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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Pantry Cafe Serves Rich History Alongside Its Omelets

Anne Artley |
November 9, 2013 | 10:05 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Customers enjoying breakfast at The Pantry Cafe (Anne Artley / Neon Tommy).
Customers enjoying breakfast at The Pantry Cafe (Anne Artley / Neon Tommy).
On the wall of The Original Pantry Cafe in Los Angeles hangs a signed photo of Marilyn Monroe. Smiling out at diners from her frame, the iconic actress dubbed the café “the best of the west” in her loopy cursive. 

With its no-frills fare of omelets and spaghetti, one may wonder how The Pantry has remained a Los Angeles hot spot.  Its clientele includes the likes of Kim Kardashian and Ryan Gosling. And its past record is no less impressive, with Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable and Lucille Ball joining Monroe as former customers.

“People arrive in limousines and tuxedos as well as in the bus,” said Hesh Seda, a Pantry manager who has worked in the restaurant for 25 years. “This is a place that doesn’t recognize class.”

As the city around it has continued to grow in size and diversity, The Pantry has remained largely unchanged since opening in 1924, which lends it a timeless feel. Customers pay in cash only (the store installed an ATM for those who come unprepared) at an old-fashioned cashier’s booth surrounded with metal bars. The food is cooked to order, and the restaurant’s original policy of serving large portions is very much in practice today.

The business, now an official Los Angeles Historic-Culture Monument, started out on 9th and Francisco streets with five employees, one room, a 15-stool counter, a small grill, a hot plate and a sink. Even when it first opened, The Pantry had to deal with large crowds. Waiters began taking orders while patrons were still in line so their food would be waiting for them when they got to their tables. The restaurant still uses this tactic, which enables a high turnover. Despite its humble beginnings, The Pantry managed to not only survive the Depression, but also expand as the staff added workers and another room.  In the next decade, half of the staff was drafted into World War II, and all but one made it back home. After the war, the restaurant moved a block to its current location to accommodate more customers. Moving day did not disrupt the Pantry's flow, as lunch was served at the old location and dinner at the new.

The Pantry’s ownership changed hands in the 1980s, when a downtown building boom threatened the unassuming café. But venture capitalist Richard Riordan, who later became the city’s mayor, bought the restaurant, as well as a block’s worth of property around it, for $3.5 million. He made no changes to the atmosphere, which has kept local customers flocking back.

“I’ve been coming here for 15 years and it hasn’t changed at all,” said David Wood, 56, who works at J.P. Morgan. He discovered The Pantry while searching for hole-in-the-wall restaurants with his coworkers. When asked what hooked him he said it was the coleslaw, which he describes as the “best in the city.”

The Pantry specializes in comfort food, and the most expensive item on the menu is the beef tenderloin at $16.95. Lone diners can sit at a marble countertop and watch the cooks prepare their meal. Breakfast is served all day, and customers can indulge a craving for bacon and eggs at midnight or sunrise, as the restaurant is open 24 hours. The doors do not even have locks. The Pantry motto, “never closed, never without a customer,” spoke the truth until 1997, when health inspectors closed it briefly for health code violations. However, the kitchen was up and running the next morning, and the restaurant has not had a problem since. The motto was threatened only one other time, when the pope paid a visit to Los Angeles in 1987. Pope John Paul II was cruising through downtown L.A. in the bulletproof popemobile. As he blessed the restaurant almost every customer rushed out to see him. Only one remained sitting at the counter. Just as the staff worried that he might leave, wondered about seeing an empty dining room for the first time, a local student rode up on his bike. Mario Frisan, The Pantry supervisor at the time, vowed that if it came down to it, he would have taken off his tie and placed an order himself. 

Pantry lore also has it that the restaurant hires ex-convicts, an urban legend that has turned into a longstanding joke. It began in the 1950s, when some of the waiters decided to play a joke on an out-of-town reporter covering the Rose Bowl. They told him that the staff was all ex-cons, and he reported it in his Midwest newspaper.  But like any good tall tale, the story has some truth to it. During World War II, all abled-bodied men had joined up, and the owner was reluctant to hire women, so he turned to the ex-cons. 

“When The Pantry opened in 1924, all of the eligible men had been shipped off to World War I,” said David Wall, a manager who has worked there for 10 years. “Women weren’t hired at that point so the ex-cons were the only ones left.” 

A historic marker on Figueroa Street makes a note of this rumor “that has refused to die.” The restaurant even receives job applications from prisoners up for release. Then there’s the tale of the well-known gangster who would climb in and out of the back window rather than risk being seen—and possibly shot—in line. 

Among the numerous pictures of celebrity customers, a black-and-white photo of the original staff of 80 employees, all wearing a dinner jackets and bow ties. A vintage University of Southern California football pennant hangs above the marbletop counter, confirming that the restaurant is a good neighbor to its local university. Its giant portions and 24-hour schedule have made The Pantry a favorite among USC swimmers fresh from morning practice. On weekend nights, the crowd turns livelier, as college students looking for a late-night snack after bars close visit the eatery. Tourists can remember their trips to the cafe with souvenir coffee cups or T-shirts. One customer liked his coffee cup so much that he stole it, but was later so consumed with guilt that he sent a $20 bill and note of apology. Both are now framed and hanging on the wall.

Wall compared The Pantry to his grandmother’s sofa: “the more you’re in it, the more comfortable you become.” As a career restaurant manager, he said his job can become redundant, but he has never had that problem with The Pantry.

“There’s not many restaurants where you can sit next to mayoral candidates, movie stars and the homeless,” he said.

All in all, he sums up the restaurant’s enduring appeal with one catchphrase: “It may be old, but working here never ‘gets old.’”

Reach Staff Reporter Anne Artley here.



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