It was the night of April 6, 1978, and the Damned, the first British punk band to tour the U.S., were playing the Starwood. I managed to snivel my way into the VIP section and have the entire band sign my homemade Damned T-shirt — while I was wearing it. When the high school pal who’d given me a ride expressed concern over the late hour, I told her to leave without me. I wasn’t about to blow my entrée into the glamorous world of Hollywood After Hours just because of a little thing like a curfew. The next thing I knew, I was in the back of living legend Rodney Bingenheimer’s vintage black Caddy, being whisked off to the “happening spot,” which, naturally, turned out to be Canter’s, the very heart of the Fairfax district. The Damned ordered a prodigious amount of food. Ten minutes into the meal, a massive food fight burst out. Cream cheese, bagels, lox, French fries and ketchup were flying through the air to the accompaniment of much drunken, cockney-accented yelling.
I was amazed not only at how good the food was — the sharp dill and garlic of the pickles mingling with the poppyseed cakes and bagels, chopped raw onions, and big steaming bowls of barley bean soup — but at the unruffled attitudes of the motherly waitresses. Anywhere else, and our table would’ve been 86’d immediately. But in the curvilinear-countered, faux-wood Formica haven of Canter’s, it seemed to be merely business as usual. I stayed up all night and went to school a couple of hours later, still in my Damned T-shirt, my hair caked with dried Coca-Cola and cream cheese. I went back to Canter’s as soon as I could, delighted to find a place where Palm Springs–style leisure-suited old men could rub shoulders with Mohawked punks in leather over a bowl of matzo-ball soup at 4 a.m. It would be ages before I set foot in the place during daylight.
Over the years, Canter’s has hosted hordes of celeb regulars: Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, Cary Grant, Danny Thomas, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle . . . the list is endless. Recently, neo–Hollywood royalty like Nicolas Cage and Patricia Arquette have been added to the list. But I don’t think any of them have a booth dedicated to them the way KROQ DJ Bingenheimer does. A regular customer — and we’re talking, like, every night for at least the past three decades — Rodney had his favorite booth dedicated to him, with a shiny brass plaque and much fanfare, in March. Fact is, it was at Canter’s in the late ’60s that Rodney had the title of “The Mayor of Sunset Strip” bestowed upon him by Sal Mineo. Coincidentally, as the very first person who brought me to this deli, Bingenheimer took my Canter’s virginity. And it has been ecstasy; when I mix a full tablespoon of the mind-numbing Atomic brand horseradish into Canter’s perfect coleslaw, I relish it until my eyeliner runs like Alice Cooper’s.
Time marches on, neighborhoods transform, especially in L.A., where tradition isn’t something to be venerated. The block that Canter’s dominates hasn’t really changed all that much, though. There are still hole-in-the-wall produce stands, Ball Beauty Supply with its hair nets and cake eyeliner, crowded gift shops with mezuzahs tacked onto the door frames selling Hebrew books and klezmer tapes. The waitresses at Canter’s wear T-shirts and slacks now instead of the starched white uniforms that they donned in 1931 when the place opened, but they’re still unflappable and call their customers “sweetheart.” The aroma as the door opens is still mouthwatering. Even though it’s been years since I’ve witnessed the sort of insanity that used to go on there in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it’s still the happening Hollywood late-night eatery. But you don’t have to believe me — just ask Rodney: His booth’s right near the stairs as you walk in. 419 N. Fairfax Ave.; (323) 651-2030.