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Cotton Patch Going Strong at 40 With Same Menu

San Diego’s venerable Cotton Patch restaurant inaugurated its 40th anniversary celebration this week, inspiring a moment of introspection (and a couple of visits) by a writer who first ate there in 1963.

I think that the roots of many of the area’s contemporary restaurant dining habits are anchored in the history of this Midway Drive landmark. It may well be that the Cotton Patch was the first place to codify what became San Diego’s enduring basic menu--the litany of prime rib, steaks, crab legs, shrimp “scampi”, broiled chicken breasts with pineapple, and so forth--which still is offered in almost every steak house and waterside restaurant in the county.

To read the Cotton Patch menu, which still lists every original 1947 dish, as well as a few added since then, is to read the menus of many of the area’s most popular dining spots.

The interesting possibility is that had the Cotton Patch accomplished what it originally intended, the area’s basic restaurant menu might be different.

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Had the man who in 1947 built the Cotton Patch Drive-in made a go of it, the basic San Diego restaurant menu might not have become so firmly entrenched.

Culinary Landmark

But because the Cotton Patch Drive-in fell into bankruptcy in less than six months, San Diego gained a culinary landmark in the form of the Cotton Patch restaurant .

The creation of the late Fred Halleman, who purchased the drive-in in bankruptcy court and turned it into a highly atmospheric, full-service restaurant, the Cotton Patch at times has ranked as one of the city’s most popular eateries, and remains quite popular today. It now is operated by Halleman’s daughter, Brenda Richardson.

Halleman’s apparent restaurant genius (he also is responsible for the 20 Boll Weevil restaurants scattered around the county) may have been fostered partially by circumstances. Even though he was raised in Wheaton, Ill., Halleman firmly stuck by the drive-in’s melodramatic Old South theme when he transformed the place. The eatery’s rooms have such names as Bayou and Swamp; kind of murky and mossy in its general tone, the place is supposed to resemble an old Southern hunting lodge, but the style probably would be more familiar to Brer Rabbit than to Huey Long.

Mounted deer heads gaze across the darksome rooms, which are lit by candles, a fireplace, and lamps shaped like roosters; old favorites drift in from the piano bar, and the waitresses, many of them veterans of a couple decades of service, are of the motherly kind not easily found these days.

Food Is Hearty

The food is best described as hearty, and usually but not always satisfactory (the chief broiler cook, Mack McDonald, started in 1947, and there is no question that he knows how to cook a steak.) Since the Cotton Patch opened in the days when it was customary to offer guests a complimentary nibble, crocks of piquant and quite delicious sweet-and-sour kidney beans arrive with the menus. Meals include a simple salad topped with one of three homemade dressings; the creamy garlic is interesting, and the blue cheese as rich as could be wished.

Soup, offered as an alternative to salad, can be good, especially when the choice is a robust split pea with ham. Hot corn sticks arrive with the main course, and should be drizzled with honey from the bear-shaped containers in residence on every table top. For starch, there is a choice between perfectly good, extra-large baked spuds, or what the menu describes as “famous German fries.” Served in individual cast iron skillets, these tosses of sliced potato, onion and bell pepper used to be good, hot and crisp, but on both recent visits they were mediocre, cool and mushy. Advance preparation may have been the culprit.

Appetizers should be approached with caution, but a party of three or four may find itself capable of dealing with an order of the “famous Southern styled potato skins.” What makes them Southern is unclear, but what makes these crisp little boats good is obvious, and that is a wealth of melted Cheddar cheese and crumbled bacon.

House Specialties

The waitresses name prime rib, steaks and barbecued ribs as the house specialties, but the last perhaps should be deleted from the list, since a recent order of ribs was much less than satisfying--the meat was dry and tasteless. The prime rib, however, was good to the last bite, with plenty of flavor percolated through the hefty slab of tender meat. A filet mignon was an impressive cut, slightly charred as it should be, and rosy, moist and flavorful within. Among other major meat choices would be the 20-ounce Porterhouse, rack of lamb, pork chops, and broiled calves liver in the traditional cloak of sauteed onions.

There unfortunately was no opportunity to sample another famous Cotton Patch staple, frogs legs sauteed in butter, because that dish foolishly was passed up in favor of the scallops bordelaise. Described by the menu as being served in garlic butter and parsley, the scallops instead arrived swimming in a watery liquid of uncertain composition. Deep fried shrimp, purportedly rolled in seasoned bread crumbs, instead had been coated in corn meal, which was interesting more for its old fashioned accent than for its flavor. Fresh crumbs would have been better.

Other than Alaskan king crab legs and a variety of shrimp dishes, seafood plays a relatively unimportant role here. Halibut steak and mahi mahi both make an appearance, and in the menu’s sole (and outlandish) stab at trendiness, there is a mention of blackened catfish.

Among the desserts, the pecan pie is good and rich, but surprisingly salty. For sheer homespun pleasure, there is the “flaming chocolate plantation,” a volcano-shaped scoop of vanilla ice cream doused with plenty of chocolate syrup lava; at the summit, a bread crouton soaked in vanilla extract sends up voluminous blue flames.

COTTON PATCH

2720 Midway Drive, San Diego

223-7179

Lunch and dinner 10 a.m.--12:45 a.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner served from 4 p.m. Sundays.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, $25 to $60.


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