LA's Vintage Diners, Then And Now
On a recent visit to San Francisco, as I sat alone at the counter of the most Lynchian diner you could imagine -- the Silver Crest Donut Shop in the city's Bayview-Hunter's Point neighborhood -- I found myself marveling that a place like this could still exist in a city so marked by change.
Not that Los Angeles has room to talk. Southern California was once dotted with old-school diners. Back then, they weren't old-school. They just were. Built at the height of car culture, designed with Space Age flourishes to symbolize the progress of a new era.
Every time I drive by Johnie's, I lament that I'll never get to stop in for a slice of pie. Whenever I see the Ship's sign towering over the corner of Olympic and La Cienega, I wish modern health codes encouraged more restaurants to have toasters on each table.
We can't resurrect all the Armet & Davis gems we've demolished or abandoned, but we can still find a few vintage gems dotting the landscape.
101 Coffee Shop
THEN: Before it became a Best Western, the hotel that houses the 101 Coffee Shop was called the Hollywood Franklin Hotel. It has been owned by the Adler family since the 1940s. In its earliest days, the hotel's ground-floor restaurant attracted clientele like James Dean and the Keystone Kops. By the 1990s, it needed a revamp. That's where Susan Fine Moore and her husband came in. After renaming it the Hollywood Hills Cafe, they spent $50,000 turning it into the kind of spot A-listers like Nic Cage and Brad Pitt might want to visit. The place got a jolt of fame from Jon Favreau's 1996 movie, Swingers, although the screenplay may actually have been written with a certain diner on Beverly in mind.
NOW: After the Hollywood Hills Coffee Shop closed in 2001, Warner Ebbink and Brandon Boudet (both of whom had previously worked at the aforementioned diner on Beverly) took over. To the delight of vintage fans, not to mention location scouts, they updated the space to its current retro-meets-modern perfection. The decor features quilted brown leather booths, vintage-looking globe light fixtures and intricate brown-and-blue tilework. On the menu, you'll find a mix of comfort food staples like buttermilk waffles and mac 'n' cheese alongside a fried tofu sandwich, mushroom taquitos and a kale Greek salad, making this one of the more vegetarian-friendly diners around.
6145 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. 323-467-1175, 101coffeeshop.com.
Cindy's Eagle Rock
THEN: Cindy's has been in the same spot on Colorado Boulevard since the '20s, according to Paul Rosenbluh, who currently owns the diner with his wife, Monique King. It may have been the site of The Rite Spot, a storied burger stand that claims it created the "hamburger with cheese" (the word "cheeseburger" had yet to be invented). In any case, the current building became Cindy's in 1948 along what was then Route 66, which explains its roadhouse vibe. The diner, originally configured as more of an open-air patio-style spot that was later covered over to create the dining room you seen now, according to Rosenbluh, was named after the daughter of the original owners. She lived in a little house behind the place until 1980, when they sold the restaurant. It then changed hands several times without any major updates.
NOW: In the mid-2000s, King and Rosenbluh, who owned and worked as chefs at Pasadena's Firefly Bistro, were approached by the elderly owner's adult daughter. She asked if they might be interested in buying the restaurant, which was serving primarily as a filming location. After modernizing the kitchen, overhauling the menu to feature Southern-style cooking and taking pains to restore the spot's vintage charm (they refurbished the original sign and replaced the awful green carpeting with formica flooring that more closely resembles the original material), Cindy's was back in business. After a brush with a drunk driver in 2016, Rosenbluh and King closed the place for six months to overhaul the place down to the studs, restitching the Cony's signature orange booths and shining up the vintage counter.
1500 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. 323-257-7375, cindyseaglerock.com.
THEN: When a San Francisco millionaire feuding with his business partner decided to open a restaurant in Los Angeles, he enlisted Armet & Davis -- the L.A.-based design firm whose Jetson's-style buildings are probably what you imagine when you think of '50s and '60s diners -- to turn his space-age dreams into a reality. Stanley Burke's Coffee Shop opened in 1958. It was later renamed Stanley Burke's Corker, which was originally the name of the on-site lounge and bar where Billy Joel reportedly played the piano in the '70s. According to an old menu on eBay, you could get a steak for less than $5 or a spaghetti burger (intriguing!) for $2.75. Those were the days.
NOW: A new owner bought it and in the '80s turned it into the Lamplighter, a family-friendly local chain known for iglasses of red Jell-O and blue-plate specials. The Lamplighter was extinguished in 2010, but the building remained intact, paving the way for Corky's to make its triumphant return in 2010 under new ownership (aka the same folks who own the equally fantastic Paty's in Toluca Lake). The dining room featured groovy, rainbow-hued glass panels and seafoam-green booths. Sadly, Corky's closed in December 2019 and is reportedly slated for demolition.
5043 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 818-788-5110, corkysla.com.
THEN: Opened in 1959 as The Penguin, this Googie-style restaurant quickly became a Westside hub, beloved for its iconic sign and the penguins painted on the walls inside. The folks who operated the long-gone Rose City Diner in Pasadena were in charge in 1990, when the diner shut its doors, to the chagrin of students at nearby Santa Monica City College and Santa Monica High School. It became a dentist's office for most of the '90s, although much of the original exterior architecture was left intact.
NOW: When Western Dental left the space a few years back, San Francisco-based restaurant chain Mel's swooped in and got to work peeling back all that drywall. They restored the space to its original glory, maintaining many of the touches that made The Penguin so great. The newest Mel's outpost has been open since June 2018. It offers 24/7 weekend service and a menu that mixes chili fries and sizeable omelettes with more updated fare, including a full complement of smoothies and pressed juices. The sign out front says Mel's, but thankfully the penguin remains perched on top.
1670 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; 310-392-0139, melsdrive-in.com.
THEN: Named for its original owners, Nathaniel and Katherine Banks, Naka's Broiler has been in business since 1956, making it the first black-owned business in Compton. Thanks to Katherine (who worked there for years, even after she sold the restaurant), the diner became a refuge for black students attending Centennial High School, across the street. Throughout its storied history, it has attracted famous patrons such as Muhammad Ali, Johnnie Cochran and Sammy Davis Jr.
NOW: Katherine sold Naka's to David Fisher, who grew up eating there, in 2001, and he operates it to this day. The unassuming little brick building the couple built in the '50s endures, and Centennial students still flock there after school. When you open the menu, emblazoned with the words "You tried the rest... Now come in and have the best," make sure to give the Southern-style breakfast dishes your full attention (especially that pork chop and grits). Not your jam? Order a taco or sandwich.
1961 W. El Segundo Blvd., Compton, 323-566-5450.
THEN: After serving in the Navy during World War II, the restaurant's namesake, Nick, returned to Los Angeles and built a diner near the charred remains of China City (the precursor to Chinatown). He later sold the establishment to a pair of LAPD homicide detectives, who were still running it when L.A. Times food writer Jonathan Gold swung by in the '90s. Back then, they were still making dishes with Nick's signature ingredient: ham, ham and more ham.
NOW: The restaurant remains mostly the same. Seating is limited to the original U-shaped counter, and you have to jump into a seat as soon as it's vacant (similar to the Apple Pan). Ham is still very much on the menu. Speaking of which, you can't go wrong with Nick's Famous Ham & Eggs. The neighborhood around the diner, meanwhile, has seen plenty of changes. The old freight yard site is now Los Angeles State Historic Park and rents are rising in Chinatown. Still, Nick's endures and draws crowds on the weekends. Business is so good enough that current owner Rod Davis opened the Rock'n Egg Cafe in Eagle Rock last year.
1300 N. Spring St., downtown L.A. 323-222-1450, nickscafela.net.
THEN: The diner chain founded by L.A. native and used car salesman Norm Roybark opened its La Cienega location in 1957, where it has been serving affordable omelets, burgers, steaks and stacks of pancakes ever since. Another Armet & Davis design, the layout of this Norm's was designed to look like a car showroom, right down to the upholstered booths. Go-Gos rhythm guitarist Jane Weidlin has written about working at this Norm's in the late '70s (she had to wear a wig to hide her blue hair), and a photo of the restaurant is featured in the liner notes for Scottish power pop group Teenage Fanclub's 1995 album, Grand Prix.
NOW: You'll still see a few Norm's scattered around L.A. but there aren't as many as there used to be (the first one was located on Sunset near Vine). The La Cienega Norm's was threatened by a West Hollywood developer in 2015, but thanks to the efforts of the L.A. Conservancy, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously to approve the structure's Historical Cultural Monument status. Stop in for a late-night bite next time you find yourself at Largo. Norm's still has low prices and some of the best people-watching. ICYWW, it is the diner featured near the end of Sam Raimi's 2009 film, Drag Me to Hell.
470 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood. 310-657-8333, normsrestaurants.com.
THEN: Pann's wasn't the first restaurant opened by Greek immigrants George and Rena Panagopoulos but it is the longest lasting. They opened Rena's Cafe in Inglewood in 1948 and Yum Burger on Manchester Boulevard in 1951. By 1958, they enlisted Armet & Davis to construct Pann's, a Space Age-style diner complete with a pointed, gravel-covered roof and interior rock walls. The family also owned a nearby restaurant called Holly's -- later called Hawthorne Grill -- where Pulp Fiction's iconic diner scene was shot. (That one was razed to make way for an AutoZone.)
NOW: Pann's endures as one of L.A. County's best examples of Googie architecture. The red leather booths, the flecked formica floors, the distinctive neon sign. Longtime Angelenos swear it has barely changed since the '80s. Pann's stopped serving dinner back in 2016 (reportedly due to the rising minimum wage) but it's still home to some of the best fried chicken around. It has to be one of the only diners in L.A. still operated by its original owners and it's an essential stop on your way to or from LAX.
6710 La Tijera Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-776-3770; panns.com.
THEN: Founded in 1958, Rae's has, for years, been a prime meeting spot on the edge of West L.A. and Santa Monica. Ted Delgado, the restaurant's current owner, started out washing dishes there in 1967 after immigrating from Jalisco, Mexico. He saved up enough money to buy his own place (Ned's Coffee Shop, which closed in 1988) then bought Rae's in 1992. He has been running the place ever since, along with his other restaurant, Teddy's Cafe, located about a half mile east on Pico.
NOW: Rae's has been excellently preserved, making it another prime filming location. You can see it in Lords of Dogtown, True Romance, Bowfinger... the list goes on. "We try not to change very much," Delgado told us back in 2011, and indeed, the blue-and-white color scheme remains the same. You'll never leave hungry, as Jerry Seinfeld and Brian Regan found out when they hopped out of their 1970 Dodge Challenger during a 2016 episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Make room for a plate of biscuits and gravy. You'll thank us later.
2901 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. 310-828-7937.
THEN: The Armet & Davis-designed building on Fair Oaks in Pasadena has been home to two storied local coffee shop chains. Built in 1964 for Richard S. Preble, who cut his teeth at the International House of Pancakes, Preble's offered an affordable menu and specialized in homemade pies and hamburgers. Described by a contemporaneous Pasadena Independent reporter as a "young, dynamic, and often controversial" character who looked like James Dean, Preble had big plans. Less than a decade later, the building had changed hands and become the first location of Henry Yost's Salt Shaker chain. (In a weird reversal of fate, one of Preble's other diners -- the one on Figueroa in Lincoln Heights -- is now an IHOP.)
NOW: This particular Salt Shaker is still standing although it goes by the shortened moniker Shakers. (One internet-fueled legend states that they dropped the "salt" when people started worrying about sodium being bad for their health.) Still owned and operated by the Yosts, the restaurant retains much of its vintage charm and is a popular filming location. You won't find the 95-cent fish-and-chips special we saw in a 1968 ad but classic breakfast dishes are still on the menu along with fun twists like Hawaiian bread French toast (highly recommended).
601 Fair Oaks, South Pasadena. 626-799-9168, shakersrestaurant.net.