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Crest Café: 27 years and counting, find out why this diner is here to stay

SAN DIEGO -- Crest Café has managed to achieve something that in the restaurant business evades many small, local operations – longevity.

Crest Café owner Cecelia Moreno and her father, Luis Moreno, purchased the restaurant from its original owners in 1985. The 1,600-square-foot restaurant has been a Hillcrest landmark since in 1982.

Moreno took a break from the hustle and bustle at Crest Café to speak with SDGLN about what keeps customers coming back to this American eatery, the next 30 years, and the delicious array of menu options.

Moreno is a San Diego native, born in 1958. She has been in the restaurant business her entire working career. She began as a server; something that to this day, neither her or 78-year-old Luis, are above doing.

Moreno puts in six days a week at Crest Café, but for no more than eight hours. In between busing tables, seating diners and taking orders, she talks about her passion for food.

“My passion comes from my father and grandmothers,” Moreno said. “My father was in the restaurant business ever since I can remember. He worked at one of the original Oscar’s Drive-In in the 1960s.”

Her food philosophy is simple.

“We make homemade food, real food that people really want to eat,” Moreno said. “And we’re cognitive of the fact that nobody works traditional hours anymore. We’re open daily from 7 a.m. to midnight and closed only for Christmas.

“What I love most about this restaurant is that every type of person comes in from every walk of life. Young, old, any race and any sexual orientation and everyone is comfortable,” Moreno said.

Local diner, local ingredients

The staff of 18 is very much like a family. Moreno’s cousin, Ruben Medina, has been running the kitchen since 1985 and Moreno insists he really is more like a brother.

One of the cooks, Noel, has been there since in 1989. Many other staff members stay with her for years. When she hires a new employee, Moreno says she has three things at the top of her list that the potential new hire must possess: He or she must be non-dramatic, hard-working and smart.

Ruben Medina and Cecelia Moreno

When it comes to choosing whom she works with, Moreno applies the same guidelines.

“I try to keep a tight vendor list. We pay them once a week so they love us,” Moreno said of the 13 vendors that deliver practically all of Crest Café’s ingredients.

All of the vendors are located in Southern California, mostly in San Diego, and Moreno has a personal relationship with each and every one.

“I chose them because they have the same food and business philosophy as I do. They share my vision about who to hire, they are family owned and operated and they keep their prices tight,” Moreno said.

Central Meat, a San Diego establishment since 1912, has been providing Crest Café’s meat cuts for 30 years.

La Mousse Desserts, located in Los Angeles, has been doing business with Moreno since 1979.

“They made my wedding cake and I use them because no one makes better cakes,” she said.

Tom Cado Produce of San Diego specializes only in avocados and tomatoes and Fine Line Foods, who is Moreno’s newest vendor addition, specializes only
(Ruben Medina and Cecelia Moreno)

in potatoes that are transported from Oxnard. “I didn’t even know there was a company out there that only did potatoes, but theirs are great,” Moreno said.

The other vendors, which she proudly salutes on a postcard that customers can take with them, include San Diego-based American Produce, Assentis’ Pasta, Bread and Cie, Chesapeake Fish and Sadie Rose Bakery.

Additionally, she also works with National City-based Café Moto Coffee and Teas and La Popular. There is also Lakeside Poultry located in San Diego’s East County and Knudsen Dairy located in Los Angeles.

The Crest Café menu

“When we first bought the place, the menu was tiny,” Moreno said. “It has since expanded tremendously, with new additions in breakfast, lunch and dinner options.”

“Inspiration for the menu comes from the things I like to eat and also the things my customers like to eat,” Moreno said.

“When you are small, you can react quickly and put things on the 'specials board' within 24 hours of thinking of it. That way, new dishes are tried out and if they do really well, they move onto the menu. Items that don’t do well are removed from the menu. It’s that simple and it’s great because I don’t have to deal with several layers of bureaucracy.”

When it comes time to choose a favorite menu item, Moreno has difficulty choosing just one.

“I like spicy so I like the Crest Burger,” she said. The Crest burger is a fresh and charbroiled half-pound beef or turkey patty, topped with jalapeno peppers and jalapeno cheese.

“I also like the chicken tortilla soup,” Moreno said. “It is something I could eat almost every single day and the patty melt reminds me of my childhood.” The patty melt is served on grilled rye, topped with cheddar cheese and grilled onions.

“Then I suppose I have to say Cecelia’s Chopped Salad,” she said with a chuckle. “Because it is named after me.” The salad features chopped turkey, mangos, walnuts, gorgonzola cheese, jicama, apples over a fresh bed of spinach.

Aside from her personal favorites, Moreno also talked about the items her customers order most often.

On the breakfast menu, Moreno says the Cabo Quesadilla (a flour tortilla stuffed with scrambled eggs, bacon, cilantro, hash browns and monterey jack; served with tomatillo salsa verde and sour cream) and the Hangover Omelet (four large eggs, jalapenos, avocado, spicy chicken sausage and jack cheese, topped with chimichurri sauce) are the most popular. By the way, breakfast is served until 4 p.m. daily.

When it comes to lunch, Moreno says the Butter Burger is a long time favorite. This burger is a half-pound of fresh lean ground beef, stuffed with a garlic-tarragon-basil-parsley butter. It is broiled, topped with a little more butter, and then topped with cheddar cheese and once that is melted, a garlic mayonnaise made with a dash of paprika, cayenne and cumin is added.

At dinner time, the most ordered item is the Herb Crusted Chicken. The breast of chicken is breaded with thyme, basil, red pepper, marjoram and bread crumbs. It is sautéed and served on a bed of linguine Alfredo.

Of course, we must also mention dessert. Crest Café diners - on any given day - have up to 10 mouth-watering options. Heated Häagen Dazs vanilla ice cream is served with the Croissant Bread Pudding, Chocolate Flourless Cake, Butterscotch Pecan Apple Crunch, Deep Dish Apple Pie, Chocolate Espresso Brownie Sundae and the Peach Cobbler. Diners can also enjoy Créme Brulée or Mocha Crunch, Lemon or Carrot Cake.

Not all of the options are on the dessert tray

New menus are currently in the works for Crest Café, however dedicated diners will be happy to see that all of their favorites will remain at the same price.

Homemade soups and weekday promotions

On a daily basis, Crest Café serves chicken tortilla soup and veggie chili. Additionally, each day of the week, Crest Café cooks create a fresh batch of the following soups: cream of roasted red pepper soup, shrimp bisque, albondigas, French onion, chicken Florentine, apple brie and tomato basil.

Workers who earn tips for their services, regardless of the industry, receive 20 percent off their total check when they dine at Crest Café on Monday nights.

On Tuesdays, all Crest Café bottles of wine are 50 percent off and on Thursdays, with the purchase of an entrée, diners receive 50 percent off any dessert.

From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. daily, diners can enjoy the “Early Bird Breakfast Special” which includes two eggs served any style, two strips of bacon, two fluffy buttermilk pancakes and fresh coffee or tea.

For the late night dinners, Crest Café offers “Night Owl Specials” served between 10 p.m. and midnight, and they are as follows:

* Half sandwich with soup or salad (veggie, tuna melt or BTCA)
* One Angus slider with soup and salad
* Mini mac and cheese with salad and bread
* Small veggie lasagna with salad and bread
* Little Luigi’s Ravioli with salad and bread

Additional Twitter and Facebook promotions are also available. To view Crest Café’s complete menu click HERE.

The next 30 years

Of Crest Café’s 27 years, Moreno said she has had a little bit of luck.

“So many new business owners start out making mistakes,” she said. “They hire designers and public relations managers and then six months later they’re out of business. In the restaurant business, because your margins are so tiny, you have to watch every penny, and I mean every penny.

“Competition is very tough right now; everyone is clawing and fighting for those dining dollars,” she said.

“Our regulars keep us going. We have people that come in every day. I have seen customers go from toddlers to adults. I even have old employees who have moved to other cities, and they will run into people that they remember from here and can remember exactly what that person used to order, it’s crazy,” Moreno said.

Moreno is optimistic about the future and she has high hopes for both the San Diego community at large and for Crest Café's continuing success. She dreams of retirement and of a Hillcrest without parking meters, which she says negatively affects her business.

She would also like to see her cousin Ruben running the place. “Ruben has children,” Moreno said, “and I don’t. I have dogs, but it keeps me motivated knowing that one day I will hand this over to family.”

“I also hope to still be in Hillcrest,” she said. “It will look quite different in 30 years. I have seen the neighborhood go through its up and downs.”

“San Diego is really spread out and each neighborhood is very different. I am really happy to be in Hillcrest. I wouldn’t want to be located anywhere else,” she said.

Moreno grew up in La Mesa, currently lives in North County, but hopes to move closer to central San Diego within the next couple of years. Although she is of Hispanic descent, Moreno speaks no Spanish.

“I was brought up during a time where it was very much about assimilation. My father experienced a lot of discrimination as a young man,” Moreno said. “He is a second generation Mexican-American, his parents were born in Mexico and let me put it to you this way … in the graduating class of 1950 at Hoover High School, he was the only Hispanic. Times have changed and I hope they will continue to.”

“In 30 years, and I think it is already happening, I hope we will all be in a place where we are not even talking about things like Prop. 8,” she said. “It was unbelievable, shocking and sad as well as an eye-opener to see so many ‘Yes on 8’ signs in North County.”

Esther Rubio-Sheffrey is a Staff Writer for SDGLN. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, x711 or at esther@sdgln.com.

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