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BUM'S CRUSH : You Want the '50s, Dancing on the Table, Wisecracks, Insults, Family? Hey, Go to Bennie's

April 27, 1989|DANA PARSONS | Times Staff Writer

A cool breeze had finally cut through the weeklong Laguna Beach heat, but the action was just warming up on the street.

It was 1:45 a.m., and Bennie the Bum was working the sidewalk outside his all-night diner of the same name, carrying on his usual East Coast banter with whomever happened to be standing around.

Someone pulled up in front of the diner but did a poor job of parallel parking. "He likes to walk to the curb," Bennie wisecracked.

A buxom young woman approached, wearing a sun dress that was fighting a losing battle with the gravity of her situation. In a less-than-demure manner, she tugged at the dress.

"A little higher, darlin,' " Bennie said kiddingly.

The woman adjusted her dress again and then walked over to the overweight Bennie and began massaging his chest through his shirt.

Bennie cooed. "Only at Bennie the Bum's!" he said.

Hey, it happens.

For the sake of historical accuracy, it must be said that Bennie the Bum's is not owned by a bum, or even by a guy named Bennie.

The brains behind the diner is Ed Campellone, a 44-year-old Philadelphia native who likes to play the angles and tell a good story. A former executive chef and restaurateur, he was driving through Newport Beach one morning at about 3 and was miffed when he couldn't find a place to get a cup of coffee.

So 4 years ago, he opened the only 24-hour diner in Laguna Beach, betting that his mutt restaurant with only four booths and seven swivel counter stools could make it amid the city's pedigreed establishments.

"People said, 'What're you going to name it?' Let me tell you a little story. I said, 'I don't know.' I go home. I'm sleeping, it's 3 in the morning, I wake up. I'm sitting straight up in bed. I say, Bennie the Bum's Diner. My wife says, 'Go back to sleep.' The next morning, I make a caricature of myself. My wife says, 'You're going to have all the bums in town eating there.' "

So, Campellone has become Bennie the Bum, at least for the several hours a day that he spends at the restaurant.

"The place took off like a rocket," Bennie says.

If so, it's probably because Bennie takes a few liberties with his customers. But it works both ways: The customers are allowed to heap it on Bennie too. "What goes on here would never be allowed at the Jolly Roger" restaurant across the street, Bennie says. "They'd bounce 'em out."

But it's kind of hard to ask for decorum from your customers when you have a waitress who dances on the tables to the '60s song "Wild Thing."

That would be Joyce Monsour, the 48-year-old waitress direct from Central Casting, with the perfect combination of salty tongue and sugary heart.

If Bennie is a funny hat, then Joyce is a whoopee cushion.

She showed up for work one day wearing square-shaped earrings with condoms encased in them.

Pity the customer who doesn't show her the proper deference. Regular customer John Winston says: "Joyce is in between the New York-style waitress who shows you the indifference of 'why the hell did you come in?' and the sophisticated Valley Girl, which she is not."

But part of being a good waitress is sizing up a customer's personality and knowing what you can get away with.

"Can we sit anywhere?" a customer asks.

"It ain't the Ritz-Carlton, but sit," Joyce retorts as the customer smiles.

"One day, I just got up there and started dancing," Joyce says. "We get these bums in early in the morning, and they get all depressed. One day the music started, and I just jumped on the table. Now they expect me to do it every day."

To hear Bennie tell it, the diner's doing quite well, serving around the clock to a potpourri of customers--from the very rich to the very poor, from the famous to those who are famous only to their friends at Bennie's.

"Sinatra's been here," Bennie says. "Joyce didn't even recognize him. Next to him were two bums."

In theory, that is part of the appeal of diner-type restaurants--the notion that somebodies share salt shakers with nobodies. Diners, which have long been fixtures in the East, have become trendy in California in recent years--within the past few months, two restaurants using "diner" in their names have opened in Newport Beach.

Bennie is enough of a restaurateur to know he is selling mood as well as food. That's why the jukebox is a mix of '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, as well as crooner classics from Sinatra and Dean Martin. The walls are festooned with framed photos of performers like Sinatra, Joey Heatherton, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ray Charles--many with penned inscriptions to Bennie.

"I think it's part of the nostalgia thing, part of a desire for things that are a little simpler," said Stan Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn. Kyker isn't certain how many diners there are in Southern California, but said there has been a movement toward them in the past 3 years.

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