Beyond last call

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 décor 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 sessionLocated 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 nearby clubs and music 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 plateIf Fred 62 conjures a slicker, more fabulous '50s, then Swingers on Beverly Boulevard inhabits an idealized vision of the '70s. Under an awning emblazoned with a striped No. 1 logo that could've been peeled off a Bicentennial stock car, Swingers celebrates an era in which punk, glam and metal ruled every jukebox, Evel Knievel never crashed and a lewd old bumper sticker that warned "No one rides for free" isn't for a tricked-out Pontiac — it's modified for the bottom of your receipt.

Like the 101 Coffee Shop, Swingers is on the ground floor of a motel, which doesn't seem to account for most of its after-hours business drawing from Mid-Wilshire and West Hollywood nightspots. The menu is an aggressively updated take on traditional diner fare, reflecting the restaurant's health-conscious clientele, with vegan banana nut pancakes and soy protein shakes. "Organic" eggs come with thick-cut bacon and sweet, pillowy challah-bread French toast.

With its hard-rock soundtrack, moody lighting and constant parade of well-groomed Hollywood types, Swingers feels less like a diner than a stylish nightclub. But once you adjust to being cheerfully offered "coffee, juice or mojito" with your meal, Swingers' hedonistic heart is in the right place.

Rumpled hipsters sit with punks in hoodies while miniskirted club kids chatter near couples in their 40s from the neighborhood. It's an eclectic, unpredictable vibe that regular Ryan Aquino appreciates almost as much as the restaurant's street parking.

"There's always a variety of characters at this place. You always see someone interesting," he says, scanning the room with an easy smile. "And I don't know if you noticed this or not, but there's a lot of action here."

Bacon and eggs: $6.50

Special ingredient: Swingers — and everyone else — are welcome.

Locals only in NoHoWhere Fred 62 and Swingers are hip reinventions of the vintage diner, Sitton's NoHo Diner is an unfussy example of the genuine article. Open since 1959, not much has changed at this homey Colonial-style Valley diner.

"We got a guy who used to come here all the time but moved to Texas 11 years ago," says counter waitress Claudia Jones, gesturing at a hunch-shouldered man who just walked out. "He came back today and ordered a chicken quesadilla and said it tasted exactly the same."

On a sprawling stretch of Magnolia Boulevard just off the 170, Sitton's distinctive leaded-glass front panels give the restaurant a somewhat regal air, amplified by two odd but endearing statues of red-jacketed waiters guarding either side of the door. Inside, a tall, faux-brick wall holds a sweeping grid of signed head shots and production stills, showcasing celebrities ranging from Cher to Officer Poncherello. In full "Terminator" garb, even the governor himself hangs menacingly overhead, advising diners to "Stay fit."

Ambitious words for Sitton's, whose menu offers such traditional belly-bombs as biscuits and gravy, chicken and waffles and the Matterhorn of late-night dining, the Monte Cristo sandwich. The hash browns resemble buttery scalloped potatoes, and you might regret not taking advantage of enjoying both bacon and sausage with the No. 5 combo. But one's reach must not exceed one's grasp at these hours. After all, what would Arnold think?

Bacon, eggs and sausage: $6.45

Special ingredient: Service for the purists — with a smile.

A surprising Brite SpotBack on the other side of the hill, Echo Park's Brite Spot is drawing a scruffily bohemian crowd, many from its spiritual neighbor, the Echo nightclub. Bathed in a comforting amber glow, the diner's claret-red booths gleam with an unnatural sheen against the light of a massive chandelier hanging just over the register. Chalkboard specials on the wood-paneled walls highlight traditional and distinctively local fare, such as oxtails and albondigas on Thursdays. Unfortunately — or maybe not — it's a Friday.

Healthy options include veggie meatloaf and soy meatballs, while chocolate chip pancakes, gorgonzola pork chops and a variety of "Mexi-Can" specialties add to what separates the Brite Spot from the typical greasy spoon. If you eat at the counter, you'll finish your eggs under the watchful eye of an unsettlingly large figurehead looming overhead, possibly Poseidon or maybe even Zeus.

The anthemic punk rock of Fugazi plays over the speakers one minute, and Cab Calloway hi-de-hos through the restaurant the next, but this isn't the spawn of some well-stocked jukebox. In a safari-print shirt and a pair of headphones, Jay Lizo mans a pair of turntables at the corner counter. Apart from the waiters, no one seems any more aware of his presence than the retired Chinese checkerboards mounted on the opposite wall.

A relative newcomer to the DJ game, Lizo earned the job simply by adding his name to a signup sheet. His payment? A few hours' practice in front of a captive audience and his choice from the menu — a spinach omelet or eggs benedict most days.

"I feel like I'm on display with the lights; it's not my usual gig," he explains with a smile. "But I'm kind of broke and can use the free meal."

Bacon and eggs: $7.25

Special ingredient: An unconventionally cozy atmosphere.

Make yourself at homeIf the sign is to be believed, Earl's Home Cookin' in Orange is open 25 hours a day.

Let's forget for a moment the metaphysical quandary that raises; this no-frills diner has been serving Orange County around the clock since 1970. With its zigzag roof framed by shamrock-green neon, Earl's stands out among its neighboring Bible shops and gun outlets, and its late-night atmosphere is a study in contrasts as well.

On one side is a relatively quiet restaurant that could be unchanged since Earl's first opened. Plastic light fixtures hang like overturned mixing bowls over thin marbled tables, and the only atmosphere is provided by the surrounding chatter. There's no music, certainly no jukebox, and two televisions hang dormant above. In short, we're a long way from Hollywood — and that also goes for the prices. A slice of berry pie "alamode" costs more than my breakfast.

Inside the adjacent "smoking patio," however, Earl's becomes a whole different animal. Surrounded by screen windows and three hopelessly overmatched ceiling fans, high school and college-age diners from hangouts such as the nearby Block at Orange mingle loudly and freely over burgers and breakfasts. The mood is rambunctious, but the rowdiest activity is a wiry young man under a hooded sweatshirt contentedly downing shot after shot of maple syrup, much to the delight of the neighboring tables.

"They're not all that crazy tonight," says the patio's usual waitress, Christina V., a tall, sarcastic brunet in librarian glasses and a pink studded belt. "They're just ridiculously high-maintenance."

Bacon and eggs: $3.49 — and sausage and a waffle. Come hungry.

Special ingredient: Loud 'n' proud attitude.

Time out for an institutionProbably most popular before and after games at Staples Center down the street, the Pantry sells souvenir T-shirts boasting that it's "Never without a customer," and a basketball-free Friday night is no exception. But despite downtown's much ballyhooed revitalization, the Pantry for the most part caters to the same steady crowd of working-class night owls since it opened in 1924, a mix of silver-bearded men in cardigans, young off-duty security guards and couples of all ages wrapping up a night out.

If one place can survive a change to its surroundings, it's the Pantry. At the base of Figueroa's glass towers, this white-walled diner was open long before the rents hit the roof, and you get the sense it will be around long after. Neighborhoods — and restaurants — may rise and fall, but the Pantry feels like one of the city's few constants.

Sitting on a steel stool at the old diner's broad counter, you can practically feel all of L.A.'s history seated next to you under the fading photographs on the walls. Eggs and bacon fry on the wide steel grill next to caramel-colored pancakes, sizzling steaks and imposing cast-iron skillets full of slowly cooking hash browns (the Pantry offers a special breakfast menu from midnight to 4 a.m.).

With bow-tied waiters in crisp white shirts and a cash-only register behind a steel-barred booth, the Pantry doesn't just recall another time, it exists in that time, no matter the hour.

"The Pantry is like Katz's Deli in New York," says Garen Nazarian, seated with four friends fresh from the bar at Hotel Figueroa. "You can tell you're in an old establishment. It's got history."

"These eggs are historical," he adds with a laugh.

Bacon and eggs: $7.25

Special ingredient: A sense of civic duty.

chris.barton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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