Never Say Closed : Historic Pantry Diner Hasn’t Been Empty of Patrons in 67 Years


Night manager Frank Martinez has seen many a famous face at the Original Pantry, the historic, 24-hour diner in downtown Los Angeles. Take the time, several years ago, when Pope John Paul II was in town.

No, the Pope did not actually stop in for one of the Pantry’s $9.45 T-bone steaks, or even break bread with some of that thick sourdough.

“But he blessed the place as (his car) went by,” Martinez recalled with a grin, handing out change one recent night from the Pantry’s old-fashioned cashier’s cage, a barred enclosure remindful of a teller’s window. The way Martinez figures it, the Pope’s blessing must have worked: Virtually every customer rushed outside for a glimpse of the Pontiff. Then--and this was the miracle--they “came right back in to pay their bills.”


Never mind its obvious drawbacks: Noisy acoustics, an unpolished, rather time-worn decor and a location near a forest of high-rise offices that seem wholly devoid of night life. The fact is, the Pantry has been blessed from Day 1. Not once--not for a single moment, day or night, since it opened in 1924--has the diner found itself without a paying customer. Or so its owners say.

In an era when most all-night diners are chain operations that seem precast by machine, the Pantry on any given night is an anachronism, a high-calorie, damn-the-frills steak joint crowded with patrons of all kinds, at all hours: urban professionals, truck drivers, street thugs, orange-haired teens spilling over from a nearby disco, conventioneers, police officers, gamblers, hookers, theatergoers, you name it.

Hunkered at the foot of a gleaming new 35-story building at 9th and Figueroa streets, the diner is an inner-city survivor populated by survivors of the inner city. It stands, almost defiantly, at the uncertain border between the soaring, elegant downtown featured on postcards and the gritty, downtrodden landscape that stretches southward and eastward.

As far back as 1950, the Pantry endured its first brush with extinction when the Harbor Freeway roared through, swallowing up the original location a block west of Figueroa. Management claims lunch was served at the old building and dinner at the new, with no hiatus in service or customers.

More recently, downtown’s multimillion-dollar redevelopment, with its spectacular new skyline, threatened once again to obliterate the diner and scatter its regulars like so much table salt. But venture capitalist Richard Riordan, who acquired the restaurant and a block’s worth of adjoining parcels several years ago, unexpectedly fell in love with the place and decided to save it--even though it meant passing up $6 million in possible development profits.

So, for now, at least, business goes on as usual--fast and furious. When the diner is full, lines stretch down the sidewalk. On most days, those lines begin forming at 4 a.m. for breakfast, then reappear for lunch and dinner. On weekends, the lines often last until midnight, even 1 in the morning.


On this particular night, a Wednesday, the street scene was quiet. The next-door office building was dark, but distant towers, including the newly built, 73-story First Interstate World Center, lit the sky with almost galactic beauty. Outside the Pantry, streets and sidewalks were dark and mostly deserted except for occasional cars zipping past and a lone figure who sat perched atop the back of a bus stop bench, watching them. Across the street, two low, modern-looking motels heralded themselves with bright neon signs.

Inside, the Pantry was jumping. All 22 tables and 18 counter seats were full, and eight people were lined up just inside the door.

Oblivious to the loud talk, clattering plates and frying meat, a regular who called himself Sam, a retired schoolteacher, sat alone in the back in a red flannel shirt, reading the New Republic.

“I’ve been coming here since before the (Harbor) freeway was built . . . going back 40 years,” he said. Most weeks, Sam is here at least three or four times, usually alone, usually about this hour, when he claims the place begins to quiet down.

“I like to read,” he explained. “When I come here I’m tired, and I want to just read and eat.”

Architects Steve Lewis and Joe Catalano, friends since their days at Syracuse University in the 1970s, sat at the end of the counter sipping coffee; they were taking a break before heading back to their high-rise down the street to burn the midnight oil on a design deadline.


“I hope to quit at 1,” said Lewis, somewhat bleakly.

Huddled together at a table were Ed Reyna and Amy Sarumian, 21-year-olds who had just finished a late shift running a sale on women’s shoes at Nordstrom’s. “Shoe hell!” Reyna declared with a laugh. They had stopped at Olvera Street, found everything closed, and ended up here.

Like many an all-night diner of yesteryear, this one survives with a philosophy of quantity at reasonable prices. Though the cuisine might well be considered a heart specialist’s worst nightmare--T-bones, beef tenderloin, New York steaks, hamburgers--there is, on the other hand, plenty of it.

Nothing here is particularly fancy. Dinner selections are written in chalk on menu boards dotting the walls; if an item runs out, it is crossed out. There are no booths, only nondescript white tables illuminated by large, moon-like globes dangling from the high ceiling.

Red and white metal awnings give the exterior some style but, really, only two features seem telling of the never-ending trade: One is the large oval spot on the floor outside the cashier’s cage--a place where the scuffed green tile has worn completely through. Next, check out that entrance: The two metal doors have no keyholes, no locks. They never will, either, say those who work here.

Once, big names stopped in all the time--Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Mickey Cohen, Peter Falk. A signed photograph, a legacy of that era, hangs in the Pantry’s bake shop next door: “To the Pantry, great food, laughs! H. Bogart.”

Nowadays, there is less glitz. Bruce Willis was in recently. TV evangelist Gene Scott frequently “calls in from his limousine across the street and orders to go,” said general manager Duane Burrell.


But the only thing close to Bogart is night waiter Rene Frisan--who, it so happens, resembles Bogart so strikingly that everyone calls him Bogie. In his white dress shirt and black bow tie--traditional attire for Pantry waiters--Frisan is never difficult to find. He has worked nights since 1956 and has never phoned in sick or missed a scheduled shift, Burrell said.

A little after midnight, when much of the dining room had cleared out, Frisan was still delivering entrees and busing tables, as silent and long-faced as a man who had just surrendered his letters of transit.

Serve it again, Frisan?

“I hear this every day,” he said, smiling sheepishly as he talked about the nickname. “I don’t know if I like it. I’m stuck with it.”

By 2:30, the crowd had dwindled rather alarmingly. A group of four filed out, then a boisterous party of seven Exxon employees. All of a sudden, the Pantry was down to its last two diners.

Cooks scraped the grill clean and restocked stacks of dishes. Martinez stood near the door and stared into the dark streets, as if wondering when someone would come, whether this would be the night that. . . .

Then two truckers--Jim Olson and Chuck Gallagher--swaggered in, just off the graveyard shift. Someone else followed, then a few more. As a clock over the cashier’s cage inched toward 3, the crowd had swelled to 10.


Tow-truck driver Kelvin Easterling, 35, sat down for dinner. His companion, Brenda Hayes, 31, ordered up the new morning’s first breakfast: eggs and bacon.

And once again, the Pantry was spinning toward dawn.