A slice of Vista’s past was being served Tuesday over biscuits and gravy at Mom’s Kitchen, once knows as Allen’s Alley Cafe.
While a lot has changed over the last 70 years around Vista, Mom’s Kitchen has not. So, the biscuits and gravy were flowing at the town’s oldest, continuously serving restaurant much as they have since, at least, 1950 when it was known as the Top Notch.
“That’s definitely one thing we’re known for,” said owner Charlie Harb as customers crowded in the small, downtown restaurant around 11 a.m., a few years ago, many clamoring to climb aboard the biscuits and gravy train.
“We’ve got menus from when it was the Top Notch Cafe from 1950-1968,” Harb said. “Then it changed to the Rainbow Restaurant and became Allen’s Alley around 1971. I found some of the old menus in a box of old stuff in the back.”
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The old menus provide a historical record in a town whose history is mostly of the very recent variety. After all, Vista only had 8,000 residents at the end of World War II and 17,000 to 20,000 residents when John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.
“Yes, it’s true that Allen’s Alley has never closed all those years,” said Anne Marie Cox, former director of the Vista Historical Museum. “It’s the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Vista. I get the biscuits and gravy and its the best in the world, not just the best around here.”
Allen’s Alley’s menu featured a history of the restaurant plus pictures of it as the Top Notch whose motto as printed across a downtown map was “we’re behind everything.” And Harb retained his collection of vintage menus to bedazzle customers.
Witness the Rainbow Restaurant’s old menus featuring $1 deluxe beef burgers with French fries and tossed salad — cheese was 10 cents extra — as well as $1 spaghetti with meat sauce dinners and 15 cent coffees.
Or the original Allen’s Alley menu where deluxe burgers rose in price to $1.65 and then $1.80; chicken-in-a-basket with fries was $1.95 and a counter Tab or Bubble Up was two bits, or a quarter for those post-dating the 1960s.
As well as a little message handprinted by magic marker on the front of the menu that reached for the poetic to describe this restaurant’s character: “You don’t need to thank us…Nor laugh at our jokes. Sit deep and come often. You’re one of the folks.”
Consider, then, the Eisenhower era cement block walls, memorabilia and customers who date back almost that far. Consider the feel of the 20-foot-wide place with its narrow counter and cluster of indoor tables: the modern Vista crowd crowds in the 124 Hanes Place slice of Americana on a regular basis from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
“We serve about 200 meals a day on weekdays, more on weekends,” Harb said. “Dinners and breakfasts break down pretty evenly on weekdays and more heavily toward breakfasts on weekends.”
As Harb spoke, Irene Potts, over from Oceanside with her husband, offered from the next table that she liked the place because, “It’s friendly; a family restaurant where everybody talks to everybody even if you’re a stranger.”
Potts said she had been coming to the place since the mid-1980s, a sentiment immediately echoed by Trudy Grover and Harold Locke, both sitting at the counter, soaking up some biscuits and gravy. Those biscuits sell in the $8 range these days.
“I used to work here,” Grover said. “Charlie is a good friend. He’s modest and doesn’t tell you everything. When I needed a lung transplant eight years ago in April, they let us use the parking lot for a rummage sale to raise money.”
Harb smiled. He was eating Mexican tortilla soup brought over by a special server. That would be Fred Harb, Charlie’s father, who continues to work at the cafe along with Alicia Harb, wife and mother respectively.
Fred Harb owned the Corner Deli at 2nd Street and Ash in downtown San Diego before retiring to Oceanside. Together, the Harbs bought Allen’s Alley Cafe for $125,000 in 1985.
“Business has been slowly climbing through the years,” Charlie Harb said. “Weekends are extremely busy, especially on the patio outside. But definitely the one thing we’re known for is the biscuits and gravy. That’s always been a part of the restaurant, and we’ve continued the tradition.”
Sure, Biscuits and Gravy Quarterly — yes, such a newsletter existed — was published in Newhall, and editor Jack Lamb calls Allen’s Alley “really something,” adding, “On atmosphere alone it scored high…The honest truth, I’ve never had such hot coffee and grub in one sitting.”
But Harb and family weren’t resting entirely on the past as Allen’s Alley headed into the future. Allen’s Alley, closed Friday Dec. 29, 2017.
Mom’s opened the next week. The menu hadn’t changed, the cooks, kitchen staff and the current awesome servers were there to take your order of their World Famous Biscuits and Gravy, and any of the other delicious items on the menu.