"Since I had forgotten to bring along a bag of pemmican, I would have to eat in Los Angeles--a fairly exact definition of the term 'the kiss of death.' "
--S. J. Perelman
The old Captain's Table may have served the best lobster west of Maine, I've heard, and the cream Senegalese at Chasen's could have been the next thing to a sundae at Wil Wright's. My brothers and I, though, children of ex-Chicagoans, were brought up to believe we lived in a culinary desert, a place without decent pizza, without decent hot dogs, without a specific kind of spare rib they used to serve at a place on Rush Street.
My parents--a teacher and a probation officer--may have saved their nickels for the occasional meal out at Perino's or Frascati, but when the family was involved, it was the No. 2 plate at El Coyote seven times out of 10. Even before the last great wave of immigration gave the area some of the best pupusas and empanadas and pine-leaf dumplings in the world, Los Angeles was a junk-food paradise: cinnamon rolls at Dick Webster's, Orange Julius on every street corner, Blum's sticky buns and Lum's hot dogs steamed in beer. Poppy's, a hippie restaurant in Westwood, had banana splits the size of small canoes.
My earliest Hollywood food memories center on a hot dog stand called the Kosher Puppy, a restaurant that served the kind of Chicago-style franks my father always craved, also crinkle-cut fries and Cokes with chipped ice. But I remember it chiefly for slot-car racing and teen-age girls with impossibly tall hair. As a matter of fact, most of the restaurants I remember from early childhood served Chicago dogs. Pop had kind of a one-track mind.
Whole categories of L.A. restaurants no longer exist, replaced by papaya salsas and the sun-dried tomato: grand tiki restaurants such as Don the Beachcomber, the Luau and Kelbo's Fairfax, where you could eat candy-sweet spare ribs and illicitly guzzle missionary's revenges from an older friend's skull mug; waterfall Chinese restaurants such as Wan-Q and Kowloon (the greatest place on earth, because it had waterfalls and paper-wrapped chicken); drive-ins such as Tiny Naylor's, the 'Wich Stand and Dolores'. As a 4-year-old I pretty much lived on 'Wich Stand milkshakes, as a high-school student on Dolores' cherry-lime rickeys and Suzy-Q fries with malt vinegar . . . unless I could afford a steak sandwich and onion rings at Ollie Hammond's, which was almost never.
Senior year, I took a girlfriend out to dinner at L'Ermitage, ordered a special that turned out to be either liver stuffed with kidney or kidney stuffed with liver, and even talked the captain into serving us a bottle of Macon, but it wasn't really my kind of place. Maybe it had something to do with taking the bus home from a $120 dinner, but even my girlfriend wasn't impressed.
Later there were splendid herring suppers at Scandia (a cheaper smorrebrod menu took effect at 10 p.m.), roast turkey dinners at Tick Tock, and epic Sunday roast-beef hangover buffets at the old Cock 'N' Bull up on the Strip, fortified by many Moscow mules--ginger beer, vodka, copper mug--a house invention that is reputed to have introduced vodka to the United States--and certainly introduced it to my liver.
But when I think of old Hollywood restaurants, the first thing that comes to mind is the Oki Dog on Santa Monica Boulevard after a punk-rock show at the Starwood down the street: dozens of newly minted Mohawk guys taking three bites from handbag-size burritos and hurling the rest at passing cars, KROQ blasting at Social Distortion volumes, a guy behind the counter barking out orders in a fractured Japanese accent, the usual freaks and hustlers gawking at the show. A pastrami burrito and heavy, greasy bags of steak fries--quartered potatoes fried in cheap grease, essentially--could feed three people for a day for about two bucks, and usually did.