San Diego

San Diego's Corvette Diner Celebrates 30th Anniversary

The quirky, throwback, 1950s-inspired diner was launched by David and Lesley Cohn of the famed Cohn Restaurant Group in 1987 and, over the years, has become a San Diego staple

This calls for a milkshake and twistin’ to the oldies: San Diego’s quirky retro eatery, Corvette Diner, turns 30 this month, celebrating the milestone anniversary with an all-day bash – beehives and poodle skirts, to boot.

The restaurant, which spent 22 years in Hillcrest before relocating to Historic Decatur Road in Liberty Station in 2009, will mark three decades in business with a special anniversary party Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Festivities on deck include live entertainment and a throwback menu offering classics of a bygone era, including select menu favorites like the "Rory Burger" (topped with peanut butter, bacon, lettuce and mayo) at old-school prices ($5 a pop) and 75-cent sodas from the fountain. The birthday bash will also boast 25 to 50-cent arcade games and free photos in the eatery’s photo booth. At 7 p.m., there’s a 1950s costume contest for kids ages 12 and under.

[G] San Diego's Corvette Diner Through the Years

For a little blast from the past, the party will also include some special guests, including longtime Corvette Diner magician, “Magic Mike” Stilwell, and Southern California radio and TV personality, "Shotgun Tom" Kelly.

When Corvette Diner launched in Hillcrest in 1987, Kelly was invited by the eatery’s owners, David and Lesley Cohn, to broadcast his radio show, "Shotgun Tom's Jukebox Radio" out of the restaurant.

“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have me do my radio show from there? It’d be perfect,'" "Shotgun Tom" Kelly recounted in an interview with NBC 7 at the diner Thursday. “So David said, ‘Yea, I’ll blow out a couple of tables.’ And he actually built me a studio for me. We equipped it with vintage equipment.”

The broadcaster and San Diego native spent seven years in that custom booth, playing oldie after oldie, chatting with patrons day after day.

“I get people saying, ‘You know, I came to the Corvette Diner when I was a little girl, and I still remember you today,’” he said, smiling.

Corvette Diner was one of the first eateries launched by the Cohns, owners of San Diego’s famed Cohn Restaurant Group (CRG). At the time, the couple only had two other businesses under their belt. They were turned down for a loan to start the 1950s diner. Determined to make it happen, they pulled their money together and opened Corvette Diner in the heart of Hillcrest.

It was the catalyst to their restaurant empire, which now boasts nearly two dozen eateries around San Diego including The Prado at Balboa Park, Coasterra and Bo-beau, to name a few.

“It’s a tremendously iconic place,” said "Shotgun Tom" Kelly.

San Diego resident Dante Jones started bartending at Corvette Diner in 1988. He worked at the Hillcrest location for 10 years.

“It’s just happy times,” Jones told NBC 7, fondly remembering being part of the staff, also known as the “Corvette Cast.”

Jones wore many hats in his decade with the diner, pouring drinks, dancing and singing. The restaurant even named a hamburger on the menu after him: “Dante’s Inferno,” a spicy number topped with jalapeno mayo, pepper jack cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and jalapenos.

To this day, Jones often drops into Corvette Diner for lunch – ordering his namesake dish.

"I ate that today!" Jones said on Thursday. "It was good."

Jones believes Corvette Diner has stood the test of time because it’s a fun, entertaining place for the whole family, bursting with good vibes.

"If you want to escape for a little bit, you come here," he added.

In his days behind the bar, he saw many celebrations take place at the restaurant, from birthdays to anniversaries -- and even weddings.

“A lot of people got married here; a lot of relationships have started here. Just happy and wonderful memories,” Jones told NBC 7.

Jones will head back to his roots at Corvette Diner on Friday. He was invited to be a guest bartender during the anniversary celebration, and will also be performing all of the classic dances with the cast.

“You’re probably going to see me doing ‘The Roach’ [dance]. And the ‘Chicken Polka,’” he said, with a laugh. "I'm known for that one."

For the past eight years, Corvette Diner’s home has been on Historic Decatur Road at Liberty Station, in a 13,300-square-foot site that boasts several colorful dining rooms and party rooms, plus a large arcade game room. As always, it remains a popular dining destination for families and kids celebrating birthdays. 

The staff, in retro uniforms, still cut a rug. The servers still decorate patrons' hair with big, red straws. And, of course, the oldies still play from the DJ booth.

“I think when people come here and hear good sounds of the past – even if they’re not familiar with them – they just get that wonderful energy,” said “Shotgun” Tom Kelly. “Even if you didn’t grow up with 50s and 60s music – it’s just happy music.”

Corvette Diner plans to keep its 30th anniversary celebration rolling all month: the throwback menu is being offered March 10 through March 31. More goodies include a $1 brownie sundae and a $1.25 vanilla, chocolate or cherry Coke.

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