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.
Philippe the Original
(1001 N. Alameda St., Chinatown, 213-628-3781) dates back to the early years of the century, when it was first opened by Philippe Mathieu, who sold it to Harry, David and Frank Martin in 1927. Their descendants, in turn, run the place today.
At just about any time of day, Philippe's is filled with the most remarkable assortment of customers postal and railroad workers from across the street, residents of Chinatown, Latinos from Olvera Street and East L.A., lawyers from downtown, tourists from out of town, politicos and policemen from city office buildings, and an assortment of down-and-outers from here and there.
People come here for Philippe's fabled French-dipped sandwich. There's sawdust on the floor, and individual boxes of breakfast cereal on the shelves; history isn't just in the food it's in the very air.
(1121 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, 323-734-2773) can be traced back to 1923, when Alejandro and Rosa Borquez opened a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, named El Cholo ("The Peasant") after a sketch done on a napkin by one of their first customers.
The current El Cholo opened its doors at its present location some five years later, though it's gone through quite a bit of growth since then. As the years went by, El Cholo (later managed by George and Aurelia Salisbury, daughter of Alejandro and Rosa) became a popular carousing spot for USC and UCLA students after football games at the Coliseum. It also became a major watering hole for Hollywood luminaries like Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Irving Berlin, who'd motor crosstown to drink margaritas and eat enchiladas.
Today, the restaurant is run by Ron Salisbury (son of George and Aurelia) and his family, forming an unbroken chain back to the original owners. The food at El Cholo gives us a fair idea of what Mexican cooking was like in Southern California nearly 75 years ago, back in the days when it was referred to as "Spanish cuisine." The dishes are generally simple, leaning towards the enchilada, taco, chile relleno and tamale school of Mexican cooking.
In this case, tradition tastes just great.
Les Freres Taix
(1911 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, 213-484-1265) has only been at its present location since the late '50s, but the restaurant's roots go way back to 1927, when the Taix (pronounced "Tex") Family opened their original restaurant in the downtown business district. Like the solid chow served in the routieres (the truck stops) of France, the cooking at Les Freres Taix is as homey as a tea cozy, and extremely filling. This is anything but haute, and far from nouvelle; this is food of the people, plain and simple.
The Pacific Dining Car
(1310 W. Sixth St., downtown, 213-483-6000, with a second, far newer branch on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica) is the oldest steak house in town, operating continually under the same name.
The Dining Car was opened in 1921 by the Cook family; these days, it's run by grandson Wes Idol. The place really did begin life as a dining car; the first room you walk through still looks like an old railroad car, complete with luggage racks with ancient valises sitting on them.
Like the nearby Original Pantry, it's open 24 hours a day, everyday, though in this case the late-night crowd is a good deal more upscale than the diners at the Pantry.
But then, so is the food, especially the prime Eastern steaks. There's a wonderful house chili, excellent spareribs and grandly sized salads.
Musso & Frank Grill
(6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-467-7788) isn't just in Hollywood; in a lot of ways, it is Hollywood. And you're reminded of that every time you look at the menu, which is printed fresh everyday, and which says right on it, "The Oldest Restaurant in Hollywood...Since 1919."
It's a rare day that, driving past Musso & Frank, I don't utter a short prayer for the survival of the place; without this culinary landmark, I do believe that Hollywood Boulevard would have long ago slipped into the abyss.
Musso & Frank is like a holy icon, holding the seediness and indiscretions of Hollywood in check. The place is thick with ambiance, with dark wood and darker leather, and with waiters who have dedicated their lives to serving flannel cakes in the morning, and chicken fricassee at night.
The Original Pantry
(877 S. Figueroa St., downtown, 213-972-9279) is so well known that, if you haven't heard of it, you've probably just fallen off the turnip truck, still wet behind the ears, freshly arrived from the Dustbowl. The Original Pantry has been in continual and I do mean continuously continual service since 1924. Since the doors first opened 68 years ago, the Pantry has been, as their motto proclaims, "Never closed... Never without a customer." (Well, almost a few years ago, the place was closed briefly by the notoriously unsentimental Health Department.)
The statistics surrounding the Pantry aren't quite Guinnessian in impact, but they are impressive: Despite a capacity of only 84 customers at a time, between 2,500 and 3,000 people are served every day. The Pantry's 38 employees have been there for close to 800 years all told, with several employees logging in more than 40 years each.
In the course of a year, the Pantry uses 10.5 tons of coffee, 90 tons of bread, 750,000 eggs, and 7,200 head of cattle for the steaks alone that comes to 20 cattle a day. This is a place for eaters who fall somewhere between gourmands and gluttons which is to say, most of us. No one ever leaves the Pantry hungry.
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