Crab Fever Express steams into old Champion’s space

Crab Fever Express opened with no fanfare on Monday July, 10 at the historic Champion's restaurant building, 117 W Grand Ave, Escondido/The Grapevine

Crab Fever Express, so-called, rolled without fanfare into downtown Escondido on Monday, July 10, with nary a whisper into the historic building home for decades to Champion’s Restaurant followed by a spectacular if ill-fated run as Rosie’s Diner.

Unsullied by the vagaries of customers during Wednesday lunchtime, the sixth restaurant trying to find the charm at the 117 W. Grand Ave. building that began serving up burgers, coffee and fries as the Chat-o-Chow in 1923 featured an eclectic, yet seemingly savory menu. One could find a variety of boiled seafood and New Orleans-style choices side-by-side with straight-up teriyaki dishes.

Sign of the times at Crab Express Fever/The Grapevine

Crab Fever’s suddenly sprouted web page at displays the full menu with the admonition, “Crab Fever serves a wide range of seafood including Lobster, Shrimp, Crawfish, snow crab, mussels and more. We specialize in boiled seafood using original cajun spices and fresh ingredients. Crab Fever provides a fun and relaxing dining experience for each guest where they can have a delectable southern seafood experience.”

The newest dining experience disclosed in all of the Hidden Valley even has a brand spanking new Yelp review site with two anonymous 5-star reviews. Records showed the property changed hands from the Champion family to G&T Investment Group LLC of 13208 Lamia Point, San Diego, registered along with Crab Fever Express, to Junqing Chen.

While not quite Rancho Santa Fe prices, a Crab Fever dinner runs about $20-$30 minimum with small servings of gumbo and soup at fairly substantial price-points. And despite the best-intentioned makeover efforts of Food Network reality TV’s Chef Robert Irvine and Restaurant: Impossible at Rosie’s Cafe, Crab Fever’s interior features none of the historic or comfort food dinery touches. The interior looks more out of El Cajon or Chula Vista.

Champion’s street scene, January 2016/The Grapevine

The Champion Family owned and operated Champion’s, renowned for its cinnamon rolls and classic Americana cuisine from 1972-to-2016. They also owned the building. Owner-manager-chef Annette Champion said she wanted to retire and lease the space to another restaurant carrying on the tradition.

This brought forth the once promising, yet star-struck Rosie’s, owned and operated by the irrepressible Kaitlyn Rose Pillsbury. She steered Rosie’s through two years before a hit-and run driver tragically slammed into her motorcycle at a Vista gas station just days before Christmas in 2019.

Pillsbury’s bubbly personality and new take on an historic restaurant presence attracted reality TV producers. She teamed up with Chef Irvine for several heartwarming episodes of his Restaurant: Impossible franchise.

Rosie’s Cafe now in business although the signage isn;t quite there yet.

Unfortunately, Pillsbury’s injuries, plus the onslaught of Covid a few months later killed Rosie’s Cafe. The space remained empty for almost two years.

Rosie’s Cafe opened in December 2016. Rose was an Oceanside resident formerly attached to French Bakery Cafe, a well-known bakery and fancy American comfort food spot off East Vista Way in Vista.

The 117 W. Grand Avenue location had been owned and operated as a restaurant since at least the early 1920s. Hoffman’s Pharmacy was across the street. JC Penney was down the block.

“It started out as a cafe known as the ‘Chat ’n’ Chew,’ then changed hands and names several times before it was taken over in the 1970s by Ted and Violet McCain, who introduced Ted’s grandfather’s signature cinnamon rolls to his customers,” according to Pam Kragen in the San Diego Union Tribune.

Enter Oscar and Eva Champion, who turned it into Champion’s Family Restaurant..

Champion’s old menu read like a trip down memory lane with page after page — 28 pages in all — of historic photos and references mixed with food choices and history.

“There have been millions of 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.

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