The flannel shirts are plentiful enough to rival any Midwestern truck stop at dawn. Combat boots shine, and pierced body parts are to nighttime patrons what mustard is to pastrami sandwiches. At booths and tables, customers flirt, klatch and catch up over coffee and knishes.
Welcome to Canter's after midnight--when old-time delicatessen patrons give way to Generation X.
Each weekend, Los Angeles' oldest and most venerated deli undergoes a metamorphosis that begins slowly at midnight and gains momentum as the late evening turns to early morning.
As the bars close, weary club-goers in their 20s and 30s come to fill up on food and get in a few final hours of schmoozing. After all, where else can one get a corned beef on rye, nurse a hangover and feel like part of a Fellini film?
"Let's face it," says one 25-year-old, clad in a baby-doll dress and oversized hat. "This place is where the strangest-looking people come."
In the mornings and afternoons, the deli is decidedly more staid. The eatery is filled with regulars, such as Martin Vimand, who have been coming for the food for years. Although he has been a Canter's customer for more than a quarter-century, he usually does not venture in after dark, and for good reason.
"I'm a little old. I don't go for the real loud noise level. But I have been here as late as 10 o'clock," Vimand says over his lunch of chopped liver and pastrami. In fact, even the waitresses, known for their crisp pink uniforms and in-your-face attitudes, are younger in the late evenings. "(The older waitresses) couldn't handle the younger crowd," says Lynn Price, one of the day managers at Canter's.
The younger crowd is not easily categorized.
There are the grunges, clad in oversize flannel shirts and baggy jeans. There are the rockers, who prefer leather to plaid, and those who go undefined, including patrons with super-toned bodies and skintight clothing. If they don't come to be seen, they come to scam.
"We come to look at the girls, and sometimes to look at the strange people," says Peter Corey, an aspiring screenwriter who had ordered a martini extra dry and a bowl of matzo ball soup. His friend, Bryce McDonald, a movie producer, agrees. "It's kind of like bird-watching," he says. "Except in this case, the later the better."
Always, there is the chance for love. Once, says a female patron, a man with a Harley-Davidson jacket sent her a barrage of poems written on paper napkins. When she excused herself from the table to go reapply her lipstick, he followed her to the restroom. Phone numbers were exchanged and the pair dated for three months. "If you meet a guy at Canter's, no matter how strange he looks, you know that he has morals," she says knowingly.
Many attribute the success of the deli as an after-hours nightspot not only to the colorful clientele, but to the location on Fairfax Avenue, central to many clubs and bars that are in vogue. It doesn't hurt, either, that the eatery is open 24 hours.
"It's really relaxing. There's a very diverse crowd here," says a 24-year-old band manager who goes by the name Jenz. "We usually come from a club all the time because it's still open." Jenz, who has a streak of purple running through her raven hair, is clearly not here for the deli fare. The vegetarian has ordered coffee and a bowl of pasta.
Bella Haig, the night manager of the deli and a 30-year Canter's employee, says the influx of young people is nothing new. "I've been through the hippie generation, then the Hell's Angels, then the punkers. The lines have been so long that the windows used to break from people leaning on them," Haig says. It was around that time that private security guards had to be hired.
These days, potentially volatile situations are handled by Jack Baker, Canter's 83-year-old, one-man security force. Baker mostly patrols the booths, working on noise control and occasionally asking customers who sit cross-legged to put their feet on the floor. "It rips the vinyl, you know. Especially big high heels."
Baker has seen quite a lot of heels in his 48 years at Canter's. "You'll see guys dressed like girls, and they're good-looking!" he says incredulously. "In the old days, we had all the old people. Now you've got this young stuff coming in."
Although many of the deli's nighttime patrons readily admit it is uncool to be star-struck, the frequent appearance of Hollywood notables has proved to be yet another draw. "All the Jewish comics come here," says McDonald, ticking off a list of sightings that could make a tabloid journalist salivate.
Musicians often take part in impromptu jam sessions in the Kibbitz Room, a bar that adjoins the deli and features live music by local bands.
Although Tova Oppenheim, a hostess at Canter's, readily admits that all her idols are "in Palm Springs and semi-retired," she lights up when she mentions the fact that she has seen members of the rock group Guns N' Roses and cast members of the daytime soap "The Young and the Restless" in the deli.
"I've been here four glorious years," she says. "And the best thing about this place is really the people--the variety of people."