Saturday, November 04, 2006

Homestyle Cafeterias Coming to the End of the Line

Saturday's Los Angeles Times ran an interesting story on the last of the great Southern California cafeterias. Here's the introduction:

It's getting harder to find that plate of green jello.

There was a time when the cafeteria was the undisputed king of Southern California dining. Before World War II, the cheap food and sprawling dining halls brought together strangers new to the region and created lasting bonds.

The meals were inexpensive, and there was something altogether modern in the dining experience, which did without menus, waiters and tablecloths. Restaurant-goers could load their trays with cold foods and then hot, delicacies like ambrosia salad and coleslaw, liver and onions and mac and cheese, and then sidle up to the cash register to pay — all without waiting.

Dozens of cafeterias once peppered the Southland, so many, in fact, that city directories listed them separately from restaurants. But today, the cafeteria is a dying breed, a victim of changing tastes, an aging population and urban sprawl.

On Wednesday, one of the last of the grande dames shut its doors after 50 years: Beadle's in Pasadena.

"I want to pinch myself and hope it suddenly opens. It really hurts," said longtime diner Bob Malsman, 57, who already misses the grilled salmon he always got. "It's real food. Real comfort food. Everything now is fast food. It's all garbage. It's cheap. You just go in and out."

A few cafeterias survive — Clifton's in downtown and Arnold's in Long Beach — but even there, patrons say they worry about the future.

"The average person would rather see their food fixed for them," said Benjamin Alsop, a Clifton's regular, who was quietly eating fried rice and an egg roll at a table on the mezzanine level of the woodsy themed restaurant, a few steps away from the indoor waterfall.

Beadle's was a relative latecomer to the area's cafeteria scene when it opened on Colorado Boulevard in 1956 — a time when many cafeterias were already being shuttered, in part because their faithful customers were moving to the suburbs and being wooed by fast-food franchises.

The cafeteria's longtime owner, Gordon Hammond, had spent years working for the famed Boos Brothers cafeteria, and then the Clinton family, which ran a chain of cafeterias from Laguna Hills to Century City.

Along with its sister restaurant, the Pasadena Cafeteria, Beadle's fed a generation of Pasadenans comfort food: green jello — which almost defied gravity — chicken pot pie and Thanksgiving-style turkey with stuffing on almost any day of the year. Gourmet chefs would complain that they could not get a high-end restaurant off the ground in Pasadena because residents' tastes were tempered by years of Beadle's food.

But the cafeteria fell victim to changing tastes and a series of missteps. Long-loyal clientele had begun to die off, and were not being replaced by enough younger patrons. Beadle's began to falter after moving from Colorado Boulevard to an out-of-the way location in the early 1990s. The Hammond family sold the restaurant, and subsequent owners were not able to resurrect the cafeteria. They tried a salad bar and then Chinese and Japanese food. But it made little difference.
This is one of those newspaper stories that brings back bittersweet memories. I used to visit Clifton's Cafeteria when they had a restaurant in Lakewood, nearby my college. I just happened to find it one day when I was visiting the mall. I started having lunch there just about every Tuesday and Thursday. The food reminded me of some of the family meals my Dad used to serve up -- real soul food, like pork chops, potatos, and corn bread, or fried chicken with black-eyed peas, and pie for dessert.

I remember calling my Dad to tell him about the restaurant and how it reminded me of his cooking! We laughed about it, but I never got a chance to take Dad over there. The Lakewood Clifton's closed in 2001. I visited the original Los Angeles downtown restaurant one afternoon after a shopping trip. Dad worked in downtown for a while when I was a kid, and he took me once to another Los Angeles landmark,
Philippe's, where one can get the best French-dip sandwiches on the West Coast. Oh, what memories all that comfort food rekindles!

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