Los Angeles may not seem old, but there are restaurants that have been around for almost 100 years

Oscar Levant once observed: "Behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood lies the real tinsel." Something very much like that can be said of the restaurants of Southern California.

For behind the phony tinsel of all the trendy joints of the moment, you'll find the real tinsel of the places with tradition, the places with a past venerable eateries where we can luxuriate in knowing that the same food has been served (often cooked by the same chefs, and presented on the same plates, by the same waiters) since L.A. was a relative small town.

Hereabouts, a restaurant has a history if it has managed to survive for a decade. But amazingly, there are institutions that stretch back half a century and more. Many of them are filled with tinsel left over from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Others have survived simply because their cuisine is solid, honest cooking, devoid of trends, and oblivious to the notion of fashionable anything.

Of course, by contrast, the oldest restaurant in Boston, the Barker Tavern, dates back to 1634. In New York City, Fraunces Tavern dates back to 1763. We're not quite there. But give us a century or three, and we will be.

Cole's P.E. Buffet

(118 E. Sixth St., downtown Los Angeles, 213-622-4090) is tied with Philippe the Original for the title of oldest restaurant in Los Angeles both can trace their roots back to the halcyon days of 1908. As much as any restaurant in town, Cole's looks old, it smells old, and it feels old. There's sawdust on the floors, and photographs on the walls of the construction of the nearby Union Station depot. The restaurant itself is built inside what used to be the Pacific Electric streetcar barn. And until the Stock Exchange moved some years ago, Cole's was a favorite watering hole for local arbitrageurs.

There was a sign on the wall, remarkably prescient, that warned, "We do not extend credit to stockbrokers."

The food at Cole's is what in some cities is referred to as hofbrau-style. You take a tray, and push it down a rail, ordering items like knockwurst and beans, beef stew, kielbasa, macaroni and cheese, and turkey drumsticks from the people behind the steam tables. The specialty of the house, according to a sign on the wall, is "hand-carved cutlet." I've long been happy just to sit there.


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