Tough to cull the sweet from the bitter this week as customers at Grand Avenue’s landmark, iconic Champion’s Family Restaurant ate their last meals with tears flooding food-splashed eyes.
Like the condemned with no remaining reprieve, customers bade sad farewells to all that tasty comfort food with final portions of signature corned beef hash topped off by to-die-for cinnamon rolls.
Come to represent the heart and foodie soul of Escondido, the Grand Avenue restaurant that care, and calories, forgot was holding sort of a soft closing, the future be damned.
No “official” announcement has been made that the venerable, 44-year culinary institution was closing its hallowed doors for good, and worse, on Jan. 30. None apparently was needed. Word of mouth sufficed.
“So sad, so sad,” Grace Brouwer said with a look of the condemned as she ate “what I always get, bacon and eggs; and, of course, cinnamon rolls,” adding, “We’ve lived here 32 years and we’ve been coming here 32 years. We don’t go out a lot, but when we do, we come here.”
That was the sentiment, and word of the day — sad —as throughout the jam-packed restaurant, many of the food faithful came to celebrate the legend and, oh by the way, get in as many meals as they could before the grill slammed shut.
“So, so, so, so, so sad,” said Katie Cox, a San Diego Zoo Safari Park employee leaving the restaurant where she had gone with her father, David Cox, a retired security systems executive. Her dad was last seen clutching a tin foil-wrapped cinnamon roll, and iPad in his left hand.
“That’s five ‘so’s’, with sad,” Katie Fox continued with emphasis. “It’s going to be hard to replace this.”
David Cox added: “My jaw dropped when (owner Annette Champion) told me she was closing. It seemed like it had been here forever. I’ve been coming here since I moved from San Jose in 1995. Where am I going to get my cinnamon rolls?”
On and on, the litany of loss let loose with barber Andy Granger and his wife Chemene Granger, who manages Andy’s Barber Shop next door, noting they saw people they hadn’t seen for years passing by on their way to the end of an era. “They’re waving when they pass by, saying they’re not here for a haircut today, just have to go to the restaurant,” Andy Granger said between clip-clops.
After making sure the very private Champion was good with the announcement, the Grangers sent out e-mails to barber shop customers on Sunday, Jan. 17 pertaining to barber shop hours, but adding, “On a side note, we’ll be saying goodbye this month to a long-time business neighbor, Champion’s Restaurant. Sadly, they’ll be closing before the end of January.
“Champion’s has been a neighbor to the barber shop for 43 years,” the note continued, “and we never imagined we’d be operating without them next to us.”
Meanwhile, inside feeling outside
Sitting at the long, old-timey lunch counter, Escondido educational administrator Austin MacKay said he brought cousin, and Escondido firefighter, Forrest Payne to brunch today, and probably the morrow after that and after that through the end of the month.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a baby,” MacKay said. “The quality of the food is impeccable. I found out about this two weeks ago and have been bringing friends here every day since.”
Mum was the word from employees, many of whom have been Champion’s mainstays for years and even decades. It was the ultimate in hands-on, mom-and-pop dining service seemingly forever as this day Annette Champion cooked on the grill even as mass quantities of food went out the kitchen door and into the packed restaurant beyond.
Champion, and others, freely used the word “bittersweet” to describe the final moments before the last hurrah. As she grilled corned beef and flipped eggs under a sign that had a line struck through the words “no whining,” Champion said, “It’s been a pleasure to feed Escondido the last 44 years. It’s been an honor. I appreciate everyone who came in here and my working staff who stuck by me all these years.”
This didn’t appear to be a case of bad economic fortune or higher rents, though. The restaurant, by all accounts, continued to be cooking up a storm. Champion also owns the valuable downtown building in which it is located and said it simply was a matter of personal choice to close. She declined to say what the building had in store, but that’s a story for another day, anyway.
Rather, Champion, 52, said she simply wanted to retire and move on to another stage of life apart from the 80-seat labor of love. “I’ve been getting up at 4 a.m., six days a week for 31 years,” she said rather sadly. “It’s time to slow down, retire and enjoy life. I hope people understand. It’s been a long run.”
With that, Champion waved off further queries, as she kept the food line moving and tried to keep emotions in check.
A brief history of the place that time forgot
Champion’s menu reads like a trip down memory lane with page after page of historic photos and references mixed in with food choices.
“There gave been millions of cups of coffee served at 117 Grand Avenue for the past ninety years,” the menu, with page after page of food options and historical data, said. “First called the ‘Chat-o-Chow,’ the lunch counter served as the center of the city gossip and small town politics from 1923, when Escondido’s population was 1,734 residents, to 1948.
“In the mid-1960s, the diner was refurbished into a traditional family restaurant by Mr. & Mrs. John Knowles who operated the eatery until then former Escondido Mayor Theodore ‘Ted’ McCain purchased the business and building and the early 1970s he and his wife, Violet, moved ‘McCain’s’ to a new location.
“It was in 1972 when Oscar and Eva Champion brought their Burbank business ‘Oscar’s Rite Spot’ to its new home at 117 Grand Avenue and renamed it ‘Champion’s Family Restaurant.’ Today, Oscar and Eva’s daughter, Annette Champion continues with her parents’ belief that ‘There is no substitute for quality.’”
And so it goes, cinnamon rolls, corned beef hash and history never-to-be-forgotten, the final days at Champion’s Family Restaurant. If one can, savor and enjoy.