At 7:30 on Thanksgiving morning, Mayor Richard Riordan was at the Original Pantry dialing an 800 number to county health officials. The mayor was attempting to get an inspector to come downtown and reopen the restaurant, which was closed the previous day for health code violations.
"This is Dick Riordan from the Pantry," said the mayor, who is majority owner of the popular restaurant.
He was asked to spell his last name.
He was then put on hold for 10 minutes.
Then the mayor was disconnected.
He called again, and this time he said he was the mayor.
Within an hour, a county health inspector had given the approval and, to the delight of many waiting customers, the restaurant reopened.
The 24-hour eatery, which until Wednesday had never closed since its founding in 1924, had been shut down by county health inspectors for 36 minor health code violations.
"I hope the customers forgive us," said Riordan, as he handed out free cups of coffee to the familiar line of patrons that snakes west along 9th Street from Figueroa Street every day of the year.
Far from being upset, the customers were thankful the restaurant reopened so quickly.
"This is the best restaurant in the city," said an enthusiastic Mark Gorman, who had driven from Chatsworth with his wife, Rita, and daughter Debbie, for their traditional Thanksgiving meal. "We are just glad to be first in line."
The Pantry's general manager, Duane Burrell, said he was notified of the county's inspection on Tuesday and had been given eight days to correct the cleanliness problems or else the restaurant would be shut down.
Much to his surprise, county officials came in Wednesday, allowed the dining customers to finished, then locked the doors.
It was the first time the restaurant had closed since it opened 73 years ago. The Pantry claims to have never been without a customer in all that time.
The restaurant came close to being customer-less in 1987 when the pope came by in a motorcade on Figueroa Street. "Everyone ran out onto the sidewalk, except for one man who stayed at the counter drinking his coffee," said Riordan spokeswoman Noelia Rodriguez. Riordan said he first dined here 40 years ago and was pleased with the food and amused by the feisty attitude of the staff.
"I was reading a book after eating and a waiter came by and said if I wanted to read there was a library on 5th and Hope," Riordan said. Riordan bought the Pantry for $3.5 million in 1980. The Pantry's inspection score was 55 out of a possible 100 points, Rodriguez said.
Among the violations was one for storing cooked turkeys on a refrigerator shelf beneath raw meat, opening up the possibility that raw meat juices could drip onto the cooked meat. Another violation was because fat, trimmed from New York steaks, was being held at an unsafe temperature, Burrell said.
"We throw the fat away anyway, so what difference does it make if the fat is 42 degree or 51 degrees," said one worker. "This is ridiculous."
Others complained that recent television reports about restaurant health violations spurred county officials to act quickly on one of the city's most famous eateries.
"These violations didn't constitute closing us down," said cashier David Windsor.
Throughout the night, chefs, waiters, busboys and even some loyal customers polished stoves, rearranged meat lockers, mopped floors and scrubbed walls in a frantic effort to correct all the violations.
Many early morning regulars were stunned to find that the landmark restaurant had been closed.
"This is terrible," said Harold Helbock, who has been coming to the Pantry for 30 years. "I can't believe it," he said dejectedly as he turned around and walked back to his car.
However, by 8:30 a.m. the restaurant was as bustling as ever.
"This turned out to be a good thing, " said assistant general manager Maria Frisan. "It's amazing the support we got from customers. And now even more people know about us."
At the cashier's booth, sales were brisk for the souvenir T-shirts that proclaimed "The Original Pantry: Never closed, never without a customer." They were sure to become collectors' items.
"We going to have to come up with a new slogan, I guess," Frisan said.