Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Original Pantry ~ Los Angeles, California

One of the goals of the Regular Joe's Guide is to introduce you, the reader, to some of the better "local" dining options across the USA. And while we have a strong focus on the Dallas-Ft.Worth area (and, hopefully soon, much more of Denver), Mr. RJG likes to brag about places he finds during his travels. Many are unknown, and that's maybe the most exciting aspect - the "discovery". But as with any pursuit one embarks on (music, books, movies, locales, etc..), some of the best things are very much "known". Such is the case with The Original Pantry, a landmark in the Los Angeles downtown area since 1924.

Places like the Original Pantry used to dominate the American dining experience. A basic hash house, that served breakfast 24 hours a day, along with lunch and dinner staples such as hamburgers and pot roast. It's a familiar story: After World War II, many families began to move out to the then new concept of a suburban lifestyle. With a larger house, and their own backyard, it no longer made any sense to live in a cramped, smelly, often hot, inner city dwelling. And thus began the great exodus out of the American big city. Most local businesses fell victim to this phenomena, and the ones that didn't shutter or move out, endured some incredibly trying years. If this situation wasn't bad enough, the US government began to experiment with the "Great Society" concept in the 1960s, creating housing utopias for the downtrodden and poor, while bulldozing historical structures. On paper, it seemed like the right thing to do, and this would regenerate an already dying inner city core. In reality, it delivered the final death blow. Throughout the 1960's, 70's, and 80's, many downtown and inner city neighborhood areas became DMZ's, if one were to dare to venture in after hours, they most certainly were taking their life into their own hands. Very few places of the Original Pantry type survived. Serving bums, parolees, hasbeens and ne'erdowellers is not generally considered a "sound business model." That's why today these establishments seem so special - they are a rare breed.

As the regentrification process began for most cities in the 1990's, including Los Angeles, folks began to rediscover, or discover for the first time, these war survivors. It combines a "let's go slumming" fascination with the key intangible that everyone has known from the start: Great quality food. Besides, it's pretty hard to get that "ghost of hamburger's grease past" flavor at a new chain restaurant.

I first visited The Original Pantry towards the beginning of this regentrification process, in 1995 while attending some music concerts in the area. The sound of jackhammers and electric drills were everywhere, as remodeling and rebuilding was well underway. If you walked too far astray, you would find the ghetto was still near. There usually was a crowd at the Pantry, especially on Sunday, but in general one would be seated with ease. The place looked like a 1930s era diner. Nothing had changed. A living, breathing museum. I returned in 2000, for a software convention at the newly opened LA Convention Center (near the Staples Center), and the area was almost unrecognizable. There were lines around the corner at the Original Pantry almost 24 hours a day, but especially in the breakfast hours. Still, we persevered and ate there nearly every day of the convention, enjoying the surroundings, and the excellent breakfast.

I haven't returned since, and fully expected to read the place has remained unchanged. But alas, it looks like that's not true. They're gussying it up. It's now owned by the former Republican mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan. Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect an owner to leave it as a derelict place. At some point, diners may have tired of the old surroundings. At once it was a nostalgic trip, but perhaps that has worn off, and it's time to move forward. Hard to say, but next time I have a chance, I will certainly stop in... for the memories.

Website: http://www.pantrycafe.com/
Brief History: http://www.pantrycafe.com/faq.html

While doing some research, I ran into this great site (be sure to read their review of The Original Pantry!):
http://www.latimemachines.com/

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