It’s where strangers sat side by side and where history was made. It’s where hurried office workers grabbed lunch and sassy waitresses took orders. The once ubiquitous lunch counter was a symbol of Americana as popular as burgers and fries.
A constant romantic visage in L.A. film noir scenes of the city, it helped define Los Angeles; films like Criss Cross, Mildred Pierce, Fallen Angel, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Schwab’s Pharmacy in Sunset Boulevard depict the lonely nature of the counter and the darker side of L.A.
“Cinematically speaking, the counter is all about the fact that the characters are loners that tend to be transient,” writer and Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller tells L.A. Weekly. “They’re not out dining with a friendly group of people. A film like Detour, when Tom Neal walks into this diner in Reno and he’s just come off the train and sits down at the counter and says ‘gimme a cup of coffee and some ham and eggs’. You can tell this guy is in the middle of some adventure and he’s only going to be there for about 15 minutes.”
Another classic and memorable diner appears in Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, where Linda Darnell works as a waitress and Percy Kilbride is the proprietor. The movie ends in the diner when everybody returns to the scene of the crime. Muller says that the movie was originally going to end outdoors on a cliff when Charles Bickford and drifter Dana Andrews have a big fight and they actually shot that.
“But Daryl Zanuck didn’t like the feel of it, that it didn’t wrap the story up completely, so they went back to the diner,” says Muller, host of Turner Classic Movies’ Noir Alley. “Andrews comes in, back to where the whole thing started, and they have this conversation. Fallen Angel is a classic example of the diner being used as the locus of the whole story. His people come in to watch her, they come in to talk about their problems. The diner in that film is one of the all-time noir diners.”
“I like being close to the staff, whether it might be in a bar where they serve food at the bar,” says Muller, a longtime counter eater himself. “It got to be a habit, because my wife and I go out to eat a lot and rather than wait for a table, we sit down at the counter and never have to wait. Some of the best meals I’ve ever had have been in bar restaurants that have just opened and it’s empty at around 4 or 5 o’ clock in the afternoon and you can talk to the bartender. It’s very convivial that way. Plus, I don’t like being that far from the liquor.”
Now experiencing a resurgence of sorts, L.A. counter culture is no longer just black and white. Counters are being elevated both in design and cuisine in some of the priciest places in L.A. Here’s a look at what’s new and what’s stood the test of time.
E.P. & L.P
A far cry from the tuna sandwich on toast and pickle at J.J. Newberry’s, young Filipina head chef Sabel Braganza is serving a California Asian menu at her 12- seat counter at E.P. & L.P. For the vegan crowd, there’s roasted vegetables in coconut broth and a melt-in-your-mouth wood-grilled pork belly with a Filipino BBQ glaze and papaya tamarind slaw.
“The people that choose the counter get really excited about watching the food being prepared,” the Irvine native tells L.A. Weekly. “They love watching the wok station and picking up cooking tips. I love interacting with the customers and they ask me about everything. We’ve got a lot of regulars that just want to sit at the counter, both couples and solos, who have watched me back there since I was a line cook. They started out as strangers at the counter and now they’re family.” eplosangeles.com.
This 24-seat pasta bar is a warm interactive experience where guests can watch their customized pasta made to order right in front of them and served directly from the chef while still at its best. “I was born and raised in Rome, so as an Italian there is nothing better than a plate of handmade fresh pasta,” says UOVO co-founder Carlo Massimini. uovo.la.
The Chef’s Counter at Crustacean and Da Lat Rose
Both chef’s counter experiences at Crustacean Beverly Hills and Da Lat Rose offer menus tailored to each diner’s preferences, palates, diets — featuring elevated modern Vietnamese cuisine as well as chef Helene An’s signature dishes, like garlic noodles and Dungeness crab. “Our chef’s tables at Crustacean and Da Lat Rose aren’t public knowledge, we don’t even have these intimate and highly epicurean experiences listed on our website, so only people in the know can get in,” says House of AN CEO Elizabeth An.
To get a spot in the secret kitchen within a kitchen, call the restaurant’s reservation line and someone will pick up, or leave a message stating that you’d like to make a reservation for either the Crustacean or Da Lat Rose chef’s counter. You’ll get a call back asking you about your palate, food allergies, likes and dislikes, and they will craft a menu specifically for you. crustaceanbh.com.
The Apple Pan
With a look that’s straight out of an Andy Hardy movie and a menu selection to match, The Apple Pan has been serving simple classics to Angelenos since 1947. Ham and cheese, tuna salad, and egg salad sandwiches are staples of the pared-down menu, which is said to be largely the same as it was the day the place opened. They even still serve buttermilk if the taste appeals to you.
Like the food, the vibe here might be referred to as “old school simplicity,” with only minimal design changes having been made throughout its history. Tartan wallpaper, old-fashioned paper drinking cups in silver holders, and even manual cash registers can all still be found here. Even the motto, “Quality Forever,” seems to speak to a different age. Looking at the comfy counter seats, it’s easy to see the ghosts of would-be starlets sipping on milk shakes, ordering the signature Hickory burger and hoping for their big break. theapplepan.com.
House of Pies
Having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, House of Pies in Los Feliz is to the Eastside what The Apple Pan is to the Westside. An institution that manages to attract everyone from boomers to hipsters, this place is proof that sometimes nothing hits the spot like the classics. Maple-glazed pork chops, chicken and dumplings, and Yankee pot roast are all on the menu here, as are sweet yams with syrup.
Then of course, there are the pies. From Southern pecan to Bavarian chocolate banana to raspberry marble, the gloriousness just never ends. Those who live outside wafting distance can take heart in knowing that construction has just begun on a Venice location slated to open sometime in 2021.
Ryan Pappas, House of Pies office manager and executive assistant to the president, says of the counter, “It creates a sense of community and allows for communication/discourse between both customers and the waitstaff, and among the patrons themselves. On any given day, you can find people who have never [met] and [who] will never meet again having a conversation. Pretty impressive considering today’s climate is not always the most conducive to promote healthy discourse.” houseofpiesla.com.
Although the doors officially closed on the iconic five-and-dime franchise in 1997, its legacy lives on in Bakersfield, California, where the last remaining Woolworth’s lunch counter still operates. Housed in what is now an antique mall, in 2010 the restaurant was purchased by brothers Jeremy and Joseph Trammell who’ve not only kept the decor retro but the prices as well. A triple cheeseburger is only $5.20 and a coffee is only $1.55.
History buffs will remember that a Woolworth’s became the site of the first lunch counter sit-in when, on February 1, 1960, four black college students sat down at the segregated restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina. Minus a four-chair section of the counter which stands in the Smithsonian, today, the intact counter is part of The International Civil Rights Center & Museum. woolworth-diner.top-cafes.com.
Whether you’re buying one or having one serviced, car ownership can be a colossal pain. Luckily, at Galpin Motors in North Hollywood, that pain is somewhat lessened by the Horseless Carriage restaurant which sits inside the Galpin complex. In operation since 1966, it was built to keep the customers fed and happy while they waited for their cars, a service it still serves.
In addition to classic diner fare, the Horseless Carriage also offers slightly more adventurous selections like bison burger, Galpin street tacos and even shrimp tempura. If anything can take the sting out of car issues, it’s this place. galpin.com
Musso & Frank Grill
The oldest existing counter in L.A., the grill at Musso’s is 100 years old and still grilling some of the best chops in town.
“Our grill was built in 1934 and we still cook on it,” says owner Mark Echeverria .”My two favorite seats in the restaurant are right there where you get to watch the grill master at work. At any given time, there can be 80 pieces of meat — steaks and chops and fish — on this grill. It’s quite a show and the main focal point of this dining room. That’s why we’re the Musso and Frank Grill.
“Off the bar flat top is a little-known L.A. secret, that Musso’s has some of the best breakfasts in town which have been cooked by Domingo Pule for 26 years. If you come between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. we cook breakfast and you can talk to Domingo, whose got some wonderful stories as well as the best flannel cakes and omelets in town.” mussoandfrank.com
Celebrating their 9th anniversary this week, Sang Yoon’s Lukshon in the heart of Culver City features a cozy counter serving up traditional and modern Southeast Asian fare. The Hawaiian butterfish is epic, as well as the roasted beef bone marrow with phở, herb gremolata, jalapeño and puffed rice. lukshon.com
Read more about film noir counter culture from Eddie Muller here.
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