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Change Is on the Menu : Will a '50s Icon Adapt to Its New Surroundings? The Old-Timers at Buffy's Will Be the Judge


Back before freeways and malls and fast food, when the cities of the South Bay had bona fide downtowns, virtually every main street had a Buffy's.

Buffy's was the small coffee shop where the java flowed freely and the waitresses remembered not only your name but how you liked your eggs. You could almost set your watch by when the banker and the insurance agent and the former mayor arrived for their morning coffee.

For the past 30 years, the Buffy's-style coffee shops of Southern California have been quietly switching off the coffee pots and closing their doors amid stiff competition from fast-food restaurants.

But in downtown Torrance, Buffy's Coffee Shop lives on--in a new format. Last week, the popular eating spot moved out of its 1950s-style home and across El Prado Avenue to new and gleaming mauve-toned quarters.

Buffy's move is a test of sorts: whether a camaraderie that flourished over the old horseshoe-shaped counters can be transplanted intact to a more spacious, well-lit 1990s setting, especially at a time when Torrance's downtown is being buffeted by sweeping renovations.

So as they try out the new booths, the old-timers linger over their coffee mugs and talk about change. They recount how Buffy's is "like family," how the homemade raisin toast and the waitress's cheery greetings have become staples in their lives. And as they gaze across the unscratched tabletops, they seem caught between two eras.

Most diners are praising the new environment: the space, the outside dining patio, the pink floral fabric covering the comfortable chairs.

"I like the combination of colors. It has class," said Del Cisneros, a regular since 1987, as he consumed a large bowl of Buffy's specialty--won-ton soup. But at the same time, he and others talk wistfully of the old shop with its intimate counter design, low-slung pedestal stools and Formica finish.

"You miss the smoke and darkness and old-fashioned seating area, the counter where you twirled around in the seats," Cisneros said.

"Nothing's going to last forever. But it was sort of unique to have those sorts of counters--it kind of reminds me of when I was growing up," said 13-year Buffy's veteran Robert Medak, 47, a telephone company worker, over his plate of sirloin-and-eggs and raisin toast.

No one is more aware of these nostalgic musings than Lisa Lee, Buffy's owner for seven years and the hard-driving energy behind its operations. Lee knows this move is a test, and she is determined to make the new Buffy's as much a hallowed landmark as the old one.

"They'll get used to it. Right now, it's a shock to them to see things changing. It's like you're moving to a new home," Lee said.

Some customers say it is a collective spirit that makes Buffy's work. It is what keeps the old-timers coming back each morning, businessmen sitting elbow-to-elbow with construction workers, greeting one another across the booths. It is what can be lacking in the corporate-owned fast-food restaurants that are replacing Buffy's-style shops everywhere.

"It's down-home. It's kind of country. . . . It's putting your feet up on the stove," said George W. Post, a former banker and part of the longtime Torrance banking family for which Post Avenue is named.

Post and about 10 of his friends form "the gang," which meets every morning at Buffy's. Former mayors Ken Miller and James Armstrong are members; so are ex-Police Chief Donald E. Nash, City Councilman Bill Applegate and accountant Robert Waddell. They flip coins to decide who picks up the bill.

Lee, 37, has become such a mainstay that some people mistakenly call her Buffy, not realizing there may never have been a real Buffy at all. The name was a popular one for coffee shops in the 1930s, which is when this shop probably started, said Lee, who bought Buffy's in 1986.

Soon after, she began hearing rumors the restaurant might be displaced by construction. She was notified officially in 1991 that Buffy's would be demolished to make way for the $40-million downtown Torrance redevelopment project of condominiums and retail shops, spearheaded by Gascon Mar Ltd. of San Diego and ANA Real Estate.

The project represents the most dramatic change in many decades for Torrance's old downtown, which is composed of one-story shops and small businesses and has the faded air of a 1950s town eclipsed by shopping malls and freeways.

Some fought the Gascon Mar plan, contending that it would destroy downtown in the name of saving it. Others believe it will breathe new life into this old part of town.

The Gascon Mar project is made up of three condominium buildings comprising 179 units, as well as 26,000 square feet of new retail space and a 375-space parking garage. Eight businesses were relocated to make room for the project.

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