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Supply and Demand | SO SoCal

Pans America

May 11, 1997|Ed Leibowitz

Platos, Platos, Platos--Todo Para Su Restaurante," the Dish Factory's marquee beckons on a block of tumbledown hotels and cut-rate electronics emporiums. "Dishes, Dishes, Dishes--Everything for Your Restaurant." Chinese, Thai and Arabic signage have also been painstakingly painted beside the entrance of the four-story downtown loft building, its crumbling facade pierced to the quick by rusted earthquake bolts.

"We're the only one left on the street," says the Dish Factory's general manager, Maury Rams. For decades this stretch of Los Angeles Street served as the restaurant supply hub for the entire city. There are many explanations for the mass flight 15 years ago of restaurant suppliers to Washington Boulevard: the influx of peddlers and vagrants, purse-snatchings and break-ins, and rents that skyrocketed after discount distributors began partitioning the ancient warehouses.

Despite its dilapidated exterior, the Dish Factory still bustles within. All dishes are either close-outs or factory seconds. In row after row, slightly blemished vitrified porcelain is available in the form of escargot pans and teacups, sugar caddies and sauce boats, Dallas bouillon cups and monkey dishes, emblazoned with pagodas or smooching turtledoves, or the diamonds and triangles reminiscent of mid-'50s Formica.

Then there are the monster appliances--a three-gallon International blender, a salad spinner with the capacity of a good-sized garbage can, a stockpot that can brew 160 quarts of the soup of the day. For bars and grills still maintaining smoking areas, the Dish Factory offers sad cast-off ashtrays for $4.99 a dozen. The most poignant advertises "Mr. Steak--coast to coast, America's favorite family restaurant," and features a cartoon of a steer, its horns poking out beneath a chef's hat, wearing the kind of bafflingly cheerful expression you'd maintain if you were both cook and the main course.

Taped to the walls are restaurant reviews torn from glossy magazine pages. Mimosa, Indochine and Le Chardonnay are among the Dish Factory customers marked with a highlighter pen. The Catalyst Caffe of Pasadena might soon join this pantheon. Dabbing a white washcloth against her tongue, customer Judy Kirby wipes a stack of cobalt blue dishes for her son Mark's first restaurant, which he's opening with his fiancee. Kirby herself might have preferred the more lively shades of Fiestaware, but she can hardly argue with the price of these platters: $7 per dozen. "They're going to have really nice salads and sandwiches," Kirby boasts of her son's venture, separating the plates with negligible blemishes from those with grand structural defects. "Really high-end kind of things, and soups, chile, quiches, frittatas. They have a simmered oatmeal that's out of this world."

Kirby vouches for this cuisine both as the restaurateur's mother and the Catalyst Caffe's de facto chef. "I'm actually doing quite a bit of the cooking right now," she says. However, she won't be pan-frying frittatas for her son and his fiancee indefinitely. "For 30 days, that's my gift for them. Then they've got to hire a cook."

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