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Never Say Closed : Historic Pantry Diner Hasn't Been Empty of Patrons in 67 Years

CITY AT NIGHT: Los Angeles after hours. One in an occasional series.

June 20, 1991|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Night manager Frank Martinez has seen many a famous face at the Original Pantry, the historic, 24-hour diner in downtown Los Angeles. Take the time, several years ago, when Pope John Paul II was in town.

No, the Pope did not actually stop in for one of the Pantry's $9.45 T-bone steaks, or even break bread with some of that thick sourdough.

"But he blessed the place as (his car) went by," Martinez recalled with a grin, handing out change one recent night from the Pantry's old-fashioned cashier's cage, a barred enclosure remindful of a teller's window. The way Martinez figures it, the Pope's blessing must have worked: Virtually every customer rushed outside for a glimpse of the Pontiff. Then--and this was the miracle--they "came right back in to pay their bills."

Never mind its obvious drawbacks: Noisy acoustics, an unpolished, rather time-worn decor and a location near a forest of high-rise offices that seem wholly devoid of night life. The fact is, the Pantry has been blessed from Day 1. Not once--not for a single moment, day or night, since it opened in 1924--has the diner found itself without a paying customer. Or so its owners say.

In an era when most all-night diners are chain operations that seem precast by machine, the Pantry on any given night is an anachronism, a high-calorie, damn-the-frills steak joint crowded with patrons of all kinds, at all hours: urban professionals, truck drivers, street thugs, orange-haired teens spilling over from a nearby disco, conventioneers, police officers, gamblers, hookers, theatergoers, you name it.

Hunkered at the foot of a gleaming new 35-story building at 9th and Figueroa streets, the diner is an inner-city survivor populated by survivors of the inner city. It stands, almost defiantly, at the uncertain border between the soaring, elegant downtown featured on postcards and the gritty, downtrodden landscape that stretches southward and eastward.

As far back as 1950, the Pantry endured its first brush with extinction when the Harbor Freeway roared through, swallowing up the original location a block west of Figueroa. Management claims lunch was served at the old building and dinner at the new, with no hiatus in service or customers.

More recently, downtown's multimillion-dollar redevelopment, with its spectacular new skyline, threatened once again to obliterate the diner and scatter its regulars like so much table salt. But venture capitalist Richard Riordan, who acquired the restaurant and a block's worth of adjoining parcels several years ago, unexpectedly fell in love with the place and decided to save it--even though it meant passing up $6 million in possible development profits.

So, for now, at least, business goes on as usual--fast and furious. When the diner is full, lines stretch down the sidewalk. On most days, those lines begin forming at 4 a.m. for breakfast, then reappear for lunch and dinner. On weekends, the lines often last until midnight, even 1 in the morning.

On this particular night, a Wednesday, the street scene was quiet. The next-door office building was dark, but distant towers, including the newly built, 73-story First Interstate World Center, lit the sky with almost galactic beauty. Outside the Pantry, streets and sidewalks were dark and mostly deserted except for occasional cars zipping past and a lone figure who sat perched atop the back of a bus stop bench, watching them. Across the street, two low, modern-looking motels heralded themselves with bright neon signs.

Inside, the Pantry was jumping. All 22 tables and 18 counter seats were full, and eight people were lined up just inside the door.

Oblivious to the loud talk, clattering plates and frying meat, a regular who called himself Sam, a retired schoolteacher, sat alone in the back in a red flannel shirt, reading the New Republic.

"I've been coming here since before the (Harbor) freeway was built . . . going back 40 years," he said. Most weeks, Sam is here at least three or four times, usually alone, usually about this hour, when he claims the place begins to quiet down.

"I like to read," he explained. "When I come here I'm tired, and I want to just read and eat."

Architects Steve Lewis and Joe Catalano, friends since their days at Syracuse University in the 1970s, sat at the end of the counter sipping coffee; they were taking a break before heading back to their high-rise down the street to burn the midnight oil on a design deadline.

"I hope to quit at 1," said Lewis, somewhat bleakly.

Huddled together at a table were Ed Reyna and Amy Sarumian, 21-year-olds who had just finished a late shift running a sale on women's shoes at Nordstrom's. "Shoe hell!" Reyna declared with a laugh. They had stopped at Olvera Street, found everything closed, and ended up here.

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