In Los Angeles, you can find French toast of every description: diner French toast made with wheat bread and a smear of yolk, upscale French toast made with stale croissants, pillowy French toast made with thick-sliced challah bread, Italian French toast made with panettone, stuffed French toast and smeared French toast, French toast crusted with corn flakes and French toast soaked in Grand Marnier. A restaurant on the Sunset Strip once served French toast with caramel and foie gras, and the miracle was that the duck liver didn't hurt the French toast at all.
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Coffee-shop chic: Maria wears the apron at the Farmers Market Du-par's.
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Still, it is generally acknowledged that the best French toast in Los Angeles was the stuff that used to be served at the old coffee shop Du-par's, squishy supermarket bread soaked in eggs and milk until it became less bread than a square of rich custard, sagging under the weight of melted butter, dusted with enough powdered sugar to make a dead man sneeze. The Du-par's restaurants were never the hippest places to be seen — you were always afraid that your great-aunt Rose would loom up out of a booth, already halfway through her early-bird dinner, and discover you still bed-headed and uncaffeinated at 4 in the afternoon — but the French toast was worth enduring the weak coffee, the harsh lights, and the relentless aroma of the Swedish meatballs when they were on Wednesday special.
The French toast — and the date-nut bread, and the Denver omelets, and the chicken potpie, and the Welsh rarebit — came to an abrupt end a few years ago when the last three Du-par's restaurants closed. And although the remaining locations had been purchased by W.W. "Biff" Naylor, a former head of the National Restaurant Association whose father founded the much larger Tiny Naylor's operation, few people realistically expected to see the Du-par's restaurants in the Farmers Market, Studio City or Thousand Oaks return in anything like their old form — especially when Jennifer Naylor, Biff's daughter and a Wolfgang Puck protegee who had been the chef at Granita for almost a decade, signed on as executive chef. (Medardo Hernandez, a Spago alum, is the current executive chef.)
Some change was to be expected. Tiny Naylor's was a competing chain more memorable for the architecture of its coffee shops than for the food it served inside them. Du-par's was the place on the Miracle Mile where blue-haired women lined up in the afternoons for snacks of tea and banana bread. Tiny Naylor's was the drive-in on Sunset where you ate postmidnight onion rings in your Dodge Dart. Du-par's was cracked vinyl and steak-and-kidney pies in the Farmers Market. Tiny Naylor's was '50s glamour and grilled cheese sandwiches at the bottom of Beverly Hills' famous Restaurant Row. Du-par's was the office-building restaurant where your grandmother took you for chicken-salad sandwiches on raisin bread. Tiny Naylor's was the hamburger dive just a couple of blocks away. The deal seemed like the rough equivalent of Carl's Jr. taking over In-N-Out.
But when the various Du-par's reopened last year, they turned out to be neither chefly interpretations of the coffee shop, nor tofu-scramble huts, nor anything resembling Tiny Naylor's. They are, more or less, Du-par's, but with a killer hash-brown recipe, very decent bacon, a reputable corned-beef hash, and all the tuna melts, tri-tip sandwiches and fried liver any coffee-shop aficionado could possibly want.
Are there still chicken potpies? Of course, but meted out in big porcelain crocks instead of foil tins, crowned with star-shaped puff pastry, and awash with perhaps more carrots than may be strictly necessary. Will you find Welsh rarebit? Gallons of it, more sharply Cheddar-y than you may remember, thriftily ladled over what appear to be heels of white loaves and garnished with sliced tomatoes and bacon. Strawberry shakes? Made with actual strawberries. Caesar salad with grilled chicken? You might want to stay away from that — this is a coffee shop, not the Grill.
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The Studio City restaurant is still populated with CBS guys in the early morning and high school kids late at night, working screenwriters, white-haired couples, and practically everybody in the Valley who prefers coffee with cream to grande skinny decaf lattes. At the Farmers Market Du-par's, some of the regulars look as if they've been sitting at the same table since Petticoat Junction was still on the air. On weekend mornings, both restaurants fill with young women in love and men who need pancakes. There are vinyl booths and lighted pie displays, waitresses in starched gingham and mustachioed cooks. The buttermilk pancakes, which some magazine once called the best in America, are still truly excellent: tangy, slightly chewy and perfectly browned. The sweet apple sausages come from Huntington Meats in the Farmers Market. The hamburgers are made with freshly ground Harris Ranch chuck. The patty melt, glazed with good Cheddar and carefully grilled onions, is almost too pristine for its intended purpose; I prefer the oozier version at Pie 'n Burger. The New York steak is Harris Ranch prime. Your coffee, still weak, will be refilled until you explode.
Have you ever had a Monte Cristo, a grease bomb of turkey, ham and cheese stuffed into a sandwich, dunked in an eggy batter and deep-fried? It is a frightening sandwich to behold and intimidating to eat, but not without its virtues, especially in Naylor's pocketbook-size version — if you wish to improve on the chef's excesses, it is traditional to dip the Monte Cristo into a small bowl of thoughtfully provided strawberry jam.
The French toast, the opposite of the soft, puddingy Du-par's classic, is of the egg-dipped-and-fried school, fringed with crisp bits, served with pots of melted butter and shrieking the virtues of good-quality bread — it comes across more like the outside of a Monte Cristo than it does like French toast. It is a tragedy unmitigated by the availability of banana cream pie.
Du-par's, 6333 W. Third St., L.A., (323) 933-8446; 12036 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 766-4437. Open daily 24 hours. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $19-$48.