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SCOPE

In the age of the born-again diner, some Long Beach dives never lost the true religion.

August 27, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

When Glenn Snyder bought Egg Heaven 10 years ago, there was a clause in the agreement that made one thing clear: "You cannot change the atmosphere of Heaven. You can clean it up and update it, but you can't change the feeling."

Every weekend without fail, a line snakes around the corner of the breakfast diner at Fourth Street and Ximeno Avenue. Decorated with ceiling artwork painted by customers and photos left over from the 1960s, the restaurant has a down-to-earth atmosphere that Snyder likened to "walking into a friend's house and going to the fridge."

Randy Overturf, waiting in line for his turn in Egg Heaven, called it "a small, hole-in-the-wall place that has good food."

The 17-year-old eatery is a dive. The customers say so. The owner acknowledges it. And if that's not enough, it says so in books that list dives.

Across Long Beach, small, family-owned diners and restaurants such as Egg Heaven dot the neighborhoods, creating loyal clienteles and reflecting the diversity of the city's population. In this era of the born-again diner, Long Beach has plenty of beaneries that never lost the true religion.

These are places without expensive ferns or Miami Vice light-pink-and-aqua paint jobs. If they are reminiscent of another decade, it's because the decorations are leftovers, not just-bought imitations. Unlike the generic fast-food chains, these luncheonettes, hot dog stands and small restaurants have personality.

So what's a dive?

Webster's defines such an establishment as "a cheap, disreputable saloon, gambling place, etc."

But "Diving out in L.A."--which lists what it calls the best diners with meals under $6--has a different idea. It describes a dive as "a unique, inexpensive restaurant that places a greater priority on the quality and quantity of its food than (on) the fashionability of its image and decor."

Indeed, most of the eateries recommended by various dive books are the kind Mom, Pop and the kids can visit.

The Potholder, for example, would hardly be called a dive by the hard core: those who refuse to call any place a dive unless eating there involves an element of danger. But "Dives of L.A. County" lists it on page 94. The eatery at 3700 E. Broadway--whose decor emphasizes the city's crush on auto racing--is one of several in Long Beach that the book recommends.

Also on the list is Joe Jost's Bar at 2803 E. Anaheim St. During Prohibition, the 63-year-old bar/pool hall/eatery sold root beer and gave haircuts to stay in business.

Then there's the Sunny Spot Coffee Shop on 4339 E. Carson St., where to walk in "is like stepping into a pair of old slippers."

Some of the eateries are not in the most desirable parts of town. "Diving out in L.A." describes the location of the Cafecito Salvadoreno at 412 W. Anaheim St. as the "lowest-rent, low-life district." That's why the book includes the four-year-old restaurant in its "Serious Diving" category, where the motto is "Dive before dusk."

Some would take exception to that description, but it becomes irrelevant inside the clean and homey restaurant, which specializes in Salvadoran specialties such as pupusas and corn tortillas with cabbage and cheese.

Francisco Rodarte walked into the Cafecito Salvadoreno last weekend, sat on a wobbly red stool and ordered camarones rancheros--his way. That means lots of hot sauce on the side, which the waitress behind the counter didn't have to be told. She knows how Rodarte likes shrimp.

"I come in here every night and sometimes in the morning," the 30-year-old construction worker explained.

The restaurant is conveniently near his home and the food is good. Besides, Rodarte said, "I don't like to cook."

If there is one thing these so-called dives have in common, it's their customers' devotion.

"I am here every day for breakfast when I'm not working," James Course, 25, said of the Potholder on Broadway.

The trick, according to the owner of Egg Heaven, is to make people feel at home.

"You can live 50 miles away and still feel that you live in the neighborhood when you walk in," Snyder explained.

Satisfied clients agreed. Overturf, a visitor from Northridge waiting in line with locals Ken and Kirsten Muster, praised both Egg Heaven's food and its atmosphere.

"I walked past the open door to the kitchen and saw some broken eggs on the the floor," Overturf said. "It's just like home."

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