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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

It's Toast

August 24, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

I don't know about you, but I've never had a Steak-O-Bob, a skewered meat thing that has been on the menu at Ships at least since I was first taken to the place sometime around 1966. At the beginning, I think, I pretty much stuck to the onion rings and chocolate malts that any sane kindergartner would prefer; later, I mostly got half-pound Ship Shape burgers or fresh-baked chicken pot pies.

Now, both Ships La Cienega and Ships Culver City are set to close sometime next week, and I'll never have a chance again. Goodby, Mr. Ships.

When the '70s anthropologist/mystic seer Carlos Castaneda used to astral-project, he told essayist Michael Ventura a while ago, his astral form would travel to the all-night Ships coffee shop in Westwood. You couldn't really fault Castaneda for his choice of destination--Ships was a splendid place, with Sunbeams on every table so that you could make your own toast, and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and pancakes that were really not so bad. It used to make me happy to think of his astral being hanging out undetected amid the toast smoke and the cheerful funk of frying bacon, eavesdropping on the earnest discussions of the Yaqui guru Don Juan that would inevitably take place in those days wherever a group of undergraduate humanities majors became sufficiently full of strong coffee.

When Ships Westwood disappeared in 1984, gulped up by 20 stories of glass and steel, Castaneda's astral being was presumably homeless for a while, but the rest of us knew exactly where to go: the other two branches of Ships, burnt-orange slices of the '50s preserved in museum-fresh condition, which I even sort of preferred.

Pann's may have had a wilder interior and Five Horsemen a better chocolate shake, but the three Ships may have been the defining coffee shops of Los Angeles, extravagantly architected in the Space Age post-Taliesin indoor-outdoor mode sometimes known as Googie, staffed with waitresses who never minded pouring a ninth cup of coffee when a conversation lingered until 3:30 in the morning and owned by a quality-obsessed man, Emmett Shipman, who was as careful with his ingredients as any Joachim Splichal. Unlike his contemporaries Norman (Norm's) Roybark, Robert (Bob's) Wian and William (Tiny) Naylor, Shipman kept his empire small enough to rule by himself. And although Ships may have slumped a bit after Shipman died a couple of years ago--the prime beef was superseded by USDA choice Angus beef; the heavy cream in the coffee by a lighter grade of moo--it was still probably the best coffee shop in town.

In a time when neighborhood restaurants had already been mostly drained of customers by the drive-through window and the ministrations of talking clowns, Ships was a great good place, equally friendly to student and pensioner, where somebody always remembered that you liked your cheeseburgers rare and your ice tea without lemon. If you sat at the counter long enough, you could learn to read the ebb and surge of customers like the numbers on a sundial. At the La Cienega Ships, at one point the stinky-denim crowd washed in at 11:30, the disco smoothies at 1 and the fetish-rubber guys at 3.

A lot of us have half a lifetime invested in this place. It was outside Ships La Cienega that my then-8-year-old brother Mark was mugged for his Timex, and also where an armed stranger strongly suggested that I let him borrow both the contents of my wallet and the mint Last Poets LP I happened to be carrying at the time. I probably tasted coffee for the first time in this restaurant, and there were times when the pancake sandwiches here were the only meals out that I could afford. In the waning hours of the '92 riots, my wife and I were huddled over Ship Shapes when a low-caliber bullet cracked against a window, and hardly anybody so much as flinched.

The food at Ships was always better than good. The Ship Shape was one of the best coffee shop burgers in L.A., a half-pound of freshly ground Angus chuck pressed lightly into an oval patty, sizzled medium-rare on a nickel-steel griddle and served with caramelized onions and a drizzle of sweet mayonnaise on thick slabs of grilled sourdough bread. There was the quintessential chicken pot pie with a crisp, buttery crust, large, tender pieces of bird and no pesky vegetables to get in your way. The mashed potatoes were handmade, the deep-dish berry pies baked each day, the brisket with horseradish fresh and hot. Even the shrimp Louie was OK.

Last Friday, somewhere around midnight, Ships was still crowded with goateed young men, slumped guys who look as if they'd just come off 12-hour shifts, after-movie couples and UPS dudes, few of them aware that the restaurant had only a few days to live. If you'd asked the customers, they might have recognized Ships as a civic institution on the order of the Griffith Observatory or the Hollywood Bowl, but as it was, only the staff seemed upset.

"I never thought I'd live to hear myself say this," a waitress said, dabbing at her cheek with a tear-stained napkin, "but I'm going to work at Canter's.'

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

FAVORITES

Ship Shpe Burger

Steak-O-Bob

Chicken Pot Pie

Hot Cake Sandwich

LAST CHANCE

Ships: 1016 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 652-0401, closes 4 p.m. Aug. 30; 10705 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 839-2347, closes 4 p.m., Aug 31.

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