A diner in Los Angeles may have many iterations, but its basic identity is unmistakable. Breakfast is available at all hours. There's usually countertop seating with swivel chairs upholstered in leather, or booths for groups and the unhurried. A server will call you “hon,” perhaps “sweetie” if she's so inclined, considering neither race nor age — not yours and certainly not hers. You're guaranteed table access to a cluster of condiments — ketchup, jams, hot sauce, maybe a small jar of salsa.
As much as we might enjoy chasing what's new or bacon-flavored, there's little that can replicate the luxury of having comfort food cooked fast and your drinks refilled even faster. It's our original nook away from home, long before we sought coffee chains for a caffeine fix.
Here in L.A., diners can inspire the kind of loyalty normally reserved for sports teams. You'll root for your favorite, sometimes irrationally, through limp hash browns, watered-down coffee and greasy eggs. We get the loyalty — and the community. Check out our picks for the best in L.A., where the food, service, coffee and counter chairs are as good as they get.
Although there have been plenty of changes in the neighborhood over the years, S&W Country Diner stays a constant. Unless you're a regular, you might find the service just polite enough. The menus strewn on each table are probably as old as the diner itself, requiring you to unfurl the bottom edges for a better view of, say, the types of French toast combos available. And you likely won't be offered coffee if you don't ask. None of this matters much when you consider that a relatively quiet space is not easy to come by at restaurants in downtown Culver City. You'll read the latest issue of Time, taking your own time not to rush your breakfast, maybe of eggs Benedict with lemon chicken breast on English muffins. 9748 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 204-5136.
This Chinese-American diner used to go by the name Uncle John's Ham & Eggs, until its newer location on Grand led to a rechristening as simply Uncle John's Cafe. Regulars prefer pan-fried pork chops, showered with sliced scallions and green chiles, over steak to pair with eggs. The two dozen or so entrées, including chasu BBQ pork and eggs, come with toast and home fries or, better yet, steamed rice. If wonton noodle soups or burgers with fries don't appeal, there are off-menu items, too — like chow fun — available upon request. 834 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 623-3555.
The degree to which you can witness this diner in its element probably is in direct relation to how late you stop by the place, which is open daily until 3 a.m. Past standard dinner time, the diner becomes a clubhouse for transplants and tourists cast in sepia lighting. It's housed on the corner of an updated retro-designed Best Western Hotel two blocks away from the 101. As you wait for your food, you might catch snatches of conversations from nearby tables on the vagaries of being new to the city. You'll shift your focus, easily and gladly perhaps, once the blackened catfish sandwich, served with both french fries and sweet potato fries, comes around. Attesting to the roots of chef and co-owner Brandon Boudet, an Angeleno by way of New Orleans, the fish is skillfully pan-fried, crisp at the edges. L.A. is in his repertoire now, as the menu shows a house-made corned beef hash special with organic eggs and an eggless huevos rancheros made with tofu instead. 6145 Franklin Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 467-1175.
The Original Pantry Cafe may well be a member of the oldest generation of diners, but the downtown institution shows no sign that time has impaired its sense of pace — admirable considering the late hours it keeps. Dressed in crisp white button-downs, servers will move briskly, asking how you're doing or if there's anything they can bring you. The menu is a part of the overall decor, tacked to the wall and shorter than that at any of the diners on this list. A number of tables will have orders of pancakes or ham steak and eggs. If you splurge on a lunch, or dinner, plate like roast beef or fried chicken, expect portions for at least two adults — with leftovers. 877 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles; (213) 972-9279.
8. Ocean Diner
There's no lack of savory breakfast options at this '40s-style diner, as more than half of those available come with a side of two eggs and bacon or sausage. But maybe try the apple crème brûlée waffle and cover all the bases. The waffle, thick enough to be called Belgian, is cakelike, perfect as it holds its own against apple preserves, whipped cream and a burnt, candied crust. It should come as no surprise that owner Rick Hankus began his career selling dessert. 959 Aviation Blvd., Hermosa Beach; (310) 372-3739.
7. Nick's Cafe
Nick's Cafe in Chinatown is a one-room, cash-only operation with a U-shaped counter that has become a kind of interactive stage. There are only about 25 seats, which means you'll invariably find yourself gawking at plates passing by or listening to a neighbor to your left wistfully recall a special from three weeks ago. Omelets are named after nearby thoroughfares, including Broadway, Main and Spring. Weekends feature free coffee and various iterations of eggs Benedict, from traditional to West Coast–style. Ham is a house specialty that appears in several dishes and, if you order 24 hours in advance, on your own dining table, too. 1300 N. Spring St., Chinatown; (323) 222-1450.
If there were awards given to places best representing the diner way of life, Pann's Restaurant could sweep the categories — from decor to menu. Some diners merit their status through their classic fare and friendly servers; Pann's has both, plus the aesthetic. The diner's chicken and waffle combo is often written about, but you'll find sandwiches, particularly the “Famous Dreamburger,” are just as popular. 6710 La Tijera Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 670-1441.
5. Nickel Diner
Monica May's Nickel Diner can be credited for helping to usher in the revitalization of downtown's Main Street — and, of course, supplying Angelenos with the first maple-glazed bacon donuts. Originally open for breakfast and lunch only, the Nickel has since added a dinner service that's loaded with comfort food and is friendly to vegetarians, vegans and meat lovers. Look for updated throwback desserts — s'mores cake or red velvet cake with Valrhona chocolate balls — assembled on a modern dessert tray. 524 S. Main St., Los Angeles; (213) 623-9301.
You'll seldom catch the Coffee Cup Cafe slinging breakfast and lunch at any speed but full steam. Even at less than peak hours, parking is nearly impossible to find. But the effort is worth it — once you try Hank's chicken chili verde omelet or stuffed French toast. Most of the time, you can tell if someone lives within walking distance by his order. Only a local, who's had his fill of the French toast or seasonal pumpkin pancakes, would consider forgoing either one for a sprouts, avocado and cucumber sandwich. 3734 E. Fourth St., Long Beach; (562) 433-3292.
The Serving Spoon dedicates a fair amount of wall space to inspirational signs and aspirational images. You'll hope these shed more than a little wisdom as you weigh your options on the soul food–laden menu — where nearly everything sounds promising. There are pancakes, waffles and French toast paired with various meat options. And some pretty terrific sides, maybe mac & cheese or candied yams. You'll make good use of the bottle of Red Rooster hot sauce, available every few feet. Maybe use it to douse the wings you've ordered with pancakes, which will pick up the residual maple syrup on the plate, making for a welcome interplay of sweet, salty and spicy. 1403 Centinela Ave., Inglewood; (310) 412-3927.
Du-par's may have a comprehensive three-meal menu and an impressive list of pies, but it's almost inconceivable not to order the pancakes, in stacks of either two or three, when you're there. These cakes routinely top lists of the best, from our own to Esquire's. The seating is booths only, dotted throughout the dining room accented with an uncovered kitchen in the back that pre-dates the contemporary trend of having restaurant kitchens out in the open. If you're there late enough at night, say after 10 p.m or so, there'll be one server whose valiant effort to meet varying demands of customers might remind you of the game Diner Dash, only in real life. 6333 W. Third St., Los Angeles; (323) 933-8446.
Nick's Coffee Shop & Deli may be small, but that doesn't make this Pico-Robertson spot any less of the Platonic ideal of a diner. No matter if you're there for the first time or the 100th, you're greeted with an easy warmth. You're served coffee almost immediately after your order — and the refills come around often. You'd do well to accept advice when told to order the No. 143, a three-egg-white omelet with pepper jack cheese, jalapeno turkey sausage, avocado, spinach and mushrooms. You're given a choice of sides, but you don't want to miss the hash browns cooked to a dark golden brown, and with just the right ratio of crisp. 8536 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 652-3567.
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