Caesar’s Hillcrest, one of San Diego’s landmark Italian restaurants, was opened in 1928 by Cesare ‘Caesar’ Felix Pastore (1899-1967), and operated by the Pastore family for over forty years.Caesar’s father, Italian immigrant Carlo Pastore (1874-1932) and wife Maria established a San Diego ravioli shop in 1913 and a winery south of the border in Lower California. Over the years, Carlo enlisted the help of his sons Caesar Pastore, Efisio ‘Francis or Frank’ Dominic Luigi Pastore, and son-in-law Carl Robert Anderson (married to daughter Giuseppina ‘Josephine’ Maria Olympia Pastore) to run various outposts of the growing family empire of Pastore’s Ravioli shops.
After his Baja winery burned, Carlo started up again in San Diego, anticipating the tourist traffic from the upcoming Panama-California International Exposition. By 1915, he operated Fior d’Italia restaurant in the Horton Hotel building at 328 F Street.
Son Frank was a partner in a grocery and meat market with Warren Weitzel. Caesar joined them after serving in the Navy. Later, the Volstead Act was passed outlawing the sale of alcohol, but that didn’t stop the Pastores from trying to accommodate their guests — both Carlo and son Caesar were caught ‘bootlegging.’ Undercover prohibition agents found a still, barrels of mash and caches of alcohol at their Sunset Meat Market in Little Italy. Carlo got off easy, as they thought he didn’t know anything about what son Caesar was doing. Both were merely fined — to the tune of nine hundred dollars!
“A Place to Eat”
Caesar Pastore broke off from the family business in 1928 and opened his own place in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. Caesar’s restaurant featured his family’s well-known ravioli dishes with brown mushroom sauce, homemade spaghetti and tagliarini. A popular specialty was the ‘half and half’ — equal portions of spaghetti and ravioli on the same plate. From the beginning they sold pasta to go, and were open past midnight, offering up ‘wonderful treats when you want to enjoy FINE FOOD in your own home.’ And of his people? Long-time Hillcrest manager Manny Sodano had a trademark — he always wore a mink bow tie. He had over eighty.
Before entering the Marine Corps in 1942, Caesar sold the business to his brother Frank and brother-in-law Carl Anderson. During World War II, Pastore served as a captain in charge of the commissioned officers’ mess at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. He retired as a major in 1946 and returned briefly to manage Caesar’s Restaurant in Hillcrest.
In 1958, Carl Anderson was looking to sell. Frank wanted to keep it in the family, and convinced his son Robert Carl Pastore, fresh out of the Marines as a fighter pilot in Korea, to come onboard. The business flourished, and Frank retired. In 1961, Robert bought the lease from Georges Caesar de Vos’ Valley Ho restaurant, and reopened it as Caesar’s Mission Valley. The family also opened Caesar’s Grossmont Center in La Mesa, and a small take-out restaurant named Little Caesar’s in Point Loma.
The Kahn Building building at University and Sixth was built in 1919 during the American ‘Egyptian Revival’ craze. It was remodeled to its present facade after a fire to house the third branch of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in 1924. At the time its ornately carved vegetable frieze was covered in gold leaf, to the tune of $3000. While the Pastores keep it at its most pristine, it’s now painted over.
The building’s owner, Dr. Roy M. Ledford, leased it out in 25-foot storefronts. Caesar’s original restaurant took up two, at 50 feet. Over the years they expanded three times. The old wooden booths were replaced by swanky turquoise naugahyde and the original travertine floors were covered up.
Business was Booming
“On any given Friday night in the 1960s,” relates Diane Pastore, “you would find the lobby loaded with customers waiting for takeout orders.” Twenty-five percent of their sales were for takeout. For those dining in, there were lines out the door. People were given numbers for seating, even the movers and shakers. Morley Golden (Golden Construction), Ed Haimsohn (Lawrance Furniture), George Burnett (Burnett Furniture) and many others got takeout or sat down to enjoy the specials like liver and onions, sweetbreads, pastrami, stuffed cabbage, ox joints and shortribs.
Parking was bad in Hillcrest in those days — some things never change. Robert tells the story of Fred Rohr (Rohr Industries) haphazardly bumping into Tubal Claude Ryan (Ryan Aeronautical) in the lobby as they both waited for their to-go orders. Their wives were driving around the block for them.
Business was booming, so they opened a small takeout location in Point Loma, called Little Caesar’s, at Rosecrans and Harbor Drive. That place lasted a few years, until owners of the Detroit-based pizza chain objected.
It was time to expand. Pastore designed and built a larger Grossmont Center location from the ground up, and remodeled the Valley Ho into Caesar’s Mission Valley. After Caesar’s Hillcrest was sold to a Pacific Beach restaurateur, the location hosted Cavalieri’s (1972-1978) serving the same menu, then The Summer Place (1978-1984), City Delicatessen & Bakery (1984-2013) and Harvey Milk’s American Diner (2013-2014).
Today , the Kahn building, along with Pernicano’s Casa di Baffi just to the south, are both being eyed by groups looking to redevelop the parcels.
“The wonderful sauce that’s true culinary poetry…”
Carlo Pastore created his ravioli sauce recipe in 1913. It resembles Escoffier’s original recipe for sauce espagnole, one of the mother sauces in classic French cooking, but with dried Italian mushrooms and a tomato base. Caesar’s brother Frank was trained as a butcher by trade, and developed the recipe using sides of beef ordered from Cudahy Meat Packing Company in Mission Valley. Not wasting a scrap, they saved and used the beef bones as a basis for their homemade beef stock. Frank’s son Robert Pastore says they “always had simmering stockpots on the stove, 24-hours a day.” It’s signature red-brown color comes from caramelizing the onions.
In the past, Caesar’s Hillcrest has been mistakenly associated with the Caesar Cardini family. No connection has been found between Caesar Pastore’s and Caesar Cardini’s restaurants, other than their common first names. After he quit his Tijuana businesses, Cardini did indeed establish restaurants in San Diego — including Caesar Cardini Cafe (1936-1937), Tavern Hacienda (1937), the Beacon Inn in Cardiff (1938) and Caesar Cardini Villa in Chula Vista (1938-1939). Caesar Cardini relocated to Los Angeles around 1939.
Citation: Martin S. Lindsay. ‘Caesar’s Restaurant, Hillcrest.’ Classic San Diego: tasty bites from the history of America’s finest city. Web. <https://classicsandiego.org/restaurants/caesars-restaurant-hillcrest/>
“opened in 1928” ‘Ravioli shop is remodeled.’ San Diego Union, 2 Mar 1930. Irene M Clark. ‘Raviolis lose mystery; San Diegan gains monopoly.’ San Diego Union, 29 Mar 1931.
“San Diego ravioli shop” and “winery” Ibid.
“Fior d’Italia” Display ads. San Diego Union, San Diego Evening Tribune, 1918-1919. Forrest Warren. ‘Half-minute interviews.’ San Diego Union, 13 Nov 1932.
“bootlegging” ‘Bootleg liquor plant discovered in heart of city.’ San Diego Union, 21 Jul 1920. ‘Federal court hands out severe sentences for liquor violations.’ San Diego Evening Tribune, 18 Sep 1920.
“FINE FOOD in your own home” Matchbook covers, n.d. Display ads. San Diego Union, San Diego Evening Tribune, 1928-1971.
“retired as a major” Forrest Warren. ‘Half-minute interviews.’ San Diego Union, 13 Nov 1932.
“Marine Corps” and “Padres baseball club” ‘Pastore services Friday; Sportsman.’ Obituary, San Diego Union, 19 Apr 1967.
“leased in 25-foot sections” and “business was booming” Personal interview with Robert and Diane Pastore, 15 April 2016, Rancho Bernardo, San Diego, California.
“lines out the door,” and “parking was bad” Pastore interview.
“Caesar’s Mushroom Sauce” Recipe from Caesar’s restaurant recipe book, 13 Mar 1963, in the collection of the Pastore family. ‘Caesar’s Corner,’ display ad, San Diego Union, 13 Aug 1963. Also, recipe details and cooking methods from Robert C Pastore, interview, 15 April 2016.
Revised 2 Jul 2017