If you were new to L.A. and looking for a sense of community, you'd be smart to start hanging out at Gardena Bowl. It's a community center ostensibly built around a bowling alley — but really the main event is the restaurant.
It's a coffee shop in an older sense of the term, where the focus isn't on coffee at all but on big plates of crowd-pleasing food that's never too expensive and can be eaten at the counter. The people working there are all kind, and will leave you alone for as long as you need.
The bowling alley was built in 1948 when community leaders noticed that there were “something like 160 bowling teams” in the area but no alley in Gardena itself. I'm not sure from my brief research when the coffee shop became a Japanese-inflected Hawaiian restaurant (“Hawaiian” in the sense of anything from the northern half of the Pacific Rim), but perhaps it always was — Gardena has long had a big Japanese and Pacific Islander population.
The food here is a study in midcentury inventiveness, still serving the mashups that emerged in the 1950s. Spaghetti Bolognese? That's Portuguese sausage in the sauce. Hot dog fried rice? Of course.
If this type of cuisine is new to you, I recommend diving in head-first. Get the signature dish the restaurant calls the Hawaiian Royal: rice, eggs, green onions, chashu, Portuguese sausage and teriyaki sauce. You'll know within two bites if you're into Hawaiian food.
The huge menu offers breakfast all day, plus tempura, egg foo young, BLTs and sukiyaki, among other items. It has Spam musubi, of course. Really good Spam musubi.
The restaurant — and the bowling alley — has such a great mix of people that you might be inspired to join a league. I sometimes suspect people bowl here just for an excuse to order dinner to-go. Saimin can be addictive.
And if you know more about the coffee shop's history, please let me know.
15707 S. Vermont Ave., Gardena; (310) 532-0820, gardenabowlcoffeeshop.com.