1981, said the restaurant’s primary baker, Steve Mercado, is the longest-standing employee, having baked his first dessert pie in 1955. Shalia Costello has been serving the restaurant’s customers the longest; she started at age 18 in 1976.
Mercado, who said he started baking for the first Uptown pie shop at age 14, has nothing but fond memories during a lifelong career at the Chicken Pie Shop. One of his earliest recollections is the time he was sent Downtown to teach the kitchen staff how to bake the fruit dessert pies he had just perfected.
Still proud of his ever-popular dinner roll and dessert pie recipes, Mercado said the chicken pie recipe came from original owner George Whitehead; it is a recipe Mercado has guarded for almost sixty years.
“George said ‘never change the recipe. If you change something, the chicken pie shop will be gone’. So I’ve tried to keep everything the same,” Mercado said, adding that John Townsend was his “best friend” and is sorely missed.
Townsend’s son Bob, a local golf professional who runs the San Diego Golf Institute at Mission Valley’s Riverwalk Golf Club, also helps out when he can and was on hand to greet customers during the anniversary celebration.
“Most of us have been here over 20 years,” Real said. “It’s a great place to work, we serve quality food and we’re serving the people we know.”
San Diego area customers have stayed loyal to the Pie Shop for decades, as indicated on the card made available over their anniversary weekend near the restaurant’s entrance, asking guests: “When was your first visit?”
“Since 1940,” wrote Lloyd Lewis.
“First time on Fifth & Robinson in the ‘70’s,” said another.
“1970, I was 8. Great pies,” wrote Summer W.
“Happy 75 years we’ve been coming since the late 80’s,” wrote Betty and John Wright.
“1964 at the Hillcrest location,” said Doug Mooney, Jr.
“We were right here the day Reagan was shot. Sad day, but memorable,” wrote Jim & Kathleen and boys.
Lifelong friends Needa Cole, Diane Merrell and Ellen Reidel have been coming to the pie shop since 1947, when it was located Downtown. “Our mothers were bus drivers during the war,” Cole said. “We’d all hop on the bus and take it to the Chicken Pie Shop.”
Some wrote on the card that it was their very first time, including a couple that drove from Scripps Ranch after seeing a segment on the local news. Though hundreds of longtime repeat customers turned out for the three-day celebratory weekend, Real said she was surprised by the number of “first-timers” she spoke to.
“The anniversary weekend was a lot of fun,” Real said. “It’s amazing we are still here after 75 years. It says a lot.”
The San Diego Chicken Pie Shop is located at 2633 El Cajon Blvd., and is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. For more information visit sdpieshop.menutoeat.com or call 619-295-0156.