TREASURES OF DOWNTOWN
---Glen Creason 1999
There is a hot dry wind blowing down the concrete canyons of downtown wafting frying hamburger smells off the smokestack of memory. Suddenly I am transported back to the downtown of my youth when Jack Webb was king and a skyscraper was eight stories high. As a kid program vendor, delivery boy, parking lot attendant and errand runner for my Dad I watched the big town come of age. I also ate in some of the most delightful dumps and dives in the unfriendly confines of 1960's Los Angeles. In the ensuing decades I visited what seems like every modest priced eaterie in the boundaries of Ord's original survey. Some remain in fact like Philippes or the Pantry or Yorkshire Grill but many have vanished like the dinosaurs who thundered around mid-Wilshire a few eons ago. This isn't about all of those lost wonders (restaurants not dinosaurs) but just a few of my favorites. Of course there are those restaurants so arcane and mystical I don't even know where they were like the Produce district stall that served Chasu and scrambled eggs with lava hot tea or the Kite Coffee Shop which pre-opped all Denny's or Tito's where lard was on the plate and not the chalkboard menu. Oh the days before good cholesterol and endoscopy and Tagamet or Zantac. Those days when chili-fries seemed like a great idea.
My downtown stretched from Exposition Park and Bill's Tacos to Chinatown's lovely Ling's and from the First street bridge near the Atomic Cafe to Glendale blvd where the smell of Bernies Teryaki chicken filled the air. Many a bout with dyspepsia was gladly treated with Calso water and the joyful memory of the glories that were pre-California cuisine downtown. These were the days before sprouts and whole grain, when yogurt was something only Gypsy Boots ate and deep-frying was an art. But now it is like what Amanda wistfully utters in "the Glass Menagerie" gone, gone...all vestiges of gracious living...gone." These are just a few of my favorites.
Red's on Spring near 9th. Six stools with a dozen anxious folk forming a second level of burger need surrounding the lucky ones to get a seat to watch the "chefs art." A deft counterman would form rosy sphere's of ground chuck then slam dunk them to the grill where an assistant pressed the trusty spatula down to form the perfect patty. No grease was wasted as mass quantities of sliced onions were fried up in same to join the patty on an overburdened bun. French fries steeped in beef suet too. I cant say Nathan Pritikin would approve but when approaching Red's one would cast a glance jealously at the line and wish the already darkening paper bags were in your hands. As an indentured servant of the Hearst family over at the 11th and Broadway plantation I visited Red's weekly in the late 70's.
Blairs at 718 S. Grand where my Mom used to share two-straw sodas with her beaus back when L.A. Poly High was on the current grounds of L.A. Trade Tech. When Jimmy Carter was president I used to ply myself with the early bird breakfast special for $1.99 but felt a tinge of regret when one of the old-fashioned, plate-balancing, tough-talking waitresses had a coronary at my table while I was digging into bacon and eggs. If only Elvis had had such an experience while a young man, he might still be alive today. The clientele was a cross-section of downtown but dominated by fashion dandies from Robinson's across the street. The cheeseburgers and malts stand as an unreachable standard to this day.
Vickman's 1228 E. 8th St. where loud-mouthed, cigar chomping produce guys and Valley Housewives rubbed shoulders for some of the very best breakfast and lunch chow the city had to offer. Huge, noisy and full of soul Vickman's was a piece of history that should have never been allowed to close. Too bad Mr. Riordan hadn't chosen to pick up it's tab. The portions would have made a 1950's Jewish mother smile and the sawdust on the floor was put there when the idea was young. The one incongruous thing in the place was a large, free scale that went up to three bills and sometimes needed more. I miss Vickman's like I miss Ram games at the Coliseum and the card catalog at the library.
Yee Mee Loo at 690 N. Spring. The bar not to be confused with the restaurant which in terms of great Chinatown restaurants was like the L.A. river compared to the Mississippi. The bar had the most wonderful atmosphere in the city, you almost wished you were a real juicer to sit and listen to Swing music and enjoy the antics of the finest-pro bartenders in the city. Always filled with iron packing cops so the chances of any trouble in the tavern were nil. The only dark spot on my hours spent in this magical haven in Chinatown was the night I let my buddy Gene talk me into getting married. Unlike marriage, I would love to go back to Yee Mee Loo.
Pete's Grandburger at 1065 Wilshire when it was in a log cabin just a long walk up from Central library. The gruff as a troll Pete could not only whip up a world class burger and fries he did it really, really fast. Lines dissipated before your eyes as steaming yellow bundles were passed through the portal of many calories. Tow truck drivers and three-piece suiters shared tables while greedily gobbling these wonders of hamburger art. Later, he moved up the hill to 1033 W. 6th and shared a spot with his bar where on hot summer days the A.C. could chill the beer in your hand.
Superfish at 1320 Newton. This short lived but much lamented loss was the best seafood restaurant in town during its day. In a huge hall decorated in the style of the Pacific Ocean Park Amusement Park it served honest to goodness fresh fish and it seemed like everyone knew it. In the 1980's businessmen and their free-loading sons (that would be me) flocked to this warehouse next door to the great art-deco Coca Cola building on Central Avenue for scallops from heaven and the most remarkable saffron rice known to lunch anywhere. The only spot in the county you could find more Lincoln Town Cars than Superfish was at the California Club. I rank the fire that destroyed Superfish as the second greatest such cataclysm in L.A. history.
Gorky's at 536 E. 8th. It used to be the answer to an often asked question "where can I go in downtown at night?" Gorky's offered a Bohemian hang out right near the Flower mart and mere blocks away from the outer rings of hellish Skid Row. Originally started by librarian Judith Markov Gorky's was supposed to feed the masses for less and did for a while. Some of the best people watching in the Valley of the Smokes was had at Gorkys where guys in Count Basie hats played chess, girls with purple hair ate pierogies and intelligent conversations were not frowned upon. I visited the place so often I used to pay the regular pan-handler out front by the month. The food was less than spectacular but like at El Coyote no one seemed to care. Everyone was welcome when it was Ms. Markov's, from street people to lawyers.
Corky's at 147 W. 11th. In an alliterative mode we turn to the watering hole of the late Los Angeles Herald-Examiner where cigarette smoke and intoxication were part of the journalistic experience for decades. In my late seventies tenure at the Hearst Plantation lunches of gut-busting sandwiches and gritty potato salad were washed down with buck a beers drawn by the ever-smiling thai owners. After deadlines were met many retired across eleventh street to sink down into red-leather booths and forget about tomorrow's stories for an hour. Once, in a scene worthy of Twin Peaks I sipped some suds while a Mormon missionary played Ferrante and Teicher on the piano and Patty Hearst's sister gave me a back rub. Ah, the memories. Everyone from John P. Lindsay to Doug Krikorian dropped their dipper in this watering hole.
Atomic Cafe at 422 E. 1st. At the edge of Little Tokyo but solar systems away from the staid noodle spots surrounding this most unique hangout. The Kyoshi family, an accepting lot, provided one of the unique restaurants in the culinary history of downtown with a eclectic mix of Japanese/Chinese meets Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin in Hollywood American foods. One could feast on Gotcha, a sort of Vegetable-Meat Hash prepared with Japanese spices or eat steak and french fries like Japanese visitors did. The jukebox was tied with Yee Mee Loo as the best in town with Brenda Lee sharing space with Doo Doo Doo Dah Dah Dah in Japanese by the Police. Where else could you sample Japanese country food and listen to Siouxie and the Banshees but at the Atomic Cafe. Late at night it became strictly a place to show off your new Mohawk but when I went at the dinner hour it was to put on the Atomic nose-bag.
A short aside from the list to point out that not all these restaurants were notable for their food but some existed solely on ambience. The Far East Cafe, for example had cantonese food that would have made Irish Pub cuisine look downright yummy but the layout of small wooden walled booths was straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel. Old Finley's on 8th had the most enchanting interior with walls mimicking the food of the God's i.e. chocolate but by the time I discovered the place the neighborhood was too foreboding for me to visit. Some places I might remember for a great waiter or maybe just the mural on the wall, but more on that later.
Turner's Hofbrau at 645 W. 15th was such a restaurant that remains in the taste bud memory bank because of two things:the mural and the saurbrauten. The mural, a whopper of a Bavarian Sound of Music type landscape was enough to make anyone want to dance the polka to the oom-pa-pa that filled the air. Sturdy rheindmaiden paroled the vast confines and brought large platters of sausages, mounds of sauerkraut and mighty mugs of German beer to tables apparently hewn from solid oak. The Hofbrau was a feel-good restaurant that assumed that you would feel good after a flagon of Dortmunder dark and a dose of wurst. I did. To walk into the great hall of Turners was to be in Germany way before the words struck terror into the hearts of other Europeans.
Hamburger Hamlet at 615 S. Flower may have been part of a chain but they had the greatest waiter in creation . His name was Joe and he was an artist of a server. Even in the sleepy hours between lunch and happy hour he was at the ready, never forgetting an order, remembering your kid or your cat's name and laying down that number nine burger with steam still rising from the bun. Coming to see Joe was as comforting as a visit home and more therapeutic than ten sessions with a shrink. Joe was one of several million actors who turned to the tables to support themselves between gigs and the footlight's loss was our gain. The Hamlet and it's good burgers are gone from Flower street but Joe, at last check, is still doing it right in ,appropriately, Hollywood.
Darm's Market at 560 S. Hope was a small deli on the ground floor of the Church of the Open Door where the foods of the fifties lived well into the eighties. One expected to see Mrs. Ward Cleaver overseeing the operation but instead young church folk, having rejected the lure of the devil, made simple "American style" sandwiches and wrapped them neatly in waxed paper for downtowners. The menu was wildly exotic with such delicacies as Egg Salad, Meat Loaf, Roast Beef, Ham and Tuna sandos that were built on white, wheat or kaiser roll. The world was simple and well ordered at Darm's, something like life in Ike's America. There were no surprises and one could expect the same egg salad on white that was prototyped by Mr. Darms back when downtown was the backdrop to Harold Lloyd's movies. After lunch from Darm's you felt like getting into a Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and driving down Wilshire to the beach.
The Switzerland at Figueroa and 41st Place is roaming pretty far afield but it was a true throwback to another time when the graceful craftsmen mega-pads around the Coliseum had not been subdivided into quarters and a European restaurant would be appropriate to the neighborhood. The Switzerland was a huge, musty-smelling haus with superb schnitzel, knackwurst and the most divine mashed spuds in town. Before and after Bruin, Trojan and Ram games the ancient beer garden out back was transformed into the hottest spot in town. I once sat next to "Hoss" Cartwright and Joey Hetherton before a Ram beating in 1965.
Of course there are many more whose passing I mourn from my head to the tip of my taste buds. There were those whose exterior beckoned like Googees or the Travellers Cafe or the Frying Pan but their menus failed to excite more than groans. Across the landscape of the city the ghosts of many memorable restaurants haunt my memory: Beanie and Cecil Hamburger stands, the Taco Kid, Ketchies Stand, Ptomaine Tommy's, the Italian Kitchen, Fongs, the Silver Saddle, McKeever's Trojan Barrel and all manner of hash houses and Mom and Pop restaurants. Marcel Proust may have been speaking of those lost omelettes and cheeseburger when he wrote "when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are gone, after the things are broken and scattered, still alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more taste of things remain in a poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping, for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection."
Contact Glen Creason
posted 13 August 2005
The author & daughter