On its last day as an Escondido landmark, Champions Family Restaurant was packed last Friday and Annette Champion, owner, was in the kitchen putting together orders, dealing with platters of corned beef and chewing out members of her staff, including her husband Dan Hannegan, who had been pressed into service as a bus boy.
Times-Advocate: How does the family feel to be closing?
Dan: They have been in business for 44 years. I am just a peripheral part of this… This is my wife’s family’s business. Her mom Eve and Oscar Champion started the restaurant in 1972 and she’s run it herself for 31 years.
T-A: Why is she closing the restaurant?
Dan: It’s time. That’s her right there (pointing at the woman behind the stainless steel barrier over which order tickets and plates of food were being passed). She’s awoken up at four in the morning, six days a week for 30 years and she’s just ready for this day.
T-A: So it’s retirement?
Dan: Yes it is. We’re going to clean the placeup, put it in mothballs until we find the right person (to buy it) and then we’re going to have fun.
T-A: Are you planning on going somewhere?
Dan: No plans yet. I still have my business to work on and she’s going to decompress for a while. She’s got interests in different things. She does sewing, metal work, shooting and all kind of things, so she’s been preparing for this.
Dan went back to busing tables for the packed 80-seat house. Everyone seemed to be dining on the restaurant’s favorite dish, corned beef hash. Well wishers and wait staff mingled in the kitchen, thanking Annette for her great food and wishing her good luck.
“I have been doing this for 31 years and I’m so tired,” she said, raising her voice to add, “Cecelia, I am out of white gravy!” Then she whirled to the grill, gave some orders to the busy cooks and, wiping her hands on her white apron, told the reporter, “I can’t do this now.”
Sisters Eleanor McFarling and Francena Sherburnewere happily downing corned beef at a nearby table. Eleanor said she had flown all the way from Taos, New Mexico, to enjoy the fine American cuisine of her hometown. She said she was just joking.
“My husband does metal sculpting with Annette,” she said, adding that the couple were regular customers for 35 years. “My husband was a corned beef kind of guy.”
Francena said she has lived in Escondido since the 1960s and has been another loyal customer.
At a table outside the restaurant Mark Mojado decried the demise of another Escondido institution. “Gone are the Wagon Wheel and the Westside Cafe, and several old-time venues,” he said. “They have flavors here that you can’t get anywhere else. These are great places with their own feeling. The Wagon Wheel had it’s own flavors.”
The Pala Tribe member said his grandfather owned a “mercantile store” across the street from the restaurant back when people came to the downtown for all their shopping needs. Of Champions and the others he said, “It’s hard to lose our historic places.”