Salted away in the midst of San Diego’s glossy urban renewal is the Kansas City Barbecue and I stop by for a pulled pork sandwich and a Karl Strauss amber now and again. The restaurant is tucked next to the Trolley stop and surrounded by the fancy multi-story hotels of the Marina district. Young upwardly-mobile residents of the area run by, led by their mini-dogs, and sometimes conferees from the Conference center and hotels across Harbor drive will find their way to a red-checked table.
But mostly, the denizens are regulars who pack the bar every afternoon: bikers and construction workers, retired navy enlisted, pedicab drivers, and all the other kinds of people urban renewal is designed to displace. The restaurant prides itself on being the location for the “sleazy bar scene” in the Tom Cruise classic “Top Gun” and also on its various collections (over 350 navy caps, license plates from all over the world, signed brassieres, and life preservers from naval ships). The restaurant had a serious fire a couple years ago and was closed for most of a year and reopened this year looking pretty much the same it did before the fire.
I realize I’m a tourist here. Whatever my roots as the son of a working man (my dad was a plumber), I’ve joined the tribe of the over-educated and rootless. We are a nomadic bunch and tend to meet our kin in airport lounges and at tribal conferences. But this is a place that is a place.
It’s a place because there is the sense of community. Although one of the most diverse groups in the city, they are bound together because of a shared culture of respect and pleasure. The collections are signs of respect for the experiences of the regular navy people (navy hats, license plates, life-savers…even brassieres) who have passed through San Diego and decided to stay.
When the restaurant was shut down after the fire, for many months the restaurant held a Thirsty Thursdays happy hour event on the patio. They offered hot dogs and drinks, all for a donation, and the money went to support the staff who were without jobs during the time it took for insurance adjustments, permitting, and reconstruction. That was ‘right’ on so many counts: right for the community, right for the staff, right as a demonstration of smart business and good leadership.
I love all these things about the joint, but there’s a part of me that loves it most because it feels like old San Diego…the San Diego of my dad, the enlisted Navy man…thumbing it’s nose at the fancy new, upscale, just-like-every-other-new-downtown-in-the-country San Diego.