It was a double delight--lunch at Cole’s P.E. (for Pacific Electric) Buffet at the Red Car terminal, and a rollicking ride on one of the cars themselves. The downstairs restaurant downtown specialized in French dip sandwiches, camaraderie and the city’s first check-cashing business.
Then and now, Cole’s has advertised itself as “The Originators of the French Dip"--a claim also made by Philippe the Original, which opened the same year, 1908.
But Cole’s is undisputedly the oldest continuously operated restaurant and saloon in the city.
In 1905, the Pacific Electric Building opened at 6th and Main streets--at 10 stories, the city’s tallest building. It stood one block east of the city’s booming financial district.
Henry Cole took over a terminal for horse-drawn streetcars that the Big Red Cars were putting out of business. He sprinkled some sawdust on the floor and opened his restaurant and saloon (and Philippe Mathieu opened his eatery on Aliso Street).
Cole hung three Tiffany glass lampshades over a massive mahogany bar and built tables from the sides of old trolley cars. Decades later, behind the bar, signs would be posted: “Avoid Sinful Enterprises,” “We Do Not Extend Credit to Stockbrokers” and “Ladies, Kindly Do Your Soliciting Discreetly.”
In 1925, Cole hired bartender Jimmy Barela, who would work there for 63 years, telling outrageous stories and tossing ice cubes high in the air and catching them in a glass.
“You can’t believe some of the characters that have been in here,” Barela reminisced recently. “Like the guy with huge ears who came in with a couple of carrots sticking out his ears.” Two days running, the man ordered “a double shot of Old Taylor, gulped it down,” and then didn’t come back for a week. “But when he did,” says Barela, “instead of two carrots he had two bananas sticking out his ears. I had to ask. ‘Why the bananas?’ He replied: ‘The store was out of carrots.’ ”
Even during Prohibition, Barela, now 93, kept busy, serving bitters for 35 cents a shot and “near beer” for a dime a glass. He remembers the day he served his first legal beer: “April 7, 1933. We sold 58 32-gallon kegs of beer the day President Roosevelt legalized beer.”
With or without alcohol, Cole’s became a hangout for stockbrokers, cops, bankers, attorneys, ink-stained wretches, politicians and prizefighters. Its regulars included gangster Mickey Cohen and, when he came in from the desert, Walter Scott, better known as Death Valley Scotty. Nondrinking Cohen always put a $5 bill in Barela’s hand after his usual fruit juice.
Block-long lines formed for the juicy beef dip sandwiches, but it was Cole’s pioneering check-cashing service, the city’s first, that kept his business booming.
Cole opened a cramped cage at the back of the restaurant, cashing checks for customers who would then often buy lunch. The service was free, until the long lines became almost an embarrassment, and he started charging 10 cents a check.
Cole and his son, Rawland, who managed the check-cashing business, used a code if they spotted a possible bad-check passer. “Johnny,” Rawland would call to a waiter, “did you get that prescription filled?” And the waiter summoned police.
Cole’s prospered as the rail lines and downtown business prospered, but less than a decade after the red trolleys were taken off the streets in 1961 the financial center began to decline.
By the early 1960s, Los Angeles voters had scrapped the city’s 13-story building height limit, and within a decade major banks and brokerage houses decamped, moving to new high-rises five blocks west.
Finally, Pacific Electric’s successor, Southern Pacific Transportation, moved to Monterey Park in 1989. Of the old tenants, only Cole’s is left--a designated city historical monument.
Spring Street is still trying to shake off the pall cast by its skid row neighbors, welcoming an infusion of government offices and workers to bring back its bustling atmosphere.
Still, the biggest crowd Cole’s has drawn of late wasn’t lunchtime customers. It was spectators when, in 1994, Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise filmed the New Year’s Eve scenes for the movie “Forrest Gump.”