Given the prominence (dominance?) of the automobile in San Diego, I'm surprised by the lack of classic roadside diners. You know the kind: stainless steel prefab structures that resemble railroad dining cars (hence the name "diner"). Because I love diner food: unpretentious comfort food, breakfast at any time of the day, and a counter to eat at (ya gotta have a counter!). But we do have a few genuine diner-style restaurants worth their meatloaf. Now, if only we had a Waffle House in town...
1. Chicken Pie ShopA genuine San Diego institution and one of my all-time favorites, Chicken Pie Shop in North Park has been serving cheap, tasty comfort food forever. I think some servers and customers have been here forever. Why? Because of those chicken pies (actually turkey), crusty, meaty delectable pies smothered in gravy. Yum. And service is fast - I've sat at the counter, ordered a pie and finished in 10 minutes (OK, I inhaled the pie, but so what?). 2633 El Cajon Blvd., San Diego 92104,(619) 295-0156.
OK, now we're talking genuine diner: all steel and chrome and bay windows. Studio Diner is a true roadside diner, located off the beaten path on the grounds of the Stu Segall studios ("Veronica Mars"). Refurbished with a movie studio theme, Studio Diner is sleek and slightly upscale, featuring comfort food tweaked ever so slightly, in a delicious way. The pot roast and meatloaf are can't miss. Plus, it's open 24 hours. 4701 Ruffin Road, San Diego 92123,(858) 715-6400.
If Rudford's had chrome instead of stucco, it would be a genuine diner, because it has the bay windows and mid-century signage. In any case, it's a landmark (and just down the street from the Chicken Pie Shop). Basic comfort fare here, which gets mixed reviews. But if you have a hankering for a burger or breakfast at 3 a.m., you go here because it's open 24 hours. 2900 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego 92104, (619) 282-8423.
4. Perry's CafeLocated just beyond Old Town, near the I-5/8 interchange, Perry's Cafe is a trucker's type of diner. I think it used to be an old Sambo's (remember that forgotten chain?), and it has a devoted clientele. They swear the pancakes - along with the other hearty fare - at Perry's are the reason you keep coming back. 4620 Pacific Highway, San Diego 92110, (619) 291-7121
Housed in what used to be an old Denny's (or was it a Sambo's?) on a busy stretch of West Washington Street in Hillcrest, Brians' American Eatery serves classic comfort fare in a nicely refurbished setting. The booths and counter stools are retro acqua cool, and the prices and portions are worthwhile. The eclectic Hillcrest neighborhood makes it interesting for people watching. And they serve cocktails, too. 1451 Washington Street, San Diego 92103, (619) 296-8268.
You want a genuine Jewish deli? Look no further than D.Z. Akin's in La Mesa. It's not exactly a diner per se, but it might as well be. Just off I-8 and 70th Street, this is the real deal for kosher sandwiches, meals, breakfast, baked goods - you name it. If you think the sandwiches are huge, just look at the menu! Want a knish? A black and white cookie? Real corned beef on rye? The best matzo ball soup and potato salad this side of Manhattan? 6930 Alvarado Rd. San Diego 92120 619-265-0218
This cozy cafe in the heart of Hillcrest is a local favorite and one of the city's best kept secrets. The food is delicious, the service friendly, the portions fine - comfort food at its best. Parking is tough, but find a spot a few blocks away and stroll the nighborhood. It's worth it. 425 Robinson Avenue, San Diego, 92103, 619-295-2510.
8. Brothers Family Restaurant Brothers Family Restaurant, located in decidedly middle class Allied Gardens, is the type of diner that every neighborhood should be required to have. It's a place that serves up straightforward comfort food - nothing fancy, just good, homestyle stuff. There's nothing fancy about it - people just love it, from seniors to families, everyone is happy. It's not open very late (dinner is served on selected days), but if you're in the neighborhood...5150 Waring Road, San Diego, 92120, 619-287-0880.
I know, it's more a deli than a diner, but who am I to quibble? City Deli qualifies because it offers comfort food with that New York deli vibe, is open late, and has the requisite vinyl booths. It just doesn't have the drive-in parking lot (hey, who does in the middle of Hillcrest?). But if you need a hefty sandwich with a city vibe late at night, this is the place. 535 University Ave. San Diego, 92103,(619) 295-2747.