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Where Talk Flows as Freely as the Java

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.

July 20, 1993|BILL MANSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CORONADO — It's a sunny Saturday morning on Orange Avenue and the Night & Day Cafe is overflowing, as usual.

All 13 stools at the only counter are full. A bank of people stands behind them against the wall, their hungry eyes following forkloads of hash browns from the large china plates into the mouths of the Seated Ones. It's almost like a tennis match, except at tennis matches you don't drool so much.

This is the Night & Day, a hole in the wall doing just fine in the bosom of Coronado, where the average house is half a million, the average rank is admiral (ret.) and the average restaurant is yuppie. Fact is, everyone loves this place.

Keeping the tradition alive between counter and cooker is Beverly Hunter, moving rhythmically in the contained space. She is using both hands to break three sets of eggs onto the 4-foot-long griddle, smearing them out into swirling gold and white circular masses that look like yellow-filtered NASA pictures of planet Earth.

*

"Was that broccoli and cheese omelet with hash browns and bacon you said, John?" Bev--as everyone calls her--calls out without turning.

"Yoop," says a grizzled guy on a corner stool. Bev takes two sizzling bacon strips off the griddle, lays them on a towel to soak up the fat, picks up a paintbrush from a can of melted butter, and drips the yellow liquid over three fresh white mountains of hash browns.

OK, so it's Cholesterol City. The kids love it and the old guys will tell you: Night & Day hasn't changed in more than half a century. Not its 13 stools, its food or its ambience.

Each week the restaurant uses 50 pounds of that thick black Farmer Brothers Coffee, 500 pounds of potatoes and untold amounts of homemade chili, all cooked up fresh, just as they were back in 1927 when the Night & Day opened its doors, surrounded then by scrawny paddocks and jumping jack rabbits. It has closed only once, when the little cafe changed hands in a crap game, moved two doors down and reopened. That was in '44.

Bill Huffman, who works here nights, is in for his morning wake-up coffee. Once, he was just a customer.

"I first came here in 1975. I was in the Navy. I guess I kept coming back because of Joyce and Mary, the ladies who ran it then. They reminded me of my grandmother. Mary died, but Joyce still works nights. When it got real busy for them I'd say, 'Hey, want me to do the dishes?' That was the start. I've been helping out ever since. I like it. This is the place the guys dream about out at sea. It kind of says everything about 'home.' "

He gets up to go. "But this is really two places. You gotta see the other . . . the nighttime."

*

At 2:30 a.m., Johnny the graveyard cook is in charge, with Bill taking orders and doing dishes. Elton John is wailing "Rocket Man" and the place is full. Navy, locals, clumps of mostly young men and women, are talking loudly and emitting big belly laughs because they're all fresh out of the bars that closed at 2.

All, that is, except three boys at the end of the counter. They're obviously high school kids, drinking coffee, talking in whispers and smoking cigarettes.

"I used to come here for just the same reason," says one of the Adult Locals, looking across at the Local Boys. "It was the only place you could smoke without being hassled by your parents."

A dapper man, maybe in his mid-50s, comes in. He's from Peru and he teaches adult Spanish classes at Coronado High School.

"Down there we stay up later than they do here. We eat late. Talk late. About this time I feel the need for company and coffee--and this is the only place in town. It's always alive. I like that."

Behind him, a gent with silver hair ties up his dog outside and comes in, almost furtively. Turns out he's a retired Marine colonel. "Boys," he says, "mind if I join you? Wife doesn't know. Doc doesn't know, but, man, I'm dying on those diet chocolate drinks they call lunch. I need a fix of hash browns and bacon--and jeez, some real company."

"You know what I love about this place?" asks a dark-haired woman called Bobby, who's with a Navy man named Gavin. (For counter-buddies, it's strictly first name.) "It's that sitting around here, this time of night, sometimes the place kind of . . . catches a light. The whole counter will come together on something."

She must have prescience. "You'd never guess it," a guy named Chris is saying, watching Johnny the cook hover for orders, "but he used to be a real live clown with Ringling Brothers, didn't you, Johnny?"

"That was waaay back," says the stern-faced Johnny, wiping his hands on his blue-and-white-checked cook's pants. He doesn't look like he wants to pursue the subject. But then he looks at Bill Huffman and starts laughing. He leans over the counter, still laughing, a high hyena laugh. "Uh, oh," says Bill. "He gets this way. He won't stop now."

Suddenly Gavin joins in. Soon, it's spreading. Everybody at the counter is laughing out loud and nobody knows why except that Johnny the ex-clown feels like a laugh and he's the cook, and what the heck, it's that time of night.

It won't be long before the North Island base early shift starts coming in, to read the papers and wake up with some coffee before their 6 a.m. start. Then Bev will be back for her morning crowd.

Out of the dark, Robert, a well-known local nighttime can collector, creaks up with his supermarket cart half full of cans and bottles. "Can you believe it?" he asks. "Vons has changed its recycling machines so you only get coupons. You have to take them into the store to get cash! How am I going to get my coffee at the Night & Day?"

But he goes in anyway, leaving the cart in full glare of the cafe's light. He's a regular. He's got good credit. Besides, Johnny's in a good mood.

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