The front door is flanked by two signs; the one on the left reads, "Mother-Baked Pies," while the one on the right says, "Dodgers/Lite Beer." Inside, over pastel banquettes, the Miller Genuine Draft Girl beams bustily from between two bland posters of Monet waterlilies. The jukebox plays easy listening. Three television sets are turned on in the small bar--two of them tuned to the NFL, the third showing Fred and Ginger on the arts channel.
Quick--is this your dentist's waiting room, or the neighborhood tavern? Well, maybe a little of both.
This is the cocktail lounge of the Denny's Restaurant on San Fernando Road. Bartender, a double Novocain, please.
In the corner, a young couple sits close together, sipping cocktails. Is this, er, a date? They won't say. Four twentysomethings saunter in, order margaritas and burgers, and proceed to shoot the breeze. When "Get Smart" comes on the TV over their heads they fall silent, with that special narcoleptic reverence young Angelenos have for bad television. Welcome to Denny's Nation.
A pair of railway workers share a pitcher of beer after work. They are fun, friendly guys who don't want their names in the paper. "You want a real bar, you should go up to the Marie Callender's in Glendale," one of them says. "That's where I usually go. It's like 'Cheers.' "
"And they have big mugs of beer there," his friend adds wistfully. "Schooners of beer."
A woman sits alone in a banquette drinking coffee and working diligently on her second pack of Marlboro Lights while devouring a paperback bestseller. Occasionally, she stops to warm her hands over her cigarette lighter, complaining to herself of the cold. "She's here all the time," one of the railway workers whispers. "Always reading."
Walter and Betty Nelmark have stopped in to split a Grand Slam breakfast before heading home. "When I moved here in 1958 this used to be a Van de Kamp's," Betty says. "We used to come here all the time. They had a drive-in with waitresses on roller skates. I was shocked when I saw that this is a Denny's. But we like Denny's."
"Whenever we travel we look for Denny's," adds Walter Nelmark, who then begins to reminisce about the couple's previous searches for Denny's. "There was that trip we took on Highway 50 in Nevada. They call it the loneliest highway in the world." He stares into space, perhaps still moved by the memory of it. "Just miles and miles and miles of nothing."
It's easy to see what prompts the memory. You can have your Dresden Room, so self-consciously hip and coy. Existential purists will find that, like the desert, there is something soulful in the very vacuousness of this place, that endless possibilities lie in its expanses of poetic nothingness. Isn't this, after all, what we all came West for? As the free bumper sticker says, "It's never too late at Denny's."
Where: Denny's Restaurant and cocktail lounge, 3060 San Fernando Rd., Los Angeles; (213) 259-8258.
When: Bar hours 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. Restaurant open 24 hours.
Cost: Bottled beer $2.25, Martini $3, Rum & Coke $2.75. Grand Slam breakfast $1.99, Mega Meal $5.49. Free popcorn.