By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In terms of age, Tobey’s 19th Hole Restaurant is basically on par with The Waterfront Bar & Grill, having opened only a year later in 1934 a few miles away within the Balboa Park Municipal Golf Course, which was formerly known as The Rock Pile. Aside from being one of San Diego’s oldest kitchens, it has also ranked among the most hidden from some of us who don’t know the difference between a putter and a 9-iron.
“Until around the year 2000, about 75 percent of our customers were golfers. Now it’s the other way around,” says Steve Tobey, adding that his late grandparents, Chester and Lois, grossed $9,000 from meal sales in their first year of operation.
Tobey’s father, Earl, took over the restaurant in 1969. He had previously cooked for a general in the South Pacific during World War II while serving as a staff sergeant.
“He was a good cook. Everyone used to come in for his short ribs, lamb shank and the Monday specials of meatloaf and roast beef, which still remain.”
Tobey jumped into the business at an early age to assist his father, who passed away in 2010. As chief proprietor, he recently began grooming his son, Chris, to eventually take over the restaurant, which is leased from the City of San Diego.
Tobey’s marketing efforts over the past several years have prompted an increased number of non-golfers and retro-foodie types to take the winding ride down Golf Course Drive for meal service that runs from 6 a.m. to sunset — and 365 days a year.
“We only missed one day ever because of the 2003 Cedar Fires,” he added.
Visitors are greeted first by a central lobby filled with old photographs capturing how the land looked more than 60 years ago. There are enough of them to warrant a museum exhibit, so do a little browsing.
Inside the restaurant is a lunch counter seemingly frozen in time. To the right of it is the main dining room and balcony, which face out to sweeping green lawns and the San Diego skyline. The big-window views duly compensate for the stark (and refreshing) absence of modern design elements.
Breakfast is served all day, and lunch runs from 11 a.m. until closing. Since a friend and I arrived in the hang, we ordered a little of each.
Tobey’s is one of the few restaurants in San Diego that makes traditional corned beef hash from scratch. The meat is roasted in-house, then finely ground and mixed with shredded potatoes that are boiled daily. Plenty of wilted onions are also tossed in, resulting in a fluffy hole-in-one hash sporting appealing, crusty edges.
Top sirloin is used for the steak and eggs. The cutlet was trimmed of fat, yet tender and well-marbled. We chose house-made potatoes O’Brien for the dish, which tasted crazy-good when dribbling them with the spicy green salsa created by one of Tobey’s cooks. So zesty and complex, we actually doused nearly everything else with it: our eggs, a serving of hearty meat-and-bean chili and an accompanying cheese roll.
The chicken fried steak, however, stood fine on its own. Served with green and yellow beans as well as real mashed potatoes, the obligatory white gravy on top is commendable. It escapes the vapid, pasty ilk common in other places, thanks to proper seasoning and chunks of sage-y breakfast sausage strewn throughout.
Tobey’s is a green-enveloped shrine to food that is nostalgic and unpretentious. It has withstood the test of time while cranking out such other dishes as Denver omelets, grilled ham steaks, biscuits and gravy, liver and onions and cod fillets.
Beer, wine and low-alcohol cocktails are also in the offing, qualifying it as a true “19th hole” destination for those avid golfers who have long advanced off the putting green.
—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.