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Dishing It Out : Abuse Is Served Sunny Side Up--and Customers Love It

June 20, 1993|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Though in the center of the city, Babe's Kitchen has a country air, with its eggs-and-bacon, biscuits-and-gravy breakfasts, and folksy clientele.

The customers who come regularly to the little, 17-year-old restaurant on Wardlow Road in Bixby Knolls share tables and make friends with strangers. They donate cups ("I love my grandma" is printed on one), and even clear their dishes or go behind the counter to get coffee when things get busy.

On a recent morning, most of the counter stools were occupied and the tables were filling up. Fans attached to the low ceiling stirred food smells. Plates clattered. A TV above the refrigerator was on but unwatched.

The wall held pictures of an American flag, of the outside of Babe's at dawn, and of the cook, who's also the owner: George, not Babe.

Babe, who was George's basset hound, died nine years ago.

George Whitlock, 51, whose trademarks are a white T-shirt, apron and bushy mustache, was busy at the griddle. He said he works more than 100 hours a week, arriving each morning at 3, or 1 1/2 hours before he opens.

"My wife's always calling to ask when I'm coming home," he said.

When not cooking breakfast or lunch (Babe's isn't open for dinner), he is making pies, bread or jelly. In the morning crush of customers, he stays calm, even in the face of the harried LaVerne Thomas, who wears a button that reads, "Waitress from Hell."

"George, you don't know what the hell you're doin'," she said the other day amid some confusion over an order. Then, not for the first time that morning, she threatened to quit.

"What do you want to eat?" she asked a customer who had just sat down. Then she warned him, "I might not come back."

Whitlock looked up from the sausage he was cooking, pointed his spatula and said to the woman who's worked for him about 10 years, "I've got a pink slip for you if you want it."

The regulars laughed. They had heard it all before.

"You have to put up with the abuse," said Dave Griffith, a welder who was eating at the counter. "But it's wonderful here. Best breakfast in the world as far as I'm concerned."

Thomas, in her uniform of flowered shirt, white pants and tennis shoes, dishes out abuse to everyone, especially those who bang their spoons on their cups for service.

"Relax, Rome wasn't built in a day," she said to a man who wondered what was holding up his coffee.

When another customer banged a cup, Thomas scowled and said, "I'm going to Federal Express your water."

Babe's has seven tables, and though two seat eight, there can still be a wait outside the door. That's when Thomas is likely to say as she comes with the check, "You've been here long enough. Leave."

She says all of these things without a smile, but her eyes betray a trace of merriment over her role of making sure the show goes on, and knowing she is loved.

"The entertainment here is out of this world," Loyd Osburn said, meaning Thomas. A retired oil-field worker from Lakewood, Osburn comes in with his wife, Kay, about four times a week, and they sit with friends at the big table in the rear.

"It's a fantastic way to start the day, with all your friends and just everybody as sweet as they can be," Kay Osburn said. "We have good fellowship here."

She poured honey on her cream of wheat.

"Very, very good," she said. "Usually we have a breakfast special too, which is a biscuit open-faced with gravy, one egg, a smidgen of potatoes, and bacon. That is delicious."

"Boy, it is good," said her husband.

Whitlock always wanted to be a cook. Growing up in Connecticut, he helped out in his mother's kitchen. When he came to Long Beach about 30 years ago he took a job at Russell's restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. He was there 12 years, and became so popular that, when he left to open Babe's in 1976, he had a built-in core of customers.

Babe's attracts oil-field workers, truck drivers, police officers, firefighters, retired people and even millionaires. "Everybody comes in," said Whitlock. "You feed working people and they come in on Saturday and Sunday and bring their families. Kids love the place."

Tom Selleck once ate at Babe's when he was in Long Beach making a movie. Some of the Los Angeles Lakers came in one day, after visiting a gun shop in the area, and what a sight it was to watch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar try to squeeze his long legs beneath one of the tables.

Whitlock is certain of the reason for his success: "Good food. The best ingredients you can buy. None of that microwave junk, you know what I mean?"

He fries 1,600 eggs and 75 pounds of bacon a week. And there is no telling how much sausage gravy he ladles out.

Michael Jordan, a gardener fortifying himself for a long day in the sun, was eating a heaping plate of biscuits and gravy.

"I don't know if it's good for you, but I eat a hell of a lot of it," he said.

If people worry about their cholesterol, Whitlock will take out the yolks of the eggs and give them just the whites. "Unleaded" omelets, they're called.

"I'm good for my customers," he said. "Everything's cooked to order, you know what I mean?"

He has two other waitresses, and, like Thomas, they are senior citizens. Betty Dunagan comes in about 10:30 to help Thomas, and Ona Kuhn works Sundays.

"I like the older people because they're dependable and honest," Whitlock said.

He cooks nonstop for hours on the busiest days.

"I get tired of it, but who don't?" he said. "I'm here the next day. I haven't missed a day of work in 30 years.

"I don't get mad at anything, I'm a Pisces, I got everything under control."

Even the waitress from hell?

"I do my best," Whitlock said. "She's always like this. But she's nice, she'll give you the shirt off her back."

Thomas was giving the Osburns their check. "It may not be right, but it's close," she said.

She always says that, but no one gets tired of hearing it.

"That's Babe's," Loyd Osburn said with a hearty laugh as his wife hugged Thomas goodby. "Lord knows we don't want it to change."

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