I was taken to the Pantry for breakfast on my first visit to L.A., in the mid-’80s. I relished its Depression-era atmosphere, replete with dim lighting, smudged walls, and ancient waiters who appeared to have taken a cue from a John Sloan painting. Although the restaurant now sports a fresher coat of manila-colored paint and the wait staff has undergone a few changes, the Trashcan School aesthetic has not been refurbished. The lighting is still murky, and the original oversize white Formica-topped wooden tables remain, as does the glass-walled kitchen.
We gravitate to joints like the Pantry because they offer more than a simple anodyne to the homogeneity of the strip mall. This restaurant qua monument quietly chants the mantra, “Hey, if I’m still here after 75 years, you’re still here, too.” The Pantry’s status as monument is not the only thing that helps one feel grounded — try a Pantry breakfast on for size and you’ll know what I mean. Order a stack of wheat cakes or buckwheat cakes — serious pancakes, as big as Kojak’s head. The home fries here are not the pallid, shoddy examples you find elsewhere: They are proper home fries, with small bits of crunchy crust. Breakfast (you may also order eggs, as you like them) is offered with your choice of ham slices that fill half a plate, or equally generous portions of sausage or bacon. At dinner, a waiter immediately deposits a large hunk of sourdough bread and small bowls of fresh coleslaw, a sort of everyman amuse-bouche. A Pantry dinner is a Spartan affair: You order steak and chops off the chalkboard menu. With your slab of meat, you’ll get more of the Pantry’s good home fries, and the obligatory steam-table canned vegetable (could be corn or peas or green beans), plus there’s always freshly steamed carrots cooked in brown sugar. Okay, for $12, we’re clearly not talking Ruth’s Chris here. Still, the thin cut of rib eye arrives as ordered — medium-rare, succulent if a smidgen chewy. The thick New York steak delivers good beefy flavor, and the lamb chops are fork-tender. You may pick up and gnaw on your bones here without embarrassment. Your fellow diners (the occasional downtown hipster, middle-age working-class regulars) won’t care.
Management claims the place has never closed since 1924 — indeed, there are no locks on the doors, which stay open 24/7. When Mayor Richard Riordan saved the Pantry from the wrecking ball in 1980, some Angelenos worried that the change in ownership would rinse away the Pantry’s comforting, well-worn vibe. We needn’t have worried. Despite some recent, well-publicized public-health problems, today’s Pantry remains essentially unchanged, contributing to our sense of place and belonging, and helping ground us as the city ever more resembles Anytown, USA. 877 S. Figueroa St., downtown; (213) 972-9279.