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Diner Refuses to Sell Out : Development: Amid major commercial construction projects in the South Westwood area, The Apple Pan holds on to its traditions.

December 23, 1990|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A landmark Pico Boulevard diner, dwarfed by giant development projects around it, has proven it's no flash in The Apple Pan.

Since 1947, the purveyor of hickory burgers and homemade apple pie has been serving up grub to devotees who make pilgrimages from far and wide to hop up on one of the 26 red stools for a bite to eat.

Owner Martha Gamble says The Apple Pan is going to continue to embrace history, not fool with it. It stands as a monument to no-growth amid a profusion of stucco and steel, attesting that some things can stay the same.

When developers came to call several years ago, Gamble shooed them away, despite the "wild numbers" being bandied about.

"We weren't even slightly interested because we like our little place," Gamble said. "We don't know what we'd do without it."

The unassuming little white-frame restaurant looks like the plain, but proud, country cousin to its looming neighbor across the street--the jazzy Westside Pavilion.

And soon it will be the only piece of property in its entire block that is not part of a two-story retail enclave under construction at Westwood and Pico boulevards.

In addition, the 105,000-square-foot Pavilion expansion down the street will soon add its presence to the rapidly developing South Westwood area.

Although the restaurant is a paean to the common person, it gets its share of celebrities. Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca stopped in recently, and Laker Magic Johnson is a regular, Gamble said.

It's by design, not accident, that The Apple Pan is almost exactly like it was when Gamble's parents, Alan and Ellen Baker, opened its doors in 1947.

There are no fancy computer checks--actually, no computers at all--in the tiny back office stacked with supplies. The adding machine with a big hand-crank is a relic of days gone by.

Employee pay records are kept on loose ledger sheets, and the bulky black safe looks as if it came right out of a '20s gangster movie. Gamble warms herself by the same ancient space heater her father, now retired, used when she was a girl.

"It's never been a fancy operation," Gamble said. "We concentrate a lot on what we do, but no frills. . . . I can't think of a thing that's changed since 1947."

Well, there is one thing. The Apple Pan was one of the few places that refused to give up tiny, individual glass bottles for the thick whipping cream it serves with coffee. Then a few years ago, the restaurant couldn't buy them anymore, despite contacting manufacturers all over the country.

Now The Apple Pan has gone plastic, and Gamble says her father still laments that he didn't stockpile a lifetime supply of the thick glass beakers in his garage. He retired several years ago.

The metal holders for paper water cups are the next endangered tradition, Gamble said.

Gamble remembers how before the restaurant opened both her grandmothers spent time in the kitchen working out the pie recipes that are still followed to the letter for the 100 pies baked daily.

Gamble and her parents used to stay in Los Angeles in the winter, then return for the summer to Chicago, where her father was a golf pro.

When the family moved West permanently in 1961, they took over full-time management of the restaurant. Gamble's daughter has followed her mother into the family business.

One of the more unusual things about The Apple Pan is the loyalty of its employees. Cook-manager Charles Collins has worked there since 1956. Waiter Gordon Teske has been on board since 1964. And they aren't the only ones, either.

The customers are equally attached to the place. "It's almost a cult," Gamble said.

Gamble said she is on good terms with the firm that is developing the shopping center next door.

Spokeswoman Wendy Sommerstein said developers Eliot & Michael Lewis knew they were dealing with a landmark and, despite having high-end tenants in the new development, found it a plus to be a neighbor of the historic little diner. The center is set for completion in June.

"We go there all the time for the coffee," Sommerstein said.

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