My Daughter & The Diner
Home Journal: By Ron Donoho
TWO MILESTONES RECENTLY CAUSED ME to stare deeply into life’s rearview mirror. In February, my daughter turned 15. Then in March, the iconic Corvette Diner celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Reflected clearly in my mind’s eye is the sunny afternoon I first introduced one to the other.
It was more than a decade ago. Daddy’s Little Girl clasped my hand tightly while a bouncy hostess, wearing a pink poodle skirt and a towering beehive wig, walked us to a back booth. Our waitress wore big black heels, and she clicked and clanked, courtesy of dozens of metallic buttons that rubbed against each other when she flung open her arms, which was often.
The original Corvette Diner was on Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. 1950s-era memorabilia covered the walls. There was always a different colored Corvette inside the entrance. A deejay spun albums. When you sat down, servers made it rain with plastic straws. When they brought you the bill, they pelted the table with pieces of Bazooka bubble gum.
The food was no-frills: burgers, chicken tenders, chocolate milkshakes.
Mostly, the restaurant was a place for bonding and laughter. Those tiny smiles were gold, especially to a parent anxious to ease a young mind not quite sure what to make of the fact that mom and dad didn’t live together anymore.
Corvette Diner founders and prolific restaurateurs David and Lesley Cohn say they never actually intended to turn this eatery into something that would become synonymous with the phrase “kid-friendly.”
David Cohn takes on the look of a proud papa, though, when he recalls getting the diner off the ground.
“It seems like it was just yesterday,” he says. “First, I remember being broke. There were a lot more posters on the walls than actual memorabilia … we were really going for a community/neighborhood restaurant feel. It evolved from that.”
The Cohns hired servers who took drama classes in school — pre-Glee, if you will. David credits various employees for some of the activities that have become restaurant traditions over the decades: the participatory singing of “The Chicken Dance;” the weaving of straws into intricate designs amidst the long hair of birthday girls.
It was campy, for sure. But the bright-eyed looks and toothy grins were priceless.
A few years ago, Corvette Diner moved to Liberty Station (the former Naval Training Center) in Point Loma. The restaurant grew in size, added a game room and brought along the straw traditions (though the gum tossing got popped).
The Cohns’ empire now includes about 15 diverse restaurants (Bo-beau, Island Prime, Gaslamp Strip Club, etc). No two are alike, especially their newest concept, Vintana, which is slated to open inside a Lexus dealership this May in Escondido.
But 25 years ago, Corvette Diner was a big gamble for the Cohns. “If it hadn’t been a success, we might have had a short career in the restaurant business,” says David.
I’m glad things worked out. Corvette Diner is part of my mental scrapbook. My daughter’s first limo ride, for example, was to the Hillcrest location, part of a birthday package still offered in Point Loma.
I asked, but no, my teenager has outgrown the desire to celebrate a birthday with an Eiffel Tower of straws in her hair.
A regular meal at the Corvette, however, would still be just fine, she says. Because even if you outgrow “The Chicken Dance,” chicken tenders are forever.