Go to hell," I tell the waitress. "Go . . . to . . . Hell." She slowly spells it out on her order pad, then turns to my friend Nancy, who's in an agony of indecision over such dishes as "Foul Mouth," "Hiccup Heaven" and "Gassers Delight." The waitress taps the back of Nancy's menu. "You want this. You'll like this. Everybody likes this." We check her suggestion: Idiot's Mish Mosh.
We're at Phil's diner in North Hollywood, "the last diner of its kind." Now painted a deep pink with red trim, and, like any other train car these days, covered with graffiti, Phil's sits next to a Smart and Final Iris outlet and overlooks the yard of the fiberglass mold factory across the street.
Yet despite industrialization, this area of North Hollywood still looks and feels as if it still has one foot in another, more rural time; the shopping district on Lankershim has the anachronistic, outdated look of a small, Midwestern or central Valley town; down Chandler Boulevard, eucalyptus windscreens flank the road and just a few doors away, a small Victorian orchard house stands in the middle of a paved lot.
Why Phil's and other such neighborhood anachronisms persist, we don't know. But once seated at Phil's counter, I could more easily believe myself in a dusty, cafe down by the tracks in Stockton, Fresno, Visalia, than in any town with Hollywood in its name.
The diner's ceiling is arched, paneled in wood, with domed skylights. The doors slide open, the windows have dark green shades, the refrigerators are wooden lockers. On an almost opaque window, a decal of a plump beauty promises that Chesterfields are "Best for You."
Phil's has been coaxed along to an advanced age without great regard for authenticity--the wooden countertop has been replaced with Formica, the yellow leaded glass tulip light fixtures over the counter must surely date from the '60s, and the out-of-order pinball machine looks about 10 years old.
Grease, exhaust fans, grilling, char-broiling and years of business have taken their toll. The grout is disintegrating between the tiles, the fan looks like the mouth of a black hole, the green vinyl stools wobble dangerously when one mounts them, and everything that isn't used to eat on or cook with on a daily basis is furred with greasy dust.
While 30 years ago, Wally Cleaver might have come here after school, today Phil's could only be the setting for a bleak, post-modern drama--a North Hollywood version of "The Last Picture Show," or "Diner" as Sam Shepard would write it.
"I don't know," says Nancy's sister Sally. "I feel like I'm in a dream, like I've come back to some familiar place and it's all old and weird."
For the past 13 years, Phil's has been owned by Mr. Hong, who has extrapolated on the kitschiness of "the last diner of its kind." Mr. Hong is responsible for the slogan "Extra ordinarily fine food in a unique atmosphere," and the menu, which, in addition to standard burgers and breakfasts, offers peculiarly named health food sandwiches and food with an Oriental twist.
Phil's, however, should not be mistaken as a culinary find. The house specialty is a tasty-enough steak sandwich: strips of marinated, char-broiled rib eye topped with stir-fried Chinese vegetables on a french roll. Sally likes her "Rootin Tootin," cream cheese, American cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and sprouts on whole wheat pita bread. "It's like something you'd make at home," she says.
"Go to Hell" turns out to be a fundamentally edible omelet of Cotto salami, American cheese and tomato on a slice of rye toast and topped with chili. The "Idiot's Mish Mosh," which is fresh mushrooms, onions, potatoes, spinach, ham and cheese all scrambled up with eggs, is a pretty darn good breakfast.
Phil's errs, however, on some of the diner basics: the chocolate shakes are so thin they seem to be made with skim milk, Hershey's syrup and ice. And the coffee's so strong and bitter it could burn through the floorboards--we couldn't finish one cup.
Most of our fellow customers, however, seem to be regulars and accustomed to the fare. One man expostulates in Chinese to Mr. Hong. A woman in a blond wig nods hello and, moments later, has a steak sandwich and a Coke before her. Three girlfriends in their early 40s meet, barely glance at the menu and proceed to huddle and giggle. We're convinced they've been meeting here like this since they were teen-agers.
And then, two businessmen come in. One, clearly, has been here before and is eager to show off Phil's as a curiosity, a relic of a bygone era, to his companion. His companion, however, after fighting for balance on his stool, gives a fast, somewhat frightened look around. "What is this?" he says, rather too loudly. "What is this place? Why are we here?"
For carefree '50s nostalgia, we'll go to Cafe 50s on Van Nuys Boulevard. For a great cup of coffee or classic breakfast, we'll go almost anywhere else. But for those weird old dusty feelings and memories of orange groves and diners and our rural Southern California childhoods, for a sense of change-as-fact, and for the way the late morning sun comes in a grease-filmed window and fills a wood-paneled diner, we'll go to Phil's.
Phil's Diner, 11138 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 763-1080. Open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Recommended dishes: Phil's Delicious Steak Sandwich ($3.30) Idiot's Mish Mosh ($4.35).