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Splendid dives

Wade around town and you'll see why L.A. cherishes these little joints.

November 06, 2002|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

DOWN where the hangout, the hole in the wall and the greasy spoon run together, there's a lovable mutt called the dive.

If you go by the dictionary, a dive is a shabby or unsavory bar or restaurant. To its regulars, though, it's a haven from the striving world; a comfortable, friendly, unpretentious place with some special charm or aura.

A fashionable "scene" -- say, Swingers in Santa Monica -- can't be a dive; fashion involves too much striving. And you can't become a dive by trying. Look at Ed Debevic's and the House of Blues, which yearn for divehood but will never, ever attain it. It's just a spirit that develops between a place and its regulars. If a dive's owner retires or has to sell it for some reason, it's amazing how often the new owner is a customer who bought it just to keep the place going.

People rarely think of dives when they think of L.A. They think of fast food joints or California cuisine, maybe of exotic pizzerias or Asian restaurants. But L.A. treasures its dives even more than most cities do, because they've always been an endangered species here, thanks to the rapid growth and ever-changing demographics that have marked our town for, oh, 120 years or so.

Of course, age alone is not enough to make you a dive -- some of our oldest restaurants are much too exalted for that. Take Musso & Frank's (1919), the Pacific Dining Car (1921), Tam o' Shanter (1922), El Cholo (1927) or Canter's Delicatessen (1931 ... well, hold on; maybe Canter's is a dive at that).

Some dives, at least in the view of ex-customers, soullessly abandon their divehood. Duke's Coffee Shop was a true dive when it was at the Tropicana Hotel, they say, but when it moved up to Sunset Boulevard ... well, these days Duke's has valet parking. Say no more, they say.

Others lose their customers for one reason or other. Phil's Diner (1928-1996), a spirited little joint in an imitation railway car next to the North Hollywood train station, outlived the railroad but couldn't survive the noise and dust when the new Red Line station was being built. The ultra-tacky West L.A. joint Kelbo's, opened in 1947, may have coasted on its Polynesian theme too long; by the early '90s, people had stopped going. A quaint Sun Valley truck stop named Pink Cafe got "discovered" by a Hollywood crowd in the '80s and eagerly changed its name to Cadillac Jack's Cafe. These days it's just a movie location you can rent when your script has a scene set in a truck stop.

The following tour is a personal selection. I'm not fool enough to walk into an argument about the best dives in town. That would require a lifetime of study, and anyway, the definitions are not hard and fast. Where do you draw the line between a dive and a hangout, or a greasy spoon? Plenty of dives serve nothing more elaborate than sandwiches, but several steakhouses qualify. And don't think food is a minor part of a dive's success. Surprisingly often, dives refuse to give out their recipes.

96 and still dipping

Some places would resent being considered dives. Cole's PE Buffet is certainly one. Opened in 1908, back when the Pacific Electric Building was the terminus for the area's trolley lines, it originally was a classy downtown restaurant. Its Tiffany lamps aren't replicas installed during the '60s Art Nouveau craze, they're actual Tiffany lamps.

But when the trolleys stopped running, Cole's found itself in a backwater, and over the years it has developed a somewhat brooding spirit, particularly in the bar. The dining room has the weary, gallant air of tradition gone a bit to seed (the rowdy New Year's Eve party scene in "Forrest Gump" was shot here, probably to play off this quality). The result is one of the most distinctive personalities of any restaurant in town.

Philippe's the Original, which opened the same year as Cole's a dozen blocks to the north, has a more unpretentious style, but Philippe's bustles a bit too much for a dive. The two have long wrangled over who invented the French dip sandwich. Whichever was first, Cole's makes a more careful version, the meat cut just so and the bun dipped in very dark broth with a practiced hand, possibly just because the counterman has a lot more leisure.

"Eatz Cafe," reads a hopeful sign tempting newcomers to swerve off busy Los Feliz Boulevard. It shares a parking lot with the nine-hole municipal golf course that hugs the east bank of the Los Angeles River.

You'd figure Eatz as just a greasy spoon if all you had to go on was its menu, an ancient list of short-order dishes enclosed in a worn plastic cover. A few of the sandwiches are old standards that have become rare in the last quarter century, such as fried egg, meatloaf or liverwurst and Swiss on rye.

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