By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Not long after Terryl Gavre opened Cafe 222 a few blocks west of the Gaslamp Quarter in 1992 did her attractive, angular face begin appearing on billboards throughout San Diego. If it wasn’t for the round waffle tipped perfectly on the crown of her head — like a chic saucer hat from the 1940s — people would have assumed she was the new glamour model for Lamcôme Paris.
Gavre was instead flipping eggs and whipping up waffle batter seven days a week at her new whimsically decorated cafe, which blossomed into a nationally recognized breakfast-lunch destination for locals and tourists alike.
It had been a few years since I ducked inside for some “green eggs and Spam” or Gavre’s famous pumpkin waffle, which was featured in Gourmet Magazine. Later, her peanut butter and banana-stuffed French toast would snag the palate of Food Network’s Bobby Flay in an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
But it isn’t the cafe’s limelight that should steer you here so much compared to Gavre’s reliably homey food. Her inherent knack for cooking and baking dates back to working in restaurants since the age of 15, and to a food-catering business she ran afterwards for affluent bachelors in her native Seattle.
In addition to Cafe 222, she co-owns Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant, and operated two former East Village ventures: Bake Sale Bakery and ACME Southern Kitchen.
‘Tis the season I recently came knocking for that pumpkin waffle as a prelude to my favorite Thanksgiving pie. Though available year round, the waffle carries pretty much the same ingredients as a scratch-made pumpkin pie — canned pumpkin, eggs, milk and the requisite spices.
The waffle’s thin, crispy veneer leads to a smooth, fluffy texture inside. You can order it with whipped cream, butter, or both. For an optimum experience, go with the latter.
House-made corned beef hash was recently reinstated. I ordered it with two eggs over-medium, and thick-sliced rye toast that was super fresh and airy. (The breads are sourced from the fabulous Galasso’s Bakery in Riverside County.)
Strewn with tender potatoes and sauteed peppers and onions, the shredded corned beef holding everything together sported a nice crust. But it tasted under-brined. I couldn’t detect so much the meat’s classic curing spices such as coriander, peppercorns and mustard seed.
Considerably more flavorful was the new “Mexicana” sandwich melt that I toted home for later. It’s among seven other “melts” on a lunch menu that’s available from 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Thinly sliced turkey, not of the watery ilk, is layered inside buttered and grilled sourdough bread with melted jack cheese and a soft Ortega chili. There might have been some sort of seasoning lurking in there too. Either way, it made for a terrific and filling sandwich despite its simplicity.
The melts come with a choice of Caesar or chopped salad. I chose the latter after seeing a fresh batch made in a big silver bowl only a few yards from my table. The romaine lettuce was fresh and crispy, and the porous house-made croutons sucked in the creamy dressing that’s also made in-house.
Other breakfast and lunch choices include seven other types of waffles, such as one fortified with house-made granola. There are various egg scrambles, including an Italian version with pesto, tomatoes and goat cheese; assorted pancakes featuring an orange-pecan version that shouldn’t be overlooked; and chili made with meat and beans.
Cafe 222’s staffers are consistently efficient and courteous. And within these cozy confines — adorned with swag chandeliers and retail merchandise such as packaged waffle mixes and kitchen magnets flaunting Gavre’s famous waffle head photo — there aren’t really many places servers can hide. (The cafe also offers outdoor seating on a two-sided patio.)
On days that lines form, usually on weekends and when big conventions roll into town, the wait pays off with homespun fare, fast service, and perhaps some new ideas for edible fashion.
222 Island Ave. in Gaslamp
Prices: Waffles, pancakes and French toast, $9.25 to $13.50; egg scrambles and breakfast specialties, $11.25 to $15.95; soups and salads, $4.25 to $12.25; sandwich melts, $9.95 to $13.95
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.