Frank Sabatini Jr. | Downtown News
Waterfront Bar & Grill
2044 Kettner Blvd. (Little Italy)
Prices: Breakfast and brunch, $6.25 to $9.99; lunch and dinner, $6.25 to $12.95
If you traveled back in time to 1933 and moseyed down lower Kettner Street, you would likely encounter the mirth from a little tavern filled with people celebrating the end of Prohibition.
With whiskey flowing and sandwiches selling for five cents, you might also end up rubbing elbows with the grandson of President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Waterfront Bar & Grill goes down in history for acquiring the first liquor license in San Diego after the nation went dry for 13 years. Launched by Chaffee Grant, who remained a discrete partner because of his famous grandfather, and a shipbuilder named Clair Blakley, the bar’s ownership changed hands a few times until current proprietor Nancy Nichols acquired it in the early 1980s from her father, Melvin Miller.
In earlier days the Waterfront was a magnet for fishermen and blue collar workers. It also lured judges and lawyers who would poke in for liquid lunches from the nearby courthouse. Today, that same demographic has made room for hipsters, bikers, police officers, business types, you name it.
The bill of fare spans from the bar’s signature half-pound burgers smothered in grilled onions to recent additions like seared ahi and meatloaf sandwiches. Local beers also enter into the equation along with specialty cocktails and a few old-school brandies that oblige mostly to longtime customers.
“We’ve always stayed with the trends,” says Chad Cline, a grandson of Nichols’ who co-manages the landmark property with his cousin, Jason Nichols. “But the pictures on the walls prove our age,” adds Cline, referring to bounteous photographs of fishermen who became regulars when San Diego ranked as the tuna capital of the world. An effigy of a fisherman hovering over the entrance lends further tribute to the bar’s original patronage.
And then there is the curious urn perched on a high shelf at the end of the bar. It contains the ashes of Howard Bass, a devoted customer who came in daily to enjoy a bottle of red wine on the sidewalk patio. Indeed, his love for the place over many years remains unmatched.
A friend and I took to the same patio on a recent visit, kicking off our lunch with a piling of chipotle cheese fries speckled generously with tender carne asada. So good, that a little gangster bird swiftly snatched a fry from my companion’s hand as he raised it to his lips. Dining anywhere al fresco, I’ve always maintained, comes with its fair share of comical incidents.
Visiting the Waterfront without getting a burger is sacrilege. The kitchen slings a few hundred of them a week, using ground beef that’s a little higher than normal in fat content. The result is a juicy patty that moistens the bun with supreme flavor while pairing swimmingly to a top layer of soft, grilled onions, should you opt specifically for the house burger.
Italian-style fish and chips are also a hot seller. The plate features a few pieces of Alaskan pollock that are breaded in seasoned bread crumbs from Gibaldi’s Bakery down the street. Nothing like the thickly battered English versions, this is more similar to fish served on Fridays in taverns throughout the Northeast: dry, herby and crisp on the outside; steamy, thin and delicate underneath.
We also tried the new meatloaf sandwich garnished with arugula and tomato aioli.
My companion thought the wide slab of meat tasted a little like Italian sausage while I detected a smoky pork flavor. It turns out the beef is mixed with ground bacon and a few secret spices for extra swank.
Other savories tailored for drinking include crafty grilled cheese sandwiches, one of them using cheddar with cranberry wheat bread, plus Tijuana-style fish tacos, Philly cheese steaks and hearty chili constructed with pinquito beans that originate primarily from California’s Santa Maria Valley.
The Waterfront opens daily at 6 a.m., when it starts greeting early birds with standard breakfast fare. Given its staunch following procured over multiple generations, the beauty of the place is that whether customers are toting briefcases or tackle boxes, everyone seamlessly coexists.
Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of Secret San Diego (ECW Press), and began writing about food two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. He has since covered the culinary scene extensively for NBC; Pacific San Diego Magazine; San Diego Uptown News; Gay San Diego; Living in Style Magazine and The Gay & Lesbian Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.