When going out for breakfast with your significant other on a Sunday morning, there’s hungry and then there’s I’ll-feel-like-hugging-you-after-I-eat hungry. When you’re the latter, there’s no resolving to stand on an overcrowded sidewalk for 45 minutes hoping to score the next spot for two at the newest breakfast joint in San Diego. When you’re that ugly from hunger, you go to a place you know. Fast.
For my husband and I, that place is Crest Café in Hillcrest.
We arrived at the Robinson Avenue staple close to noon. A cacophony of conversations billowed out of the front door as we stepped inside. Many of Crest Café’s pews and orange-cushioned seats were filled with customers who had gussied up just enough to look like they didn’t simply roll out of bed.
For a moment, I thought there might be a wait. Thankfully, the concern was quickly dashed by the lovely Cecilia Moreno, Crest Café’s owner extraordinaire. She was on us before I could add my name to the sign-up sheet posted at the front entrance.
“Two?” she asked as she picked up two menus.
My husband and I responded with a nod.
“Right this way.”
Crest Café’s indoor dining area is shaped like the letter L flipped horizontally. It’s an intimate space with one main, and skinny, walkway that patrons and servers use to get from the front entrance to the back dining room and vice versa. In the crook of the L is a glass-bricked wait station. Behind the station is the service window that peeks into the kitchen. Cecilia slinked her way past customers seated at the two-tops in the front of the eatery, turned left at the L’s bend, and led us to a corner table that had a view of the wait station, most of the main dining room, and the local art and photography hanging on the walls.
Within 5 minutes of looking at the menu, my husband decided on Crest Café’s Sunrise Salmon—a scramble with chunks of fresh grilled salmon, chives, red onions, and capers mixed in.
How I envy his response time in these situations.
I was so hungry that I didn’t know what to choose from Crest Café’s bevvy of options. Did I want something comforting and guilt-ridden, like the Apple Amaretto Bacon Bundt French Toast special? Or did I want to go light and healthy with Carolena’s Corn Tortillas, a dish made up of corn tortillas filled with scrambled eggs, fresh salsa, jalapeno jack cheese, and avocado? When I thought I was about to waltz it up with the Breakfast Enchiladas, the Breakfast Cubana Sandwich cut in. Only the performance pressure that comes with the repeated visit of our waiter could narrow down my choice: the Artichoke and Ham Strata. Described on the menu as a freshly baked casserole of artichokes, ham, gorgonzola, Monterey jack, sourdough bread, and a blend of herbs, I thought it would be a hearty salve for my grumbling gut. I was eager to find out.
While we waited for our meals, my husband and I watched the service team at work. As Cecilia refilled ketchup bottles at the wait station, her staff maneuvered around her to grab coffee mugs from cubbies, clear plates into nearby dishpan bins, and commandeer a dish towel to wipe down just-emptied tables. Each treated the airplane-width aisles as though the space were as wide as the front-of-house hallways of Downton Abbey. They moved quickly yet gracefully, never colliding. It was like watching an impressive piece of choreography—bend at the knee, hinge at the hip—minus the jazz hands.
Adding to the staff’s adeptness is their friendliness. One time, years ago, our server dropped a glass of cranberry juice as he was bussing a table. The glass hit the floor and exploded into little shards; the juice burst out in different directions. My husband and I were seated nearby and some of the juice and glass landed near our feet. Though we weren’t hurt or marked, our server came over anyway, dish rag in hand, apologizing for the spill. We assured him everything was all right, that we knew random accidents happen. We went on with our meal, thinking everything was settled. But when we eventually reviewed our bill, we noticed that he didn’t charge us for our drinks. How gracious!
As my husband and I debated the details of this memory—was it a glass or a mug?—our breakfast arrived. Though the large rectangle of Strata took up most of my plate, my eyes were drawn to the heap of strawberry slices, cantaloupe chunks, pineapple pieces, and red grapes splayed next to it. Punctures made with my fork emitted little spurts of juice. Each mouthful of fruit was a delight.
I really wish I could say the same for the Strata. The way it was executed resulted in a dish that was uneven in texture and too even in sodium. The edges of the Strata were cooked well, neither too dry nor too wet, but the middle was a mushy landmine. I imagine I might have eaten around this quality if not for the saltiness that seemed to leap frog from the artichoke to the ham to the gorgonzola.
Bite after timid bite, I hoped in vain for something in the Strata to cut its pucker the way a slow melting ice cube mellows the sting of Scotch. Sadly, the lifesaver resided outside of the Strata, in the fruit served alongside. Maybe if the artichoke and ham contents were reduced by half, the bread in the middle would have a chance to set and the saltiness would subside enough to allow the herbs to stand at attention.
Still, my retreat from my main course allowed me to fully appreciate the luxurious side of berries, melon, and grapes. This was not a dead-on-the-plate type of fruit salad. The pieces were neither dark nor transparent in that way fruit gets when it’s been cut hours before and is left to stale in a punch bowl in a refrigerator. The corners of the cut fruit weren’t dulled and rounded from being tossed every now and again to keep fresh. This fruit actually was fresh, seemingly cut just prior to serving.
It was as though my meal was a reincarnation of my visit years ago, when the waiter dropped the glass of cranberry juice on the floor. The potentially unpleasant was immediately redeemed.
By the end of this visit, I lapped up all of the fruit on my plate. I left feeling healthy. I left feeling full. I even hugged my husband on the way out.
Crest Café | 425 Robinson Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103 | (619) 295-2510
Breakfast served daily and all day. Dine in or take out.
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