By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Dining Review
The Longhorn Bar & Grill qualifies as a museum to the late actor John Wayne. His machismo persona occupies nearly every square inch of wall space from the front of the house to past the lengthy bar and into a second dining room named after him.
It’s an insane collection of small and life-size photographs, posters, paintings and statuary amassed by the late Gilbert Ambrose, a devoted fan of The Duke who purchased the establishment shortly after it was founded in 1968.
Its current owners, Paul Bernhardt and his wife, Bettyann, have maintained the quirky flair of the business since buying it six years ago, although they’ve made a few minor upgrades and menu revisions since then.
They added a front patio that is both dog- and smoking-friendly, and also installed additional flat screens throughout the place. In remodeling a wall section in the John Wayne room, they unloaded some of the imagery and sent it into storage. Although with copious amounts of it still hanging, longtime customers have hardly noticed.
“I thinned it out a little because it was on the verge of overwhelming,” said Bernhardt, acknowledging that the imposing collection is intrinsic to Longhorn’s history, not to mention priceless.
Known formerly as Longhorn Café, Bernhardt changed the name to “Bar & Grill” to better reflect its identity as a drinking establishment famous for its burgers. He also upped the number of beer taps from three to nine, and created a cocktail menu that includes Kentucky mules, pomegranate mimosas and a blueberry-peach “white gummy bear” made with vodka and schnapps.
Burgers are available in 10 varieties, including a basic half-pound “longhorn” and a quarter-pound “shorthorn.” The list also features a patty melt, chili burger and The Duke, which gives you a bursting dose of cholesterol via double meat, double cheese, bacon and a garish of two fat onion rings.
Fairly new to the menu are fried spicy green beans, a quasi-healthy starter featuring red chili flakes embedded into the crispy batter. My companion gleefully paired them to a bottle of Guinness, served with his choice of a chilled or room-temperature glass — a gracious amenity that I rarely see offered by our local servers and bartenders.
We also devoured a plate of cheesy bacon tots, yet another recent addition to the appetizer menu that smothers the barrel-shaped spuds in electric-yellow cheese sauce, bacon and brined jalapeno rings. It’s precisely the classic bar grub you come here for.
“We don’t do anything too fancy, but what we serve we try to do it well,” Bernhardt stated humbly while pointing out that the crunchy coleslaw and sweetish potato salad we chose with our sandwich entrees are house-made.
Seated in a cherry-red banquette at the ankles of Wayne towering over us from a gigantic photograph, we proceeded to an albacore tuna melt and turkey Reuben. Both were served on buttery, grilled rye bread and commendably messy; the tuna because of its mayo dressing and juicy bits of sweet pickle, and the Reuben from its decadent slathering of Thousand Island.
Then came a pair of classic fish tacos (priced at $2.50 apiece on taco Tuesdays). Though scant on white sauce, we found the battered, fried cod to be moist and flakey. Better yet, the white corn tortilla shells — probably flash fried — teetered uniquely between soft and crispy when chomping into them.
Other menu items include salads, chicken wings in several flavors, fish and chips, a grilled veggie sandwich, and an 8-ounce top sirloin dinner that includes fries and a choice of soup, salad or coleslaw for only $11.50.
In addition to limited desserts, which equate to a root beer float, chocolate sundae or vanilla ice cream, you get a side of John Wayne trivia no matter what you order. The menus spotlight a few factoids about the Western movie star, whose rugged and inescapable presence at Longhorn is sure to pique your interest if only for the time it takes to slug down a beer, and regardless if you’re a fan or not.
Note: The Longhorn Bar & Grill serves breakfast from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays and Sundays, select holidays “and whenever we darn well please,” as stated on the menu.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his career more than a decade ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.