Longevity is a coveted prize in any business, so congratulations are in order for Del Monte Cafe for hitting the big three-oh.
The building that houses the San Luis Obispo landmark dates to 1919, when it was opened as a barber shop. It had a longtime run as the neighborhood’s Del Monte Grocery but was standing vacant when the Collins family assumed the yearlong task of turning it into a restaurant.
“We gutted the condemned building down to the shell,” remembered Debbie Collins. “Essentially we took it all down and brought it all the way back up.”
In the process, the building also had to be turned slightly to fit building codes, but keeping the historic look throughout was a priority, “so the inside walls and the parapet are still original.”
Del Monte Cafe opened its doors on Feb. 2, 1981, sporting a spot-on vintage exterior that could still easily be used in a movie set. As for the interior, it’s a classic glimpse back to the 1930s and ’40s.
Historical photos help set the tone, along with black-and-white linoleum floor tiles, rounded booth seating, and barstools that are reminiscent of soda fountain days. An outdoor patio was added later, and has the feel of a backyard that’s hosting a casual neighborhood get-together.
The core of Del Monte is still comfort food, said Collins, and it’s still largely the same menu as when the cafe opened.
“I’m big on not changing things,” she said, “and consistency is an absolute must.”
For breakfast, look for fluffy seasonal pancakes such as the much-anticipated pumpkin pecan, or tuck into a plate of linguica and eggs, hearty housemade chili and eggs, or an avocado and Bay shrimp omelette.
Other options include chicken-fried steak, Quiche Lorraine, and the Del Monte Pancake Special — three buttermilk pancakes layered with ham slices.
All those pancakes are made from scratch, as is everything else, from the daily soups to the biscuits and gravy to the quiches and pies. Collins noted that “we’re getting most of our produce from the farmers market, and definitely all of our salad greens.”
Some classic dishes available for lunch are a generous Cobb salad, a Reuben on rye, or the cold meatloaf sandwich that gets snapped up when it finds its way onto the specials board. Sandwiches featuring thinly sliced, oven-roasted beef are also popular, as are the chicken salad and tuna, both freshly made with Del Monte’s own recipes.
At dinnertime, count on being able to order traditional comfort fare such as chicken-fried steak, grilled liver and onions, and tender slow-braised pot roast served with garlic mashed potatoes.
However, the Del Monte Cafe also serves up a nightly specials menu. Recent dishes included feta-stuffed figs wrapped in bacon, a New York steak salad with bleu cheese and tomato, and grilled pork chops glazed with mango plum chutney.
Clearly, the house-made desserts certainly shouldn’t be overlooked here. Opt for treats such as carrot cake, fresh strawberry rhubarb pie served a la mode, or the chocolate bread pudding smothered with espresso cream.
Collins’ insistence on consistency has gained the Del Monte Cafe a legion of loyal regulars, and many of them “come in and want the same thing every time,” said server Amber Spoeneman. “They’re like family, which makes this a really fun place to be.”
Indeed, one longtime customer quipped that her sister comes to town all the way from London about four times a year, “but I’m not sure if it’s to see me or for the (Del Monte) chili.”