For my first five years, we went out to eat practically every Friday night to a café called Hupfield’s on Lincoln Avenue in Altadena. My father had grown up in the neighborhood, and Hupfield’s was his childhood restaurant too. For me, Hupfield’s great fascination came from a wall-size green-toned mural of a place we decided was Australia, as the trees seemed to be eucalyptus and the equestrians were mounted on English saddles. (My sister, horse-crazy at a young age, deduced this.) I believed that if only my mother would let me out of the booth, I could enter into that pale-green world. I still dream about that mural.
Hupfield’s didn’t survive: It closed maybe 40 years ago — the building is now a Latino grocery store. Sometime after its demise, we moved our Friday-night dinners to Fox’s on Lake Avenue, also in Altadena. Fox’s, which opened in 1955, did not transport me as Hupfield’s did. Fox’s looked like somebody’s house that had been turned into a restaurant: The living-room and bedroom areas had become dining rooms, with the kitchen in between. Memory plays its tricks, of course, but I think the present red gingham curtains, or some like them, were there 40 years ago. The same varnished wooden plaques still hang on the walls: My mother, already dead now for 11 years, was invariably amused by the one over the kitchen entrance, which read, “The flavor of onions is improved by adding steak.”
The other wooden plaque impressed her less — largely because she was an atheist: “Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is water and one-fourth is land. It’s clear the good lord intended a man should spend three times as much time fishing as he does working.”
Mom, however, did appreciate the results of such theology: The owner of Fox’s went fishing in Baja almost every week and brought back fresh, live lobster, which he boiled and sold at a very reasonable price. My mother loved lobster.
We ate in either dining room for a while, but then settled into the back dining room, and sat at the same table week after week. Today, when I walk back there, into what is now a coffee bar, I still gravitate to the same area, and want to sit in my old position, facing the wall and the back door — a lousy seat, I see now, the youngest child’s seat. I don’t remember much about the food — I believe I ordered a pork chop with regularity — except that between the salad and the entrée, the waitress brought us each two muffins and a small scoop of sherbet in a paper soufflé cup. The muffins were child-size and adorable, but the sherbet was spectacular. Ice cream! Midmeal!
Fox’s is still owned by the same family, and looks and feels the same as ever, except that it’s closed for dinner and the vestiges of those long-gone meals are confined to the lunch menu, where the specials come with those tiny muffins. No sherbet. (“I used to have to fill those darn sherbet cups!” says the present owner.) Fox’s is known for its breakfasts — you have to wait out on the front stoop for a table some weekend mornings. As an adult who’s now been to countless small-town cafés all over America, I see Fox’s as a classic example of a dwindling institution: the non-chain mom-and-pop coffee shop. Nothing fancier than fishburgers made with fresh fish. An ordinary hamburger. Lousy onion rings. A 9-year-old girl I know — the daughter of a high school friend — says her teacher eats there every morning, and is getting very fat.
Whenever I stop in at Fox’s — and I’ve done so every few years — I remember my mother. Perhaps I go there to do so. I remember how she hit surfaces as she laughed, so that her wedding ring produced an impressive crack. I remember her strictness. (“No, you may not have milk. We have plenty of milk at home.”) I remember her exclamations and pleasure when her lobster arrived. (“Gadzooks! I’ll never eat all that!”) And I remember how those routine visits to Fox’s, Friday after Friday during my interminable childhood, lulled us into thinking that our life together as a family would never significantly change or end. 2352 N. Lake Ave., Altadena; (626) 797-9430.