Locals say that it was the construction of the Santa Monica Freeway that knocked the grace out of the old-fashioned stores lining Washington Boulevard between Culver City and downtown Los Angeles. Whatever did it, the strip is so gritty, one could be forgiven for dismissing it as a goner. But that would be a mistake. Between Crenshaw and Normandie Boulevards, particularly, there is gold in them thar stores.
Actually, make that crystal, copper, aluminum, stainless steel, cast iron, porcelain, marble and butcher's block. This is a thriving hub of L.A.'s restaurant equipment trade.
Most of the stores house wholesalers. Some are so rough you enter through sheet-metal works. The owners might have to put down a welding torch to greet you. But greet you they do, and with a graciousness that clerks in fancier parts of town would do well to emulate. They are knowledgeable, too. They sell serious gear to serious cooks.
1. A good place to start is on the northwest corner of Washington Boulevard and Third Avenue. Here B&B Restaurant and Bakery Equipment has just the right mix of the old and new, industrial and domestic. At the time of writing, a rare find among enormous ranges, Hobart mixers, meat slicers and chill cabinets was an antique butcher's block on legs. Price: $225.
Hanging from the ceiling is a collection of old neon signs reading "Free Refills" or "Hot Bagels," or promising chicken in three languages. Owner Ray Bleau says, "I used to collect neons, but I've got so many now, I've started selling them."
The tableware, all of it new, is in an adjoining warehouse. Here one finds elegant lemonade glasses from $1.20, half-pint beer mugs from $2.50, heavy shot glasses perfect as stocking stuffers for 75 cents. If you've got a genie that needs housing, or a large quantity of sugar to store, decorative 5- quart glass storage jars start at $17.95 and rise in size to a 5-gallon one that costs $25.90.
Springbottom cake pans range from $5.95 to $6.95; pie pans from $1.95 to $3.95. Long-handled wooden spoons start at $1.95, 1-tablespoon stainless steel ladles are $1.50, and the price graduates only slightly with size; a 1/4-cup model costs only $1.95. B&B also has the best collection of tongs--9-inch models starting at $1.95 to 16-inch ones for $3.95.
B&B Restaurant and Bakery Equipment, 3225 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 735-1561.
2. You'll know you're at the Commercial Kitchen Co. when you see the cat asleep amid the stainless steel racks and hot plates in the window. This is the place to shop for metal shelving or commission vent work or investigate a switch to stainless steel counters, shelves and back-splashes.
Commercial Kitchen Co., 3219 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 732-2291.
3. The Chef's Depot is the place for crockery. Here Coors brand ceramic water jugs, cups, plates and bowls, in the classic colors of Fiesta ware, cost from $1 to $5. Large pasta bowls cost $2.75. Staff member Tal Golan swears by the Coors brand. "They're oven-proof," he says. "If you wanted, you could bake in your coffee mug."
For those who do so, oven mitts cost $3. More expensive, but a deal in their class, are the French copper pans. A bronze-handled 8-inch copper saucepan with a stainless lining is $84.
Chef's Depot, 2509 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 730-8987.
4. Lee's is for those willing to negotiate used stuff. Even a cursory glance showed some goodies--a pretty pair of metal wine racks for $15 each.
Lee's Restaurant Equipment Co., 2501 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 730-0444.
5. Anyone looking for a bistro table should not pass David's Restaurant Equipment & Service on the same block, but the opposite side of Washington. The fittings range from 1970s health food store issues to chrome plate for a classic diner. Among the bistro chairs are 1950s chrome bar stools with red leather-like seats for $25 each. There is a good selection of bentwood chairs, wood-topped tables for two and even an extravagant crystal candelabra ($1,000).
David's Restaurant Equipment & Service, 2516 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 735-5275.
6. Next door at the Total Fixture Company, the stock is new. Elongated commercial toasters ($129) gleam like stretch limos. Here a Lodge cast-iron frying pan that will outlive its owner costs $13.95. Sugar and flour scoops start at $3.25, ice-cream scoops from $5.50, large graters from $7.32 and the chef-style sieves shaped like cones and drums start at $13.99. Bread knives are $2.99 and packs of 12 steak knives are $6.99.
Total Fixture Co., 3210 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 733-4989.
7. A block east, at Charlie's Fixtures, it is best to park around the corner on Gramercy. This is the place for 60-quart stockpots (from $50.95) and long-handled bread and pizza peels (from $17.95). Wooden spoons the size of small oars cost $5.45, pizza cutters $2.95 and--the best value--top-quality new maple chopping boards run from $30.45.