Where will I eat when I‘m old?

I wondered this when I heard that Beadle’s Cafeteria was closing its doors for good after a 43-year run. When it was saved at the last minute, I realized how much I‘ve been counting on Beadle’s to stick around. Beadle‘s has existed longer than I have, and I always assumed that when I grew too old and shaky and tired to cook every night, I could dress up, get myself out in the world and take my place in the line of fixed-income seniors at the steam tables.

When I was a child, Beadle’s was on Colorado Boulevard. My grandmother would take us, and it seemed a province of the elderly, a world buffered by wallpaper and carpeting, and piped-in organ music. We‘d join the line in a long, wood-paneled hallway that had the feel of a tunnel or chute and led us to the trays and napkin-wrapped silverware, and the snow-packed salad bar with its gleaming stainless-steel and rainbow array of gelatin salads.

For a very long time, there were two cafeterias in Pasadena: Beadle’s on the eastern side of town and the older Pasadena Cafeteria to the west. Both were owned by the same people, and served exactly the same old-style cafeteria steam-table food. Prime rib. Halibut. Poached salmon. Spare ribs on sauerkraut. Pork chops and scalloped potatoes. Egg foo yung. Frozen peas. Potatoes of every ilk. The service, attuned to the elderly clientele, was preternaturally helpful and patient. Some employees carried trays, others poured coffee and cream.

Both cafeterias changed locations at least once in their existence, Beadle‘s most recently, 11 years ago, when it relocated from its street-level storefront to some unknown floor (designated only as Beadle’s on the elevator buttons) in a courtyard-parking structure on the corner of Hudson and Green, two one-way streets.

The new Beadle‘s lacked the former’s atmosphere; this one was well-lit and vast, with impressionistic prints on the wall, and something resembling stockyard fencing to contain and order long lines of customers. I‘m not sure it ever completely recovered from the move to such an obscure location, and the overhead alone in the new place, we’d heard, was a major factor in the owners‘ decision to sell. But Beadle’s had lasted longer than the Pasadena Cafeteria, which closed back in ‘97.

When I heard that Beadle’s was on its way out, I went there with four friends — and lifelong customers — for what we assumed would be one last lunch.

We loaded up on our favorite things: the macaroni and cheese; the turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy; corned beef and cabbage; beef stew; spare ribs. Three of us got the confetti Jell-O, a fantasy aggregate of different colors of Jell-O cubes (today the colors were red and green, for Christmas) sunk in a lemony gelatin made opaque with sour cream. One friend picked tomato aspic — the enemy food of all children. It was topped with a slice of hard-boiled egg, like a weird, challenging, unblinking eye. We had Swiss chard with bacon, and coleslaw, and grated carrots with raisins. I had my usual buttermilk — where will I go for buttermilk now? I wondered — and bottomless cups of coffee.

“This kind of 1950s, all-American food isn‘t found much anymore,” one friend said. “It’s become an ethnic cuisine in and of itself.”

My friend Michele looked around. “My first job was at one of these cafeterias,” she said. “The old Pasadena Cafeteria, when it was on Marengo. I was in high school. When I came home from work after my first day, my arm went numb. I couldn‘t lift it — from pouring so much coffee.”

We remembered how we’d come to the cafeteria with Michele‘s infant daughter, Nataly, a dozen years ago — you’d have thought we‘d brought in the crown princess for all the adoration she received from the staff and other customers. Nataly was with us today, working on her own confetti Jell-O. We wondered, Where will she get her first job?

After we’d eaten our lunch, we went back for dessert (confetti Jell-O is a salad, after all). We got bread pudding, mince and boysenberry pie, tapioca pudding, more coffee. We reminisced about Beadle‘s experiences. Coming in stoned 20 years ago — “the proper use of a cafeteria,” we agreed. A blind date that flopped. A bad fight with a father. After-church gabfests.

Beadle’s was always the very best place in Pasadena to watch people. There were bums and businessmen, secretaries and artists. From my first visits, I was most fascinated by some of the older people, especially the really old ones who somehow still dressed up, got out of the house and came to Beadle‘s, where the food was reliably hearty and the prices just right for fixed incomes. Some of the couples had been together so long, eating the same food, sleeping in the same bed, inhabiting the same spaces, that they’d bent and shrunk to resemble each other, like perfect matched sets. I once watched them with dismay — I would never end up old and rouged in a moth-eaten mohair suit eating in companionable silence with a lifelong mate. Now that I‘m older, I aspire to such a pleasant fate.

“Maybe someone will buy it,” one friend said.

“Oh, they should have just moved to the new Paseo Pasadena,” said another. “With those apartments, and all that foot traffic, a cafeteria would do a booming business.”

But think of that overhead.

We looked at each other glumly. And took another bite of pie.

A few days later, I received phone calls from four different people, all saying the same thing: Beadle’s saved by last-minute buyout! It isn‘t closing after all.

The future is looking up. It looks, in fact, a lot like macaroni and cheese. And Jell-O.

825 E. Green St., Pasadena; (626) 796-3618. Breakfast Mon.–Fri.; lunch and dinner daily till 7:45 p.m. AE,MC,V.

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