10 of Our Favorite Vintage Restaurants in L.A.
Phillippe the Original is known for its sawdust-covered floors and unusual counter ordering.
Los Angeles might be a city obsessed with newness, but it also has managed to retain a host of classic restaurants that are all but impervious to trends. Whether you're looking for 1940s-era glamour or midcentury kitsch, there's a restaurant around these parts that can authentically deliver it (along with an entree of lobster thermidor or a "lumberjack"-sized steak, respectively). So grab a chrome stool at the counter or slip into a red leather booth and start eating your way through L.A.'s delicious culinary history.
The Apple Pan
Some restaurant experiences are simply a rite of passage for L.A. food lovers, and the tense wait for a stool at Apple Pan's U-shaped counter is one of those experiences. Opened in 1947, the burger joint has barely changed in its 70-year history. Once you swoop in and grab your seat, your choice is simple: hickory burger or steak burger? If you're looking for a touch of smoky barbecue flavor, go for the former; if you're more of a purist, the latter. There are some non-burger sandwiches on the menu, including simple egg salad or tuna salad, but it's unlikely that's why you're here. The no-nonsense waiters will ask you gruffly if you want anything else when you finish your classic, immensely satisfying burger. The correct answer is, "Apple pie please, à la mode." Gobble it up, pay your bill (they accept cash only), and get out of the way so one of the people waiting along the back wall can get their taste of edible American history. —Besha Rodell
10801 Pico Blvd., West L.A.; (310) 475-3585, applepan.com.
One of the oldest Mexican restaurants in Southern California, with roots extending back to 1923, El Cholo embodies the feel of Old Mexico à la 1940s musicals featuring Carmen Miranda. That feels especially anachronistic sitting as it does on a stretch of Western Avenue that's pretty hard to feel nostalgic about. The food at El Cholo is hearty and slightly more original than you might expect. The tacos al carbon combining top sirloin and bacon would be right at home on a top-flight taco truck. The seasonal (May to October) green corn tamales are remarkably light and flavorful, with a fresh-tasting sweetness. —Angela Matano
1121 S. Western Ave., Harvard Heights. (323) 734-2773, elcholo.com. Locations also downtown, Santa Monica, La Habra, Corona del Mar and Anaheim Hills.
Clearman's Steak ’n Stein/North Woods Inn
Where do you go for an off-the-beaten-path food experience that brings together an old-school L.A. vibe, bizarre set-designer whimsy and good-for-all-ages American steakhouse grub? How about the eclectic trio of cabinlike, midcentury restaurants in Covina, San Gabriel and La Mirada: Clearman's North Woods Inns. As you step into a North Woods Inn, you'll slowly pull open a heavy wooden door and peer into a dimly lit, richly decorated room of rustic log walls, massive taxidermied bears, jewel-toned stained glass, sawdust-strewn floors and eccentric hunting-lodge kitsch. The signs tell you to "Please throw peanut shells on floor." The meat-centric menu has enormous "lumberjack"-sized steaks and giant baked potatoes. Vegetarian options are few, but the greasy, gooey cheese bread and iceberg lettuce salad are worshiped with a cultlike fanaticism. The restaurants are creations of another era. Each was designed by architect Robert Frank Duff to look like a 19th-century Alaskan hunting lodge, with raw, rounded, interlocking logs complete with faux snow-covered roofs and dangling "icicles." Like many things in L.A., Clearman's North Woods Inn all comes down to showmanship. —Nicole Kreuzer
7247 Rosemead Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 286-3579, clearmansrestaurants.com/northwoods-inn. Also 540 N. Azusa Ave, Covina; (626) 331-7444; and 14305 Firestone Blvd., La Mirada; (714) 739-0331.
Colombo’s Italian Steakhouse & Jazz Club
Like many of its surrounding neighborhoods, Eagle Rock has had a slew of trendy eateries open in recent years, with varying degrees of success. But if you want a glimpse into the real heart and soul of the neighborhood, there's no better place to find it than at Colombo's Italian Steakhouse & Jazz Club, a restaurant that has been serving this community since 1954. People of all ages and all walks of life gather in the big circular booths and dine on old-school, upscale Italian cooking while listening to live jazz, which begins at 4:30 or 5:30 p.m. nightly. The bar is always packed with regulars, and the atmosphere is always joyful. The music's pretty damn good, too. What should you eat? The steaks are the best bet, though if you're in the mood for sauce-slathered pasta, or chicken piccata, there's plenty of that type of thing to be had. But this isn't a place for serious food snobs. It's a place for reveling in the type of community — and the type of fun — that hasn't been commonplace in L.A. restaurants for decades. Let's pray it's here for decades to come. —B.R.
1833 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 254-9138, colombosrestaurant.com.
L.A. is rich in old-school restaurants that capture the feel of a bygone era. In fact, it’s one of our city’s greatest (and least appreciated) cultural gifts. But at most of those restaurants — particularly the ones that have retained much of their original menus — the food doesn’t seem to be made with a whole lot of care. That is not the case at Dal Rae, where you can taste what high-class food actually was like in 1958, the year the restaurant moved to its current location. Yes, the vintage Pico Rivera steak-centric stalwart has all the midcentury glam you could hope for, and it’s worth visiting for the visuals and the theatrics of the tableside food presentations alone. But nowhere else are you likely to get your artichokes stuffed with crab and doused in hollandaise made from artichokes trimmed in-house, the crab obviously fresh and high-quality. Nowhere else are the oysters Rockefeller quite so tasty, the creamed spinach so well made. It’s the place to come for lobster thermidor, for châteaubriand carved tableside for two, or for the restaurant’s famed pepper steak. I’m not saying that this food has been modernized for today’s tastes — quite the opposite. Just that at Dal Rae, they’re still cooking and serving with the pride they might have back when this was the height of sophisticated dining. —B.R.
9023 Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera. (562) 949-2444, dalrae.com.
With its red-and-white checkered tablecloths, black-tuxedoed waiters and well-preserved regulars from roughly the time it opened back in 1964, Dan Tana's could be a favorite dinner-and-drinks spot from The Godfather. The old-school feel draws people famous and not so famous, and long waits are common. The overflow heads to the long wooden bar, a classic L.A. hangout and celebrity-watching perch. It's a great spot to sit, sip a stiff drink and observe the dining room, where you might catch a glimpse of George Clooney, Rupert Murdoch, Clint Eastwood or other notables chowing down. But don't snap pictures — the guys in tuxedos take their jobs seriously, and they frown upon the paparazzi, including amateurish fans. —Patrick Range McDonald
9071 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 275-9444, dantanasrestaurant.com.
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