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Last Cup's Been Filled at Travolator Coffee Shop

December 22, 1987|ARMANDO ACUNA | Times Staff Writer

It was a time for sentiment, remembrances and a little bitterness Monday for the workers at the Travolator Coffee Shop.

For 30 years, the small restaurant--squeezed between a parking lot and a technical college on 6th Avenue near Ash Street--served its down-home fare to a hungry clientele of lawyers, businessmen and women, tourists, foreign students learning English at a language school upstairs and the elderly who live in nearby high-rise apartments.

Though times, diets and tastes have changed, the food at the Travolator didn't vary much, and neither did the prices. How about $4.40 for the highest-priced meal on the plastic-covered menu. That's for two eggs, ham steak, potatoes and toast.

All that is in the past now because last week one thing did change--the Travolator announced it was going out of business.

It's not because business is bad, the restaurant's employees say. On the contrary, with the recent opening of the county's new Family Court just up the street, business "is fantastic . . . it's wide open," said the Travolator's manager, Al Hollman.

But the restaurant has lost its lease to a group that owns the new Howard Johnson's hotel, as well as the rest of the block.

On Monday, Hollman and a handful of other workers presided over the dismantling of the business. Since Saturday, the restaurant has held a public sale of almost every item in the place that isn't nailed down.

That includes 1,200 plates, dishes and other china, hundreds of cups and saucers, scores of stainless steel pots and pans and assorted odds and ends.

What's left will go on sale for the final time today, starting at 9:30 a.m.

In some ways, the cafe looks much as it did when it opened, a classic American coffee shop with a long counter, Formica table tops and orange Naugahyde-covered booths, dimpled with brass buttons. The kitchen and grill are behind the counter.

There is, on one narrow wall, a brightly colored montage, the abruptly alternating images shifting from a surfer on a big wave and fish swimming near an underwater reef to a lone jogger running through the woods and hot air balloons, pictures of lots and lots of balloons.

Apparently a Japanese television film crew liked it, too, because last year they used the wall as a backdrop for a scene in a soap opera that was shot in San Diego.

That wasn't the first time that the Travolator Coffee Shop had a brush with fame. In the days when the nearby El Cortez was the king of San Diego hotels, you could occasionally find the likes of Jason Robards or Red Skelton sitting at the counter.

"This place has personality. No matter what they do, it will never be the same," said Hollman. He says he's heard the place might be turned into a more upscale dinner restaurant.

"Can you believe it, this place is booming and they want us out," Hollman said. "Now they'll put something else in and the price will go up, you watch."

The owners of the building could not be reached for comment.

Beverly Seifert, a Travolator waitress for the last 15 years, said she cried just a little last Friday when "they locked the door for the last time."

"There's a lot of sentiment in this restaurant," she said, recalling former customers, including news people from KFMB-TV (Channel 8), which was once located across the street, and radio station KSDO, which used to be upstairs.

"A lot of good customers have come through those doors," she said, pointing. Among them are the lawyer who comes in daily for his poached eggs, the man who calls each day to find out about the soup of the day, and the elderly people on fixed incomes who live nearby in apartment towers and will find it difficult to replace the Travolator's prices.

"The bad part is that they have to do it (the forced closure) right before Christmas," Seifert said.

Seifert, Hollman and the other handful of workers have not found new jobs, though they don't think it will be difficult to do.

Besides the memories, Seifert is taking something else with her to remember the old place. "An old-timey wooden toothpick holder that's been here longer than I've been," she said, laughing. "I'm putting it up on my dining room shelf."

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