There is a ghost at the Coral Cafe. That’s what people want to believe, explained Peter Vournas, one of the Burbank diner’s managers. Vournas is often asked about the spirit, which allegedly appeared in a 2006 YouTube video of the restaurant at 4:16 a.m. Whether said ghost really floats between Coral Cafe’s rounded wooden chairs and salmon-colored booths is fact determined by the eye of the believer. At any given 4-something in the morning, Coral Cafe is undeniably haunted, not by ghosts but by the living.
Coral Cafe has stood in the same Burbank location since 1957, when it was opened by its original owners, Danny and Irene Frydokowski, a married couple who kept the diner until selling it to cousins John Leoisis and Tom Vournas in 1990. Its neon green and coral sign shines boldly in an otherwise quiet neighborhood, where there are yards with lawns and plenty of parking. When the streets are dark in Burbank, it is always bright at the Coral Cafe.
Old-school diners need a few things: breakfast when it’s dark out, doors that never close, and a handful of clean, well-lit places. A real diner can’t have real art on its walls, or anything that could be mistaken for intentional kitsch. The old film posters like the ones that hang at Coral are an ideal bland choice — an on-the-nose tip to the Burbank backdrop, where suburban homes give way to soundstages.
Even though the menu at Coral states that coffee refills are “limited,” a busboy will continue coming by with a steaming metal carafe and adding more to your cup while it’s still half full. Coral Cafe’s coffee is good diner coffee — weak, which you want, because you ordered it so that you could keep getting more. Coffee after midnight is an admission that you must sober up, or you’ve given up on sleeping and want a reason to keep haunting your booth.
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The tables are comfortably cluttered at Coral Cafe: there is a caddy with the requisite salt and pepper; Equal and Sweet ’n’ Low; Heinz mustard with a label that reads, “A common condiment done uncommonly well.” It is good to have sugars to fidget with and table tents to read in case the conversation lulls with whoever you’ve found yourself here in a booth with. When I visited last, just after midnight on a Saturday, there were two skinny young men who talked feverishly about role-playing games. There was a married couple who sat on the same side of the booth. She leaned her head on his shoulder. He asked about her day in Spanish while they used two forks to eat the same piece of pie. There was a family with a grandma and a newborn baby and a squad of teenagers with that familiar young problem of having few places in your town as restless and awake as you are.
“You ready?” is the standard waitress greeting at Coral Cafe. The menu is long, so it may take a minute before you are. There is an entire page of hot sandwiches and Mexican-inspired dishes like fajitas and enchiladas. The vegetarian selection is also notably extensive, with options like the Veggie Monte Cristo or the Garden Burger, which is served with teriyaki sauce and a pineapple slice. The fries are well done, salty and served in generous proportions.
At the entrance, across from the register, where gum and candies are for sale, is a glass display full of frothy pies and cakes with wax paper stuck to their perforated slices — each of which will run you about four bucks. Beside the pies are stacks of local papers, which can be flipped open to kill time while waiting out the Sunday morning rush. On busy weekend breakfasts, locals sit outside on the sunny patio, waving politely at one another. Hangovers are nursed with Champagne and bacon grease. Soccer wins are celebrated with pancakes. The TV behind the countertop plays on mute. The conversation is loud. There is little indication, and certainly little thought, to who and what passed through here in the dead of the night.