They certainly looked like doctors, though they were dressed like you or me. They didn’t have any surgical tools or stethoscopes or anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling they were medical professionals.
They were two tables over, so I leaned in closer to listen in on their conversation. Much of what they were saying was technical, but I’m certain they mentioned “lab results” or something like that.
“You know what,” I told Bridget, sitting opposite me. “I think those guys over there are doctors.”
Bridget stared at me. “Duh,” she said, taking another bite of her grilled cheese sandwich. “We’re in a hospital.”
The Hoag Hospital cafeteria, to be exact. Bridget had been there before, numerous times. She said some friends had discovered the dining pleasures of the Hoag Hospital cafeteria years earlier, while visiting a patient. Kicked out of the room late at night when visiting hours ended, she and others suddenly found themselves famished and stumbled upon the cafeteria located in Hoag’s basement. Since then, they’ve made regular visits, usually taking advantage of the cafeteria’s after-club dining: it’s open until 3 a.m.
The food is Newport Beach class at cafeteria prices. There are bagels and muffins and, a friend swears, “killer” breakfast burritos in the morning. In the refrigerated case, you can get a grilled chicken Caesar salad or roast beef horseradish panini for just $4.25. Want sushi? They’ve got vegetarian rolls for $3.75 and spicy tuna cut rolls for $4.15.
There’s a nice make-your-own sandwich bar with all the roast beef, ham, turkey and tuna you can eat for just 30 cents an ounce. Or a full salad bar for just 27 cents an ounce. Soups include the always-popular chili con carne ($2.05) and, the day I was there, Azteca chicken and rice ($1.55).
But most people just skip all that and head straight for the grill. They’ve got sandwiches and burgers, all with your choice of dill or sweet pickles. When I was there, a nurse was ordering a plate of French fries—curly fries are also available—and a trauma surgeon was staring at the pepperoni pizza, sold by the slice. Those wanting more of a dining experience than a mere meal would be happiest with the seafood Newburg or beef stew, each served in a bread bowl with corn and roasted garlic for the 1967 price of $3.50. Of course, there’s a dessert bar with frozen yogurt machine, pie and cake slices, Jell-O, custard and a soda machine, though refills cost extra.
Bridget always orders the grilled cheese. She says the sandwich, three slices of American on sourdough, is “good for $1.75.” She also got a frozen watermelon bar for 92 cents during our visit, but was appalled to find it so fresh that it contained watermelon seeds.
I opted for the daily sandwich special, which for $3.50 entitled me to a grilled pastrami and Swiss on rye with potato salad. The sandwich was great—just enough greasy goodness to keep half the cafeteria’s customers that day in business for a year—but the potato salad didn’t have nearly enough bite.
Bridget’s friends found the cafeteria by accident, but it’s surprisingly easy to get to. Drive into Hoag and head to the front entrance. You can self-park in the lot, or take advantage of the complimentary valet parking. Either way, take care to heed the signs warning you to turn off your cell phone. “People have died in hospitals because of cell phones,” Bridget told me as we walked in.
Once inside, walk through the waiting area, check-in desk and flower shop and head down Corridor 1. Just before you reach the colorful hospital map, hang a left at Corridor A. Walk down the hall, following the signs to the Tower Elevator. You’ll have to pass the cancer ward, the guy getting his kidney dialysis treatment and the young woman lovingly pushing her grandmother’s wheelchair, then hang a right at the MRI/radiology lab and you’re there. Take the elevator down to the basement, and then follow the signs to the cafeteria.
There’s plenty of seating inside and on the outside patio. Added conveniences include a couple of newspaper racks, two ATM machines, a couple of microwave ovens, some pay phones, a stamp machine and snack machines, and, next to the soda machine, an emergency heart defibrillator.
“Wow, look at that,” I said, gesturing toward the defibrillator.
Bridget looked over and nodded. “I know,” she said. “Sixty-five cents for a soda—you don’t find that anywhere!”
Hoag Hospital cafeteria, located at Hoag Hospital, 1 Hoag Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 645-8600, is open 6:30 a.m.-3:30 a.m. (grill closes for cleaning half an hour every day at 2:30 and 9 p.m.). Dinner for two, $10-$15, excluding drinks. No alcohol or plasma. All major credit cards accepted.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.