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A taste of old L.A.

Our town chews restaurants up. Wheeling flocks of first-nighters may crowd the sky above a new place, but soon the crowds flit on to the next thing, leaving the eatery to sink or swim.

The restaurant scene is like the movie biz: fickle, fickle, fickle. That's why we go around saying, "Where's Meg Tilly these days?" and "What ever happened to that place where you cooked your food on hot rocks?"

It's surprising chefs don't grouse about "this town" the way actors do.

Still, a few spots manage to prosper decade after decade, ignoring the tides of fashion and making it look easy. They are the places we go for fun or comfort, the destinations that fit the bill when family comes for the holidays and wants to see "the real L.A." Some are mysterious, ageless beauties, but most are like those character actors who just strike some chord with us.

I, for one, can't walk into Chez Jay without thinking of Sydney Greenstreet's crafty bluster in "The Maltese Falcon": "Now, sir, we'll talk, if you like. I'll tell you right out, I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk." It's the spirit of the place, certainly not the look of it — Greenstreet's character would scarcely go to a Santa Monica dive with Christmas lights over the bar.

El Cholo is like Leo Carrillo. Go ahead and say it's not as authentic as it might be, but we've taken it to our hearts, just as we did with the actor who played stereotyped Mexican roles so winningly that we ended up naming a state park for him. We (by which I don't mean just UCLA and USC students after big games) need to know there'll always be strolling mariachis and waitresses in flowered blouses down on Western Avenue.

All these old-timer restaurants know about leaving well enough alone — their menus are practically set in stone. Another thing they have in common is a lack of in-crowd attitude. Even the fancier ones treat somebodies and nobodies alike. (Any restaurants that want to stand the test of time: Take a lesson.)

To her dying day, my Hollywood-raised aunt considered Musso & Frank Grill the grandest restaurant in town. In the '20s, it was indeed grand, as you can still sense from the old murals in the back dining room. Today its real grandeur is that although it's been around since the Harding administration and you can feel the ages gazing down upon you there, it goes about its business unaffectedly. The quiet professionalism of the waiters is as unchanging as its antique businessmen's-lunch menu.

Even a restaurant as young as Dinah's — which just turned 46 — can have a similar reassuring air of stability (it still has beef stroganoff and a chicken liver platter on the menu). Dinah's specialty in fried chicken and lavish breakfasts and all that shiny white tile give it a perky, girl-next-door personality — say, June Allyson at her most bustling. It's harder to see from the 405 now that a Pepperdine University campus and a Great Wall of shopping structures have popped up in front of it, but the crowds still come to this Westchester-adjacent location for the gigantic baked pancakes, thick French toast and other specialties.

Our leading "mysterious ageless beauty" is the Pacific Dining Car. Somehow a place that opened near downtown 84 years ago in a replica of a railway dining car has developed the plush décor and quiet air of an English gentlemen's club — with old suitcases in the overhead racks. PDC calls itself "an elegant place to hide," and sitting here does make you feel strangely invulnerable.

Du-Par's, now worn as smooth as a pebble, opened in the Farmers Market when that 3rd and Fairfax antiquity was only 4 years old. It's been around so long it has a branch that's going on 60. The menu makes some feeble gestures toward entering the 1990s (grilled veggies, avocado burger), but diners still come basically for the comfy old breakfasts and potpies. And some of them, evidently, come for that date-nut bread and cream cheese lunch platter.

Give Musso & Frank a steakhouse-continental menu, red vinyl booths and a "Starlight Lounge" with live entertainment, and you'd pretty much have Burbank's Smoke House. Like Musso's, the Smoke House is a movie biz hangout, but more upscale — it's as close to Lakeside Golf Club as to Warner Bros. Studio. And not all of the patrons are industry types. There aren't enough of them to account for all the loaves of cheese-soaked "garlic bread" this place moves.

Miceli's claims to be the oldest pizza place in Hollywood, but its real attraction is its air of a cozy den safe from the uncertainty of the outside world — or at least of Hollywood Boulevard. "Den" is the word, by the way, not "lounge," despite the guy singing Sinatra hits over there at the piano — no lounge has thousands of empty Chianti flasks bearing down on you from its ceiling.

The Original Pantry may be just a big plain room full of people ordering while they wait for seats, eating fast and moving on, but it has a special place in our town, because it shows we can be urban if we want. The proverbial "all walks of life" can be found here 24 hours a day, starting their meat and potato meals with the famous French bread and coleslaw. Indeed, I once sat at the counter between a guy who was telling his companion, "And if they default, we'll slap a lien on them," and another who was saying, "I'm not going back to work. I'm going to the track."

Rae's is an inconspicuous diner in the eastern reaches of Santa Monica, but the friend who first told me about it also threatened to beat me up if I ever wrote it up. Sorry. Any place that serves old-fashioned diner food, made from scratch, at Rae's prices, is going to have a crowded counter. This may be the last place in town where you can get a waffle with bacon crumbled into the batter.

Canter's Delicatessen, the capital of the Fairfax district, is such a hangout it's practically a club. Conceivably, you could spend your life there (as some of its customers seem to be doing), because it's another 24-hour place, heavy on the lox and pastrami, in a faintly Art Deco environment (it moved into an old movie theater in 1953). If it were an actress, it would be Thelma Ritter: aggressively down to earth and gruffly affectionate.

In fact, there's a little bit of Thelma in all these places. Whatever they may specialize in, they all have the survivor's attitude: determination and good will.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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