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A menu for the nocturnal

After last call, night owls can flock to always-open diners that sling attitude, style and hash.

November 09, 2006|Chris Barton | Times Staff Writer

MAYBE the band has just finished its encore, or maybe the bartender just announced the dreaded "last call," but it's well past the other side of midnight and there's no denying it: You're hungry and far from ready to call it a night.

The bacon-wrapped hot dogs sizzling on the street corner smell incredible, but something about food prepared on a rolling skillet seems suspect. And, sure, there's always the drive-through, but that's so antisocial -- not to mention the hazards of spilling a burrito in your lap.

No, this hour calls for a place to eat, not just a meal. For these cravings, the all-night diner was born.

Once the harshly lit dominion of swing-shift worker bees and heavy-lidded insomniacs, diners are now an institution for night-crawling hipsters, post-rehearsal musicians and coffee-addled high school kids alike. Many diners are evolving to attract a new generation with eclectic music, slick retro-hip decor and -- gasp! -- vegan menu options.

To see what sets them apart from prefab McMeals and that after-hours default, Denny's, we embarked on a nocturnal tour of seven diners across Southern California. Along the way, we mixed and mingled, grooved to several different beats and sampled that benchmark of sobriety-inducing late-night dining, bacon and eggs.

What did we find? Slide into a booth and stay awhile.

Late-night 101 in session

On the ground floor of a Best Western bearing promises of the "last cappuccino before the 101," the 101 Coffee Shop in Hollywood is like a distant relative's well-worn den. Random vintage snapshots of strangers at their homes hang clustered around the windows near a wall covered in dark, split rocks resembling the Brady Bunch's fireplace. Though it's 12:30 in the morning on a Friday, the restaurant's warm lighting and bustle give the room the disorienting feeling that it could be any time of day.

Memorably home to Vince Vaughn's drunken meltdown in the movie "Swingers," the 101 is known for drawing a young Hollywood crowd from clubs and venues such as Basque and the Avalon. Vintage T-shirts mix comfortably with track jackets and tattoos, while a packed jukebox shifts styles like a college radio DJ with ADD, offering everything from ELO to the Postal Service and the Stone Roses.

The menu consists of fairly standard diner fare, apart from a variety of vegetarian choices and an impressive selection of milkshakes and smoothies. Our waitress, Joan Lauckner, recommends the Nut 'n' Honey, a vanilla shake mixed with honey and peanut butter that makes for a surprisingly welcome companion to an egg breakfast.

The eggs here are crisp and the hash browns flat and shingle-shaped, but the thick-cut bacon arrives at room temperature, a byproduct of the busy hour. A burger looks fantastic, however, helped by a mix of French and sweet potato fries on the side. Are such choices consistent with the usual late-night customers?

"After 2 o'clock, the bar crowd orders tuna melts, grilled cheese, lots of eggs," Joan says. "Which to me is kind of gross. Maybe it makes the morning after easier, I don't know."

Bacon and eggs: $7.50 (shake, $4.95)

Special ingredient: The right ending to a Hollywood night -- but be prepared for a wait.

62 options for night owls?

Consider Fred 62 an irony-fueled remastering of diners from decades past. Perched on a stylish corner of Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz just blocks from the Dresden Room, the diner has a retro-futuristic logo that looks as if it could be mounted on the trunk of an old Buick. Inside, paintings by artist Wayne White offer soothing, block-lettered non sequiturs such as "Just to Have Lunch" that contrast with the opposite wall's yellowing prints of Old Hollywood legends such as Humphrey Bogart.

A whiplash-inducing mix of '80s synth-pop and old-school rap fills the room just past 1:30 in the morning as the busy wait staff makes the rounds, all clad in black T-shirts sporting a variety of snarky phrases, the most repeatable of which simply reads, "I Am Fred."

But as hip as the atmosphere gets, Fred 62 doesn't coast on its looks. The menu is loaded with vegan and otherwise unconventional options such as Mac Daddy and Cheese Balls -- breaded clumps of macaroni and cheese seemingly engineered for this time of night.

At the counter this night is Esmeralda Cordova, a sad-eyed singer-songwriter sipping from a bowl of tomato-basil soup. A late-night regular, she appreciates Fred 62's easygoing comfort: "The great thing about diners is you can come by yourself and no one feels sorry for you," she explains. "It's not like a restaurant."

Her waitress returns with the bill, sheepishly explaining that two gentlemen have paid her tab and left a note. Inside, a hand-printed paragraph explains that Jesus loves her and that, although she seemed troubled, things will get better. The note is unsigned, and the men responsible are gone.

Bacon and eggs (curiously known as a 2-by-4): $8.27

Special ingredients: Fashionability and functionality.

A swing over the plate

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