Lines out Grand Avenue, tears on half-eaten cinnamon rolls, Champion’s Family Restaurant was scheduled to wrap it up Friday, Jan. 29, the future be damned.
Friday was going to be a kind of Escondido Mardi Gras Day, a carnival of anticipation, regret and last hurrah before the inevitable All Souls Day and Lent.
As word got out last week that the family-owned American cuisine institution was closing its doors, food fans from throughout the region gathered for just one more bite. As a neighboring restaurant manager noted, nothing like a final closing to boost business one last time.
While it wasn’t surprising, then, that a great downtown legend was generating crowds upon its demise, the breadth and depth of emotion of those who came was an unexpected development.
Starting at 6 a.m. and continuing through 2 p.m., Champion’s fans came from near and very far to celebrate corned beef has and get in that final bacon and eggs breakfast before they, and it, had to go.
Seated at the very end of the long lunch counter, two very distinguished gentlemen illustrated the connection of past and present that helped make Champion’s a place that connected community even as it served up healthy portions of food and fanfare.
They were childhood buddies still connected to escondido even as their paths diverged. David Overstreet, global staff pastor for Temecula-based Every Generation Ministries broke bread with Jeff Felix, superintendent of the Coronado Unified School District. Each had grown up in Escondido, starting off before even Champion’s existed.
Overstreet said he stopped in with his long-time friend for one last meal before heading the next day to Romania on a pastoral mission where he would head a 30-person delegation of hope. Felix still lived in Escondido, but was headed south to his school district from which he retires this year.
“I’ve had the opportunity to come here since 1967,” Overstreet said, “when it was McCain’s, even before Champion’s. When Oscar and Eva (Champion) came in, they didn’t change that much, kept it as a great place where you could sit and enjoy.”
Overstreet and Felix considered the changes along Grand Avenue, changes that perhaps culminated with the closing of one of the last remaining homages to a time when Escondido was a small town with big dreams on the road from the Inland Empire to San Diego.
“Hoffman’s Pharmacy was across the street,” Overstreet continued. “JC Penney was down the block. We used to sneak out of Escondido High School and come down here.”
Pointing to a posted menu on the wall, Felix added: “The hardest part is missing some of the people here who were regulars. Dottie used to work here for years and they still have a Dottie’s Special. John’s Omelette — the chef’s name was John and Annette (Chapman, owner) was always yelling out at him, but not really.”
Meanwhile, in the long line outside, where waits could be up to an hour this last week before the end, Cal State San Marcos student and Escondido resident Doug Burnham brought a party of six with him,, including Steven Wade, whose first Champion’s visit was destined to be his last.
“We like Champion’s” Burnham said. “It’s a great restaurant. I’m 28 (years old) and have been coming here since I was five years old.” Said Wade: “We all were coming over here and I wanted to check it out.”
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 and history.
“There gave been millions if cups of coffee served at 117 Grand Avenue for the past ninety years,” the menu, with page after page of food choices and historical photos, 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 and corned beef and hash be damned, the final days at Champion’s Family Restaurant. If one can, enjoy.