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Dishing Up Equality : Women Who Broke Gender Barrier at San Diego Restaurant in 1969 Reunite

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spicy mock turtle soup was the excuse, but a dash of gender equality was the goal.

And so it came to pass 26 years ago that a group of women dared to challenge a sexist tradition deeply embedded in the heart of the San Diego Establishment by showing up for lunch at the Grant Grill in the U.S. Grant Hotel. They were described in news stories as radicals and militants who “invaded” the clubby atmosphere of the grill.

But on Thursday, they were embraced by the establishment that once scorned them and official recognition finally came to the turtle soup protesters of 1969.

This time they came by way of a special invitation from the hotel manager to a commemorative ceremony where a plaque was unveiled that told their story and listed their names: Sidney Windle, Pat Johnson JaCoby, Kay Jarvis-Prokop, Helen Pain, Rusty Walker and the late Valeda Turner.

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The women showed up on June 17, 1969. The Grant Grill was the premier power-lunching spot in downtown San Diego back then. Politicians, journalists, lawyers, judges, bankers, businessmen and other movers and shakers went to the grill to swap gossip, drink Scotch and soda, and cut the deals that kept the city humming.

Under a policy that had been rigidly enforced for decades, the grill was off limits to women until 3 p.m. Even after that hour, women were allowed only if escorted by men.

Opera diva Beverly Sills was turned away when she showed up unawares and requested a table. Helen Cobb, the City Council’s first female member, knew well enough to stay away.

The grill-busters made a reservation under the gender-blended name of one of them, Sidney Windle. They arrived backed by a television news crew and armed with a copy of a state law banning discrimination in public accommodations.

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Then they announced, quietly but firmly, that they had come to taste the grill’s famous mock turtle soup. Grudgingly, they were seated and San Diego edged closer to modernity.

Now, 26 years later, much of downtown San Diego has been torn down and rebuilt, and the 1906-vintage U.S. Grant has had several owners. Gone are the city laws that prohibited women bartenders and required waitresses to get cards from the vice squad.

Windle is recovering from surgery, but the other surviving protesters gathered to recall a memorable lunch and a pleasant but parochial and slow-to-change city that is no more.

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“The maitre d’ was speechless and almost ready to cry,” said JaCoby, director of community outreach at UC San Diego. “The poor man just stood there. Finally, he had no choice.”

Having been tipped off by an unsympathetic male journalist that the women were on their way, the maitre d’ was ready with a couple of tricks.

“We were given the table furthest away, in the most obscure place in the restaurant,” JaCoby said. “And our waiter must have been the oldest, slowest waiter in San Diego. The lunch took about three hours.”

Jarvis-Prokop, the protest organizer, was food critic for the San Diego Evening Tribune at the time. She may have been pushed into activism when she had to tell a food company executive from New York that she could not accompany him to the Grant Grill to sample the famous soup.

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The executive was incredulous and noted that such discrimination was unheard of in New York.

“I had to explain that, ‘Mr. New York, things don’t work the same way in San Diego,’ ” she said.

Although there was a serious motive, Jarvis-Prokop and the others, by their own accounts, approached the lunch with a larkish air, and there were no follow-up excursions. “This was a gentle protest,’ Pain said. “It was not militant, it was not radical.”

The Tribune noted two days later that the Grant Grill had weathered the “invasion” with a minimum of fuss and with its males-only policy intact.

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“It was business as usual at luncheon yesterday in the Grant Grill--there wasn’t a female in the house,” said a short story inside the paper. “The waiters were smiling, bartenders went about their tasks with quiet efficiency and maitre d’hotel Norman Bradley kept the luncheon crowd moving smoothly.”

The story said that Bradley had received several phone calls from women decrying what the protesters had done. The maitre d’ with the suave manner went back to telling women that they would have to go elsewhere, perhaps to the hotel’s other restaurant.

The males-only policy, and a brass sign on the wall proclaiming it, remained until 1971 when two lawyers--Lynn Schenk, later elected to Congress, and Judith McConnell, now a Superior Court judge--threatened legal action.

In the San Diego of today--with its growing number of trendy lunch spots--it may be hard to imagine how one spot like the Grant Grill could dominate the lunch needs of the elite; Lubach’s on the bay was the only competition.

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Perhaps it was the central location across from City Hall, two blocks from the newspaper office (which has since moved) and three blocks from the courthouse. Perhaps it was the plush red booths, the curving bar and the aura of libation-fueled bonhomie.

Or perhaps it was the mock turtle soup, the pumpernickel toast with cheese, the $1.50 hamburger, or the chance that you might catch a glimpse of a (male) celebrity who was in town for the races at Del Mar. Bandleader Phil Harris was particularly partial to the Grant Grill.

Frank Rhoades, longtime columnist for the San Diego Union, scribbled notes on cocktail napkins and kept his column filled with wit and wisdom collected at the Grant Grill. He called the regulars “the Grant Stool Boys,” a reference to the bar stools.

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The regulars called themselves the Pythagorean Society for reasons that are lost in the mist of history. Included in the group was a Catholic priest who served as chaplain and was empowered to hear confessions from members who swore to give up drinking for Lent.

So important was the Grant Grill to the warp and woof of public life in San Diego during those years that the waiters became minor celebrities and enjoyed loyal followings. Regular patrons were rewarded with small nameplates over their favorite booths.

Bradley, now a catering and banquet manager for a restaurant near Balboa Park, attended Thursday’s ceremony with no hint of rancor. “It was a sad day for a lot of the old-timers who had used the grill as a men’s establishment for a long time,” he said.

Of course, that was just the point the protesters were making. “It made no sense to us that the men in San Diego needed a place exclusively of their own when the rest of the world was changing,” Walker said.

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When the ceremony was over Thursday, Walker et al returned to the grill as guests of the management for a lunch featuring--what else?--mock turtle soup.

“It’s the best,” Walker said.


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