The eastern part of Culver City--one of the few redeveloped areas around that hardly look redeveloped at all--is as mixed a neighborhood as you'll find in L.A., full of small working-class homes, factories converted into furniture stores, goofy cottages inspired by fairy stories, and Mexican and Ethiopian restaurants.
Almost invisible, when you're racing through the area toward Downtown, is the surprising number of old warehouse blocks remodeled by expensive postmodern architects. Exposed superstructures and exploded ziggurats soar into the smoggy Culver City sky; umptillion square feet of space are occupied by the movie business and the rag trade. It's kind of the Westside equivalent of New York's Tribeca--an industrial area for the postindustrial world.
Near the bottom of the district, right where you might expect to see a trucker-dominated diner, is JJ's Cafe, sort of a high-rise office-building coffee shop without a high-rise in sight. It's about the sweetest restaurant you can imagine, populated by a crowd not much different from the one at the Fox commissary, buzzing with film talk and staffed by a team of the sort of congenitally perky aspiring actresses whose Hollywood Reporter classified sections are probably well-underlined by 7 a.m.
You've heard of the concept of Restaurant as Theater? JJ's is Restaurant as Audition for a Sitcom. Sun tea brews on the patio. Fresh flowers are stuck into rinsed ketchup bottles. A waitress makes out with her boyfriend at the lunch counter while three tables full of customers wave frantically for the check.
The menu lists such things as "Cottage Cheese . . . low fat, because we care"; and "Cheeeeese Bagels ... with butter, butter, butter." Specials--carrot cakes, brownies, over-sweetened "crab" salad sandwiches--are handwritten on a board in the sort of cursive script the head cheerleader might have used to inscribe "Have a nice summer" under her picture in your senior yearbook. In most places it is embarrassing to order something called a "Scramblett" or a "Happy Dog," but at JJ's it's the only chance you have to keep up with the unrelenting cheeriness of the room.
"Was that zucchini bread yummy-yummy-yummy?" a waitress asks a Ken Berry look-alike at the next table.
"Don't push your luck," the pseudo-Ken says. "Just yummy-yummy."
JJ's menu isn't all over the map, precisely, but hugs the extremes, satisfying equally the noontime urges of both burly IATSE guys and waif-like Foley artists. Here you'll find the holistic groove-mongering of avocado/sprouts sandwiches on honey-wheat bread and the caloric wallop of half-pound patty melts; the gardenburgers and the grilled hot link sandwiches with chili and (canola-cooked) fries; the Chinese chicken salad and the bacon-avocado burger.
Croutons, something of a specialty here, are little squares of fried bread that practically squeak with butter. They outnumber the leaves of lettuce in the house salad, provide soft, numbing nodes of richness with spinach, cheese and eggs in the richest of the "Scrambletts," and are even sold bagged to go.
You probably shouldn't miss the Happy Dog, a jumbo frank wrapped in bacon and smothered in cheese--an outsize version of the "francheezies" that were standard cocktail-party snacks in the '50s.
If you get the right waitress, you may be able to hear her from across the room, humming "happy happy, happy happy, happy happy," as she adds up your check.
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WHERE TO GO
JJ's Cafe, 3599 Hayden Ave., Culver City. (310) 837-3248. Open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Beer and wine. Parking lot. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $9-$13.
WHAT TO GET
"Scrambletts," "The Happy Dog," frozen Milky Way.