It just never changes.
The legendary Apple Pan on Pico Boulevard is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and according to owner Martha Gamble, the tiny hamburger joint is offering up virtually the same kind of fare in the same surroundings as when her parents opened the place in 1947.
“We’ve hardly changed the wallpaper in 50 years,” says Gamble. “It’s the same since the day it was born.”
She’s not kidding. The Apple Pan still packs them in by preparing its hamburgers, sauces, tuna fish and pies the same way Alan and Ellen Baker did when they first opened the restaurant.
The restaurant’s cook, Charles Collins, has been presiding for 40 years over a grill encircled by a 26-stool counter (no individual tables), flipping up to 800 burgers a day. Hector Morales by comparison, a newcomer has been waiting on customers for 24 years, serving up sodas in paper water cups and making sure he’s thumped enough ketchup out for each customer’s order of fries.
The most high-tech item in the restaurant is a dishwasher, installed seven years back. Gamble, 67, refuses to bother with computers, doing her work manually from a tiny office in the back of the restaurant. The workspace is hardly large enough to accommodate a small desk. Sales still are rung up on the restaurant’s original cash register.
Outside the confines of the Apple Pan’s small wooden structure, it’s another story life has definitely gone on.
The Apple Pan sits in the middle of a bustling and dense retail hub. The hulking Westside Pavilion sits directly across the street, serving as a daily reminder to Gamble of her refusal to sell her little plot of land when developers came looking to buy in the late ’80s.
Keeping true to her philosophy of holding onto history, Gamble rejected offers to sell out, becoming the only property on the block to resist being acquired and redeveloped.
Gamble also refuses to entertain any ideas of expanding into other locations. “We love our little business,” she says. “We just feel like the place could not be kept as good as we want it. We couldn’t keep our standards up.”
So at a time when other businesses are constantly adapting, how is the Apple Pan able to succeed?
The answer is as simple as Gamble’s method of running her business the food is really good, says Merrill Schindler, co-editor of the Zagat Survey and one of L.A.’s most respected restaurant watchers.
“I often feel as if I should beat myself with olive branches and anoint myself with oil before eating there, in the hope of making myself worthy,” said Schindler. “This is manna, the food of the blessed.”
Schindler is most fond of the tuna salad sandwiches and, in fact, says he would be reluctant to trade one for dishes at L.A.’s “heavy hitters,” including places like Patina, Spago and L’Orangerie. “The Apple Pan is the sort of fine spot that offers a remarkable amount of pleasure in exchange for very little in the way of filthy lucre,” he said.
Restaurant critics aren’t the only ones who sing the eatery’s praises. Both long-time employees and customers appreciate Gamble’s continuity.
Collins, the 58-year-old head cook, says he started working there at age 18, planning to stay only three or four months. But, he says, every time he considered leaving, “(the owners) would make it a little better for me.”
Collins knows all the regulars (some that have been coming for 40 years). He even knows their usual orders and the cars they drive. From the window, Collins spots one of the regulars driving up in a Rolls Royce. “I make his order for him tuna fish and serve it before he sits down. He gets a kick out of that,” says Collins.
One 63-year-old customer (who refused to give his name, but did say he’s an agent who represents songwriters, including Irving Berlin) has been driving to the Apple Pan every week for 25 years from his office in Beverly Hills. “It’s part of the history of L.A., and it’s the best burger I think you can buy,” he says.
Sitting two stools down are Mike and Janice Nobi from Irvine, who grew up in West L.A. and stop in every time they’re in the area. The couple keeps coming back in part to help keep the landmark going. “I think it’s great these places are around,” says Mike. “I want to support it; I want it to stay here. I don’t want to see a big building here.”
Gamble doesn’t plan to let these people down any time soon. Her daughter, Sunny, 41, and Sunny’s two sons, 12 and 16, also work at the Apple Pan. The little restaurant, therefore, will likely continue “as long as Sunny works it and she likes it,” says Gamble. “I just envision it going on.”