By Jack Hamlin / Special to the OB Rag
Had Edward Hopper painted an antithesis to his famous Nighthawks, it would have been something akin to O.B.’s Old Townhouse Restaurant on Newport Avenue. Forget the melancholia of late night, the Old Townhouse has an atmosphere of combustibility, and with it, an energy found only in small town gathering eateries.
From the well worn and comfortable blue vinyl cushions and practical formica countertops, to the clatter of white porcelain cups and plates, place settings which are guaranteed to have at least one bend in the knife, fork or spoon, and the various, yet familiar, smells floating from the kitchen, it lets the patron know he is in for a filling meal and perhaps some even better conversation when he enters. It is most likely the atmosphere which was recognized and featured in the short-lived series “Terriers,” and other film projects such as the noir film, “Fatal Heir.”
Admittedly, I am breakfastee at the Old Townhouse, having worked about half-way through the breakfast menu, so I cannot speak to the lunch menu. I have yet to find a meal which I did not like, but very few of which my cardiologist would approve. Among the hash browns, cheesy multiple egg omelets, biscuit & gravy, and bacon, sausage or ham breakfasts, conspicuous by their absence are croissants, yogurt, sprouts and mueslis. In fact the closest to vegetarian fare you will find are pancakes and French toast, laden in butter and dripping, if you choose, with syrup.
And if you believe the owner, Ted Caplaneris, it is the way things will remain. “There’s no parsley on our plates.” His favorite? The mushroom, ham and cheese omelet, which of course comes with a side of hash browns and buttered toast (biscuits and gravy are a buck extra). You can fancy-up the bottomless coffee at $1.75 with cream and sugar, but don’t look for a chai latte.
Recently I had an opportunity to sit with Ted and talk about the Old Townhouse. We met in his “office,” the only two person booth in the back of the restaurant, aptly beneath a large sign which reads, “No Sniveling.” A sort of second generation owner and manager, Ted and his wife Kathy, an Aussie from Melbourne, have run the restaurant for the past eight years. Before that, Ted’s brother and sister ran the restaurant, after taking over from his mother and father who purchased the restaurant in 1973.
Ted’s parents, Chris and Soula, immigrated to the East County from Greece some 41 years ago with Ted who was five years old. After an attempt at running their first restaurant, they purchased the Old Townhouse. Through “stealing” menus from other restaurants and trial and err (according to Ted, mostly err) they hired another Greek ex-patriot cook to help them get off the ground. And the rest, one can say, is OB history. Ted’s mom still works mornings and his Dad engages in “see/go management,” coming in periodically to give his advice, stir things up and leave.
Ted proudly points the fact, and rightly so, his employees are locals and longtime. In a time of transient employment, one waitress, Ramona has been with the restaurant twenty-five years, two of the bus boys have twenty years each, and both cooks have fifteen years at the grill. And I have yet to meet any surly faces among any of his employees.
So too are the regulars customers, long-timers. Ted tells me his favorite aspect of the restaurant is the fun people. Regulars, like Ed who dropped by the office, has been coming into the Old Townhouse for over twenty years. Ed even carries his own note which he places carefully over his coffee so it will not disappear as he heads to the lavatory in the back. Ted sees parents bringing in their children for breakfast, and as the ages shift, children bringing in their parents, carrying on a family tradition of sorts. My dad enjoys our Thursday mornings there and highly recommends the corn beefed hash.
As with any business in OB, the tourist season is a great boost, but Ted takes it a step further. He likes to think of himself as an information booth of sorts and gladly gives out his mobile number to visitors to our little burg. The day after our talk, I sat at the counter with my dad. The folks next to me were annual visitors from Arizona and have been coming to the Old Townhouse since the seventies.
But the economy has impacted the Old Townhouse. Ted tells me his suppliers have had to raise prices five times in the past two years, and it has been a test to keep his prices the same while trying to find the equilibrium to keep the restaurant a reasonable living for his family, while taking care of employees and customers.
With the price range for a hot breakfast starting at $3.50 for oatmeal, or $3.75 for a hotcake or piece of French toast to the most expensive item of a heart-stopping meat lover’s omelet at $9.75, I believe he has found that equilibrium. So too for the lunch menu which averages around $6.00 for a hot or cold sandwich up to most expensive item on the menu, a strip steak sandwich at $10.75. As Ted told me, most of his customers substitute one the Old Townhouse meals for two “regular” meals during the day. This I can vouch for, the meals are a great bang for the buck.
Rather than become miserly, though, the Old Townhouse stays active in the community. Ted points to the fact the restaurant holds events to raise money for Sacred Heart and St. Charles Academies on a yearly basis. And while he sees the growing homeless population in O.B. as problematic, he says so without acrimony. While we talked, Dusty, a long time street person wandered in around closing. Ted told Malori, the newest waitress to the family, to fix him up with a couple of biscuits and gravy and a soda on the house.
Open seven days a week, from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., with its seating capacity of fifty almost always full, I asked Ted why not dinner. His response was In OBeachian. “I want a life. How much money do you need anyway?” Future plans do not include a chain of Old Townhouses, but rather new carpet and fixing up the hood up in the kitchen. The menu has expanded over the years to include a few Mexican dishes, but that is about far as it is going to.
Trading duties with Kathy affords him the time he needs with his two young sons, Nicholas and Christopher, which is one of the ways he keeps his life focused and real. The other, small stakes poker. “I love cards,” he unabashedly admits.
All in all, the question of, “got breakfast?” emblazoned on the restaurant’s black t-shirt “uniform,” can be answered the minute you decide to walk through the door of the Old Townhouse Restaurant. And the answer is, “yes, indeed.”
For further information about the Old Townhouse Restaurant check out the following sites:
Our Old Townhouse Group on FaceBook – http://www.facebook.com/groups/41206203575?ap=1
Old Townhouse Web Site – http://www.oldtownhouserestaurant.com/
Terries – http://www.clicker.com/tv/terriers/
The Fatal Heir on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZDsulSSC5g
Commercial with Ted Caplaneris in it on YouTube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TWMojf0Mjk
Ed Bedford article in The Reader – http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2010/mar/31/tin-fork-seagull-management/