By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Heartfelt sentiments expressed for a revered Mission Valley steakhouse
Mary Machado is facing one of her most difficult work shifts as a waitress next month.
After working 23 years at Albie’s Beef Inn — the iconic Mission Valley restaurant famous for its prime rib, potent cocktails and paintings of topless women — Machado will complete her Wednesday-evening routine for the last time on Dec. 23, when Albie’s closes for business after a 53-year run.
“That’s the night of the week I always count the money, deposit it, and turn off the lights. It’s going to be tough,” she said while choking up, adding that the restaurant is where a co-worker introduced her to a regular customer 10 years ago who would become her husband.
Albie’s and its sister establishment, Adam’s Steak ‘N Eggs, which will also close, reside in front of the Travelodge. The hotel and restaurants were recently purchased by San Diego Historic Properties CEO Cathy Herrick in preparation for a multimillion-dollar makeover to the hotel.
Herrick has already chosen a restaurant tenant to replace Albie’s, although she said via email that the new tenant asked her not to reveal its identity until January.
Albie’s owner Ted Samouris said it wasn’t financially possible for him to enter into a lease agreement with Herrick. He purchased the restaurants in 1988 from real estate developer Al Stadmiller, who opened the establishments in 1962.
“She [Herrick] was asking for triple of what I’m paying, and wanted me to pay the insurance and property tax on top of that,” he said. “She never came off of her numbers.”
Herrick confirmed that her proposal was firm.
“I would have preferred that Ted stay but he did not believe he could afford the rent that others have no problem paying,” she explained in another email. “He currently pays less than $1 a foot, which is the lease rate of 30 years ago in Mission Valley. I offered him $2 a foot for the first year, going to $3 a foot the second year.”
Samouris said he intends to look for a different location with the goal of recreating Albie’s retro dark-paneled atmosphere, which he says will include the bar lounge’s collection of 20 portraits of topless women, supposedly stewardesses from Pacific Southwest Airlines when it was in operation.
He refers to the softly lit paintings as “the nudies” or “the girls,” which have remained a curious draw to customers ever since Stadmiller commissioned a local artist to create them. The artist, now deceased, left behind no clues within the restaurant about any connection to the flight attendants.
But in a recent discussion of the artwork in the 919 Gang, a daily newsletter published by former San Diego Union-Tribune employees, Michael Kinsman writes that Lawrence Garrison of La Mesa was the artist. He reported that the artwork revolved around one woman, a young model who lived next door to Garrison in the early 1960s, and said the artist would sometimes use other faces in her depictions.
Machado says of the paintings: “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me about them, I would have retired long ago.”
Another prized embellishment is one Samouris installed in the late 1980s, a taxidermy marlin stretching across the brick fireplace in the rear dining room, where the wait staff has served thousands of steak and chicken Parmesan dinners from metal pushcarts over the decades.
“My wife, Sophia, caught that on our honeymoon. I never took her fishing since,” he quipped.
When news broke recently of Albie’s upcoming closure, both loyal and fleeting customers took to Facebook and other social media to express their love of the restaurant. In addition, a petition titled “Save Historic Albie’s Beef Inn!” on Change.org was launched by musician and graphic designer Demetrius Antuna.
“It was one of the first places I visited when I moved here in 1996 from New Jersey,” Antuna said. “Some friends brought me there to see what they called ‘cool local culture.’ I loved the ambiance and the paintings, and my wife and I have done birthday and anniversary parties there a couple times a year.”
The petition has exceeded 2,600 signatures, although Antuna said he will close it down by the end of November, realizing that his effort is now moot since Herrick has signed a new tenant.
“But I will still export the signatures to her anyway,” adding that the petition “has definitely made a difference for Ted’s last remaining months in support of him finding a new home.”
Local chef and caterer Andrew Spurgin calls Albie’s “a warm sweater with no pretense — like walking back into 1965.” He was first introduced to the restaurant in 1974, when his parents brought him there to celebrate his 16th birthday.
“It was a fancy place to go at the time. And I’ve been returning ever since for the prime rib and those whole carrots cooked in sugar water. I usually visit with my clique on open-mic nights, and I always order a Gibson with extra onions,” he said, recalling an evening when an older gentleman brought in a coronet and “kicked it out of the water. You never knew what you were going to see there.”
Spurgin plans on returning in the coming month for a tribute visit he’s organizing with several fellow chefs.
“The place has an emotional attachment for a lot of people,” he said.
Aside from Albie’s well-attended New Year’s Eve parties and celebrity sightings over the years, which have included the likes of daredevil Evel Knievel, musician Mel Torme, actor Ray Romano, and numerous athletes and politicians, one incident in particular remains etched in the staff’s memory books as the most outrageous.
“We heard a loud crash,” Machado recalled. “A car had driven into the hotel’s swimming pool right behind the dining room. The driver accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake. He wasn’t hurt, but the pool water was littered with baseball notes and statistics he kept inside the vehicle.”
Machado said she will dearly miss the family feel of working at Albie’s.
“Our customers know us, and we know them. We’re all a little sad,” she added.
Samouris is pondering what type of customer-appreciation events he’ll organize prior to closing.
“I don’t want to do anything special on the last night because it will be mayhem anyway,” he says, noting that his two sons, Nick and Theo, have contributed to the success of Albie’s by working sporadically as hosts and busboys.
“My wife has been helping out lately too. You tell people you’re closing and you get real busy.”
—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 email@example.com.