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Review: The Legend of Rocky’s Crown Pub

Driven by readers’ answers to an Instagram call, our food critic heads to one of San Diego’s most iconic burger joints
Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

The Perfect Order:
A burger.
A lager.
A patience.

Before burgers became national sport, before they got brioche top hats and aiolis made of garlic and spices found only on stalactites in verdant equatorial caves, before the meat was aged Wagyu blessed by the prayers of José Andrés, before tomatoes were heirloom and had adorable names, before the bacon was triple-cut and candied in hibiscus-jalapeño-bee-pollen glazes, before duck eggs oozed their yolky mother lode to emulsify with truffle oil… there was Rocky’s.

Theirs is a spartan workman’s delight, with meat and cheese and a bun that is a kissing cousin to Wonder Bread. This burger flies coach by choice. When San Diego was nearly all fast food—that heatlamped drive-through generation from the ’60s through the ’80s, whose people associate burgers with smog emissions— Rocky’s cooked-fresh, luscious, lumpy pincushion of ground beef—served in a dark, womb-like bar within washing distance of an ice-cold beer—tasted like deities. Still does.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

Rocky’s Crown Pub is 46 years old. At this point, it’s hard to separate the objective quality of the burger from the connective quality of the nostalgia. In nearly five decades, almost nothing has changed about the place or the burgers, which is all they serve (with fries and good beer and pretty bad wine). Their ordering system is sticky notes (yes, sticky notes, which they slap on the bar… you’ll see them lined up with shorthand chicken scratch and thumb smudges of grease), and they only take cash, for chrissakes. Go tap your doohickey somewhere else.

Even the pure-carnivore eating experience feels time-portally, especially now as plant-based apostles are storming the omnivore gates, quoting jackfruit scriptures. In the current probiotic and carb-phobic dining culture, Rocky’s almost feels like a meat speakeasy—a lovely, safe place to eat a burger as if several generations of medical reports were never issued.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

Even if you’re entering Rocky’s for the first time, you can feel the lives lived on these stools. Unless your commuter horse smells of freshly churned butter, some website has told you of its legend. You don’t just wander into Rocky’s. You follow decades of superlatives. You are very purposefully icon-diving.

It’s in Crown Point, the little neighborhood you drive through on your way to frolic in the SPF skin circus of Pacific Beach. It’s named after original owner Patty Rockwood (AKA Rocky). A few years ago, when she decided it was time, she could have sold it to the highest bidder. (I’m not privy to the balance sheets, but the ever-present crowd and bone-simple menu—plus a beer-and-wine license—suggests one of the most stable restaurant business models in the city’s history.) Instead, she sold it to longtime employee Nick Vendetti. As loyal to him as regulars were to her.

No surface in here is stain-vulnerable. It’s all lacquered wood and vinyl, a very wipe-able design motif. The carpet can be best described as “luxuriously cleanable.” There’s a dusty wine rack behind the bar. Instead of cabernets, it’s full of remote controls for the TVs that are broadcasting various sports. One is almost always tuned in to WGN, home of the Chicago Cubs; the other to the Padres (Rocky’s occupies a Chicago-San Diego duality, with Bears and Chargers memorabilia lining the walls). The bartenders are more astute than ESPN commentators, opining on the day’s most impressive stats and orating deep dives into existential sports issues.

Rocky’s has always been as dark as a curtained van down by the river. A major plus. As San Diegans, we are stalked by sunlight, so its absence feels like a vacation. During Covid, they added a patio like everyone else. To serve the patio, the side door now stays open. And so Rocky’s has entered its (relatively) sunshiney era, which is emotionally conflicting.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

Locals tend to hang at the far end of the bar, so they can greet friends and suss up newcomers. As for the crowd—it’s mostly t-shirts and sunburns. The kind of place where everyone is beautiful because no one here is trying to be beautiful. Besides, possibly, the bartender who looks fresh off a soap opera involving yoga and lesser-known martial arts.

The cash-only thing is inconvenient and impressive. That’s a market advantage earned only by the most iconic of San Diego restaurants (à la Las Cuatro Milpas)—institutions whose demand is so ravenous and continuous that they pull rank over the evolution of capitalism and commerce, immune to the grabby talons of credit card fees. There’s an ATM near the back, in a “hallway” only big enough for two people to pass if they go butt-to-butt.

At the end of the bar is the “kitchen,” best described as “the one from your first studio apartment.” It’s basically a tiny alcove off the bar with no door, so everyone can watch. The tiny box fits exactly one cook. He or she stands in front of a single small flat top, which is loaded with sizzling patties, enshrouded in chuck steam. The heroic burger jockey goes it alone. For sure these weary cooks leave work every day only to be hunted by neighborhood dogs.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

The insanely constant burger-sizzling of that flat top is key to the magic of Rocky’s. It is loaded up as soon as doors open, and it almost never slows down. On weekends, every inch of that flat top will be blanketed with third-pound or half-pound patties, steaming and browning, cheese lava-flowing over the edges.

So forgive me the hubris, but I think I’ve pieced together the Rosetta Stone for understanding why Rocky’s burger—despite ignoring every chance at “premiumizing” or improving itself for decades, despite the fact that it should have been lapped by the “better burger movement” by now—still ranks among the best.

First, when you cook a burger on a flat top, the whole patty comes in contact with the heat source (creating a patty-wide browning and maillard reaction that cranks up flavor). It also renders out the fat, which creates a bath around the burger— essentially shallow-frying the beef. Each successive burger benefits from the previous burger’s brown bits and juices. So it almost functions like a wok, transferring nepotistic burger wealth to the next burger in line, building and building flavor as the day goes on.

Plus, the only thing that is cooking on that flat top all day are these nepo-burgers. Burger burger burger burger burger. Which means the last burger of the day cooked here just might be the burgeriest-tasting burger in the country.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

So? you may say. Many burger joints use flat tops— what’s different about Rocky’s? Well, this: proximity. The constant burger steam floats from that tiny cubby kitchen into the tiny bar, essentially creating a fairly intense (but not oppressive) burger weather system that permeates the whole place. Sitting in that burger aromatherapy waiting for your order, your desire for it nears a frothy zeal (and often the wait is not short).

By the time your meal hits the table, you’re one or three beers in and you’ve never been more amped to eat a burger in your life. Also, since smell is critical to how well and how intensely we taste something, the burger haze cranks up how much “burgerness” we taste when we finally do dig in. It’s like eating a tub of freshly buttered popcorn as the popcorn machine lightly blows the smell of freshly buttered popcorn around you.


Another key, suggests a longtime employee who spent his first year as the cook, is the relatively low temperature of that flat top. The low temp allows the burger to baste in its own juices, which explains why Rocky’s burgers are among the juiciest in town and will not be rushed.

Photo Credit: Kimberly Motos

In my two nights spent here, the burger (a half-pounder with grilled onions, a third-pounder with raw onions) was every bit as glorious as I’ve romanticized. My only complaint is the friendliness of the staff. Part of the joy of Rocky’s had always been Stockholm syndrome, in which you’re kidnapped by an arcane system of sticky notes and aloof or surly employees.

There’s no shortage of places to be treated like an asshole in America, but Rocky’s was always my favorite. Hothouse flowers who came here to be doted on often left driving their car fast in the direction of a strongly worded Yelp review. Now the staff seems more polite, conversational, at ease. It’s nice, but also kind of bullshit.

For the perfect order, get a half-pounder with cheese. Skip the lettuce and tomato, but keep the pickle and raw onions (the fat of the burger and cheese need all the acid). Then, halfway through eating, ditch the fixings and just eat the bun, beef, and cheese. That’s the nude heart of the legend.

In a modern society where we’re forced to change our passwords more frequently than our underwear, flipping the bird to rapid-fire and often unnecessary modifications makes Rocky’s feel like an escape room to a time when we didn’t have to give a damn about falling behind and having our souls scavenged by the vultures of tech or truffle oil.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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