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RESTAURANTS | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

It feels like a burger in 1949

September 09, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

"How long is the wait?" the guy with the newspaper tucked under his arm, and a La Prairie shopping bag in his hand, asked as he peered over my shoulder at the 20-seat counter of the Fountain Coffee Shop. I could only tell him we'd just arrived and there were four people ahead of us. Ducking around me, he gave a cheery hello to a waitress in an old-fashioned pink uniform with a white collar. She answered him by name, but that didn't move him ahead.

He went away. He came back, pacing -- anxiously or impatiently, I couldn't decide. By the time we were seated on two tall, white wrought-iron stools with pink cushions, two more seats had opened up and the gentleman pounced. A waiter in a white jacket and black tie handed us the menus while Mr. Suave commented that he was so hungry he didn't know what to order. They discussed salad possibilities. While he waited for his wife, he ordered a cup of coffee. When she arrived, they studied the menu and ordered egg white omelets with vegetables, his with a scoop of cottage cheese on the side.

Very sad, when you can have eggs two ways with thick smoky bacon, or one of the city's great burgers, or a grilled Russian on rye with an excellent potato salad in a whole grain mustard dressing.

The petite Frenchwoman next to me asks the waiter shyly, what is French toast. He tells her it's bread dipped in egg and fried. She'll try it. When it comes, she takes a tentative bite, smiles and tells the waiter, "in France it's called pain perdu -- lost bread." Meanwhile, her companion delves into an all-American burger on a soft egg bun.

I don't know what it is about this place, but every time I slide onto one of the frilly stools, I feel happy. Maybe it's the banana-leaf wallpaper with emerald fronds curling over the walls and making what is basically an underground coffee shop, with no windows, a cozy retro haven. Though the posh Beverly Hills Hotel was built in 1912, two years before the city of Beverly Hills was incorporated, the coffee shop keeps faith with the year it was added: 1949.

It's popular with hotel guests, but also with people from the neighborhood who bring their kids for the fountain's classic milkshakes and malts, tuna melts and triple-decker club sandwiches.

Of course, the menu has been modernized somewhat with those egg white omelets and some "fit & healthy" dishes. But basically it's familiar coffee shop fare, beautifully made.

I love the way the waiter sets out a placemat and some heavy hotel silver. If you order orange juice, he squeezes it right in front of you. The coffee is good and strong. And you get to watch the two short-order cooks, here in tall white pleated hats and double-breasted white jackets, turn those fluffy buttermilk pancakes, flip those eggs and serve up wedges of pie or cake adorned with ruffled meringue or whipped cream.

There's something, too, about sitting elbow to elbow at a counter with just 20 seats. It invites visiting. You can feel perfectly comfortable, too, going with a book or disappearing behind the newspaper.

After all these years, Fountain Coffee Shop is still a classic.

*

Fountain Coffee Shop

Where: Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily for breakfast, lunch and light dinner

Cost: Breakfast items, $6 to $13; salads, $8.50 to $12.75; sandwiches and grill items, $7.25 to $12.75; desserts, $4.50. Validated parking, $5.

Info: (310) 276-2251, Ext. 2941

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