Lunch at a Lunch Counter in San Diego

Hollywood movies sometimes have a scene in a restaurant where people sit at a small counter or booth facing a server and get their meals off the counter, much like getting a meal from a pub (except that you eat the meal at the pub counter). Perhaps the most memorable one was from The Butler (2013).

Putting aside the serious narrative in the movie above, I simply wanted to see what dinning in a pub-like diner was in the US. But first I had to find out what these places were called, they weren’t ‘restaurants’ that’s for sure.

Hence begin the most awkward conversation with a hostel concierge ever.

“Hi, so I’m looking for a place to eat, like the ones you see in Hollywood movies where they sit on the counter…”

“Which lunch counter you looking for?”

“Erm, that’s what I’m looking for those food places with counter tops…”

“Lunch counters.”

“Yea those places, what are they called?”

“Lunch counters.”

“I know they are lunch counters, I mean what are those places called?”

“Lunch. Counters.”

This went on a few more times, until her smile turned plastic and her eyes turned cold, she wasn’t finding this funny at all. Heck, I didn’t know what there was getting unhappy about. Then I realised they were called exactly that – Lunch Counters. I beat a hasty retreat with a grumbling concierge behind me, at least I was able to find out what they were called, if not exactly leaving a good impression.

A lunch counter is a small restaurant where you sit on one side of the counter and the server and kitchen is on the other side of the counter, and is something unique to the United States – once especially common in small department stores called five and dime stores. The first lunch counter opened in Indiana (Woolworth’s) and expanded rapidly. Lunch counters don’t tend to sell anything particularly special, although they do tend to stock typically American food items – eggs, bacon, hashed browns, pancakes… basically the items that make up a MacDonalds big breakfast (it only struck me that the MacDonalds Big Breakfast I had as a kid, was an all American breakfast essentially).

In fact lunch counters, like the scene in the Butler above, were an important battle front during the Civil Rights Movement, in forcing the integration of service away from a segregated service. The most iconic sit in was at a lunch counter in a Woolworth’s five and dime store in Mississippi.

The lunch counter that was near my work place for the week was Lucky’s in downtown San Diego. Lucky’s is a new institution, set up only in 2012, a short while after the Petco Park (a baseball stadium) was completed nearby to serve the fans going to or coming from a San Diego Padres game. It grew in popularity over time because of its cheap prices and massive servings of tasty typical American food.

I was sold, I’d never eaten at a counter before, had beers and alcohol in a pub yes… food, now that’s a first, and I didn’t expect that I was joining in a tradition that had such a storied past linked so closely to the Civil Rights Movement.

ON THE MAP

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