Every workday, about 250 patrons ride elevators to a third-story eatery that has one of the best views of Glendale, some of the lowest prices in town and is one of the city's best-kept secrets.
City employees say some of the most important decisions affecting Glendale in the last 20 years have been made at tables overlooking a panorama of downtown high rises, Griffith Park and the sprawling San Fernando Valley.
No, it's not the members-only dining room of an exclusive club. It is the Glendale City Cafeteria in Room 308 of the Municipal Services Building at 633 E. Broadway.
A luncheon special there on a recent Monday featured chicken Parmesan with garlic bread and a green salad for $3.50.
Sound like a good deal? It is. That's why it has been kept practically a secret to the world outside of the civic center, even though the cafeteria has always been open to the public.
"We try to keep low key because we don't want to compete with local businesses," said John Bingham, a city executive assistant who oversees the cafeteria.
But Harry Begian is trying to change all that. The cafeteria was run for decades by the Glendale City Employees' Assn. but had been losing money for several years. As part of a nationwide program to help people with visual handicaps, Begian, who is legally blind, took over operation of the cafeteria a year ago.
Begian is making efforts to let the public know that the cafeteria is open for business by posting menus throughout the civic center and at the nearby courthouse. He also has extended invitations to civic groups.
With money from a state-operated fund for the blind, Begian last year installed streamlined equipment to make the cafeteria more efficient. He also broadened the menu, adding a salad bar and offering more health-style items, added vases of silk flowers at tables and liberally decorated the dining area with greenery.
"Everything has to be fresh," Begian said of the menu, adding that he frequently eats at other restaurants to keep tabs on the competition.
Soon after Begian took over, workers and lawyers from the nearby courthouse heard about the cafeteria and began going there regularly. Although Begian has raised prices slightly from those charged by the employee union, he said business has increased about 20% since he took over.
News of Begian's success spread further. Los Angeles County officials in June invited him to take over the Superior Courthouse cafeteria in Pasadena, which serves about 700 customers daily. Begian now operates both eateries, putting in 12-hour days.
Although Begian declined to say how much money the Glendale cafeteria earns, he said it is now profitable. The city provides the space, fixtures, utilities and maintenance without charge, officials said. He has four employees and, to keep costs low, he asks customers to bus their own trays. Begian pays part of his profits back to the state fund for the blind, to be used by other vendors to start new businesses.
Frank De Santis Jr., a spokesman for the Glendale Restaurant Assn., concedes that the municipal cafeteria's prices are lower than most of his members' menus, but added that the city facility "is the best-kept secret in Glendale. It doesn't hurt the restaurant business here at all." City policy prohibits the cafeteria from advertising in newspapers and other publications.
Despite the secrecy, a few outsiders have been going there for years. Bob O'Sullivan, a 69-year-old retired businessman who happened onto the cafeteria 12 years ago, has returned for lunch at least twice weekly ever since. "You don't find food like this anywhere else at these prices," he said, sitting with his back to the view so that he could study the people instead.
"The Gourmet Skyroom" is what Councilwoman Ginger Bremberg calls the cafeteria. You can find her there about twice a week when she doesn't have an official luncheon to attend. "It's good and it's reasonable and it has the best view of Glendale in town," said Bremberg, who points out that she has sampled menus at just about every other restaurant in Glendale. However, she acknowledges that some entrees offered by the cafeteria may be blander than those served at other restaurants.
Breakfast specials, served from 7 to 10:30 a.m., are $2.05. Hot luncheon entrees, served from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and changed daily, are priced from $3.25 to $3.50. Homemade soup, anyone? Just 90 cents a bowl. Snacks and sandwiches are available all day, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Food to Go
A cheeseburger, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, a carrot stick, French fries and a soft drink is out the door, literally, for $2.70. The cafeteria takes phone-in, take-out orders, too, in case diners want to eat at their desks or sit by the fountain in the plaza below.
Often, workers gather around a table in the cafeteria to discuss important issues before the city, such as the recent citywide rezoning. "Lots of decisions, including some really big ones, have been made up there," said one city official.