Coffee Shop, Interrupted
Photos by Anne FishbeinEvery Angeleno has a secret backdoor shortcut to the airport, and Pann’s is smack on the route of at least two-thirds of them. It’s a grand ’50s coffee shop smack on the triangle formed by the intersection of La Cienega, La Tijera and Centinela, a bright, neon-lit fortress of patty melts, banana splits and pie, bottomless cups of coffee, and a twangy soundtrack that veers from Duane Eddy to Elvis and back. Rena Poulos, the tiny, birdlike woman who has owned the restaurant since it opened in 1958, still flits around most mornings, a hyperactive vision dressed in Palm Springs chic. The clientele of local regulars, the airport-bound and the occasional hipster is probably the most diverse in Los Angeles, drawn together by the decent coffee, long hours and massive plates of chicken wings with waffles. In the mid-’80s, I did a survey of classic Los Angeles coffee shops for the Weekly that included almost 20 restaurants, from the Pink Café to the Penguin, Googie’s to Tiny Naylor’s. It may have been at the height of L.A.’s dominance of the culinary culture, a time when Spago and Trumps and Chinois and Michael’s were creating the menus that would serve as the templates of American cuisine, but the city was also a wonderland of burgers and fries, chef salads and chocolate malteds. Pann’s didn’t rank especially highly at the time. The owners seemed to have retrofitted the restaurant — one of the best confections from the Armet & Davis team that also designed the Wich Stand, Norm’s and innumerable other ’50s coffee shops — with generic chrome geegaws and other shiny markers of a Happy Days/Grease ’50s that never existed outside of a soundstage. It was kind of like tacking a Mondrian-influenced pillowcase on top of an actual Mondrian painting. In Labyrinths, Borges had hypothesized a map so detailed that it had to be laid over the area it was describing, obscuring it, essentially replacing it. Pann’s was the coffee shop version of that, redone so thoroughly that it was impossible to say which was original and which was purchased from a catalog, which was the restaurant that Marilyn Monroe frequented and which was a set designer’s idea of the kind of restaurant Marilyn Monroe might have frequented. Plus, the food was just okay — the patty melts and chili bowls and club sandwiches were quite good, but at Ship’s and the Five Horsemen, they were superb. Marilyn Monroe ate here, but the queen of Pann's is owner Rena Paulos. One by one, though, Los Angeles’ great coffee shops began to close, as inexorably as the tiki bars, drive-ins and drive-in theaters before them. Despite the efforts of conservancy groups, nostalgists and Quentin Tarantino, only a few of them remain. The glory of the Steak-o-Bob, the Pan-San and pineapple rings with everything was overshadowed by the seductive, heavily advertised promises of Chili’s and Applebee’s, the quality-obsessed aesthetic that the best coffee shops had in common replaced by fealty to entrées assembled in Iowa processing plants.And suddenly, Pann’s appears as something of a miracle, crisp as a blueprint, owned and run by the same family since 1958, and restored to its late-’50s brilliance. Are the red-vinyl booths, Palos Verdes stone and space-age light fixtures the same as they were in the ’50s? It looks as if they are, and that may be enough. Dowdy specialties such as the Dreamburger, a standard California coffee-shop burger livened with ripe tomatoes, raw onions and a house relish flavored with a stinging quantity of clove, are revealed as elegant essays in texture, the crunchiness of well-grilled, freshly ground beef sinking into the crisp-edged softness of the bun. Thick-shelled onion rings seem exactly right. Macaroni and cheese are more luxurious than Kraft Dinner, but not too much so. Even the full dinners, the stuffed chicken and blackened catfish filets that are typically ordered by customers who eat at a coffee shop five times a week, tend to be well-portioned and wholesome at least — and sometimes, like the pot-roasted short ribs or the London broil with horseradish, actively delicious. Given the genteel African-American makeup of the neighborhood, the menu overlaps a bit with that of the area’s Southern restaurants, and Pann’s is a decent place to go for chicken wings and waffles, grits, chicken-fried steak or homemade biscuits with sausage gravy.A lot of people go to Pann’s just for the fried chicken, and it is quite good: well-seasoned, crisp-crusted and spurtingly moist, just right with a sweet corn muffin. Mornings see customers from all over Los Angeles who can’t stay away from the sugar-cured ham, the thick blueberry pancakes or the big plates of steak and eggs.Pann’s is a coffee shop, not a temple of cuisine, and not all of the 100-odd items on the menu are fantastic. Pies come with inch-thick crusts seemingly fashioned from that morning’s biscuit dough, and the Southern-fried pork chops tend to be dry. You are probably better off staying away from the liver and onions and the fish and chips.Still, Pann’s may be the best remaining example of coffee shop as a neighborhood crossroads, a populist masterpiece of the tropical indoor-outdoor, post-Taliesin restaurant that is to golden-age Los Angeles what opulent brasseries were to Paris’ belle époque, and we all owe it to ourselves to stop by for a plate of chicken from time to time. Pann’s, 6710 La Tijera Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 670-1441. Open daily 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Recommended dishes: waffle with fried chicken wings, fried chicken, Dreamburger, London broil.
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