Serving Up the Past


The lights are bright, the vinyl chairs are never sticky, and the Jell-O squares on platters look like orange, red and blue jewels.

Nonetheless, Schaber’s Cafeteria is slowly fading. It’s not the food, insists owner Michael Weinreich, 68, it’s the clientele.

“They keep dying,” said the white-haired restaurateur looking glum. “We lost 20 or 30 this year. So many. It’s terrible.”


Such is the fate of one of the last 1920s-style cafeterias still in business in Los Angeles. Like Clifton’s, the landmark chain that still operates one cafeteria downtown, Schaber’s appeals to an older crowd of regulars.

They come for the turkey gravy, the bread pudding, the tuna salad. They sit alone in a corner and stare out the window. Or they chat for hours, chairs pushed back, trays stacked before them.

Business may be on the slow side, but to the regulars, “This is heaven,” said Pearl Bruce, who has been coming since the place opened, some 40 years ago.

Bruce loves Schaber’s institutional-pink walls and weak coffee. She can’t account for her tastes. But she blends her compliments for Schaber’s into praise for America, a country that, like the cafeteria, has everything that is nice and beautiful, she says.

Later she mentions that her mother was killed by Bolsheviks.

Anyway, she thinks it was the Bolsheviks. She has no memory of it. Only of that other night, the one when she and her sisters fled from the Cossacks. They hid in a churchyard. Snow covered their tracks . . .

“But have you had lunch?” she asks, interrupting herself, and the white-haired widow of a paint contractor snaps back into focus. “The fresh beef brisket--it’s the best, I tell you.”


Long-buried stories of chaos are common among Schaber’s regulars, who prize order, cleanliness, and generous portions of mashed potatoes above novelty.

Many still cherish a vision of L.A. as the sunny, civilized place they first saw in the movies--a vision somehow intermingled with homemade pea soup and Schaber’s.

“I always dreamed of California, since I was 4 years old,” said Romanian refugee Gabriel Angelscu, 68, who started coming to Schaber’s old downtown location after fleeing the Communists in 1948. He still loves it, still comes three or four days a week.

Here, the conventional is not oppressive, it’s comforting--”Like old home week,” says Nate Pitt, a 94-year-old regular. “Do you know what that means? It’s like hunky-dory.”

His table companion, Desmond Kerfoot, is nodding. A former prisoner of war, Kerfoot first started coming to Schaber’s after they let him out of the hospital with two purple hearts in 1947.

Schaber’s history, like its clientele, spans an era of Depression and war, and the restaurant’s owners recognized the value of a refuge. A 1931 newspaper ad promised customers “a notable absence of The Depression” within its walls.


Even owner Weinreich fought for the pro-Israel underground, but he’d much rather talk about the food. It’s made fresh every day--the cafeteria even has its own bakery.

When the nearby North Hollywood branch of Bank of America became the scene of a spectacular robbery and gunfight last month, Weinreich was mainly concerned that his food--left out on the counters by fleeing employees--would get stale.

So, oblivious to the helicopters, Weinreich spent the morning at a police checkpoint, pleading on behalf of his banana cream pies. They finally let him back in.

Weinreich bought the Schaber’s chain in 1976 from a partnership that included Erhard Schaber, who died in 1994. Schaber had come from Germany in the 1920s to work for his cousin, Alfred, who started the first Schaber’s Cafeteria at 620 S. Broadway in downtown L.A. in 1928.

Erhard Schaber later opened his own restaurant at 720 S. Hill St., said one of his partners, Dick Bourell, 79. The North Hollywood Schaber’s opened in 1955.

During Schaber’s heyday, thousands passed by its counters daily, and there was enough business to support a host of competitors. “There were shoppers and businessmen, you’d see ladies in their hats,” said Schaber’s daughter, Laurie Moodie of Thousand Oaks.


Then, downtown shoppers fled to suburban malls. Fast-food and family-dining restaurants cropped up everywhere. Paper napkins replaced linen. And the cafeterias became, well, “not as glamorous as a lot of the competition,” said Robert Clinton, 43, vice president of Cliftons.

Today, the North Hollywood location is the only remaining Schaber’s.

Weinreich can’t understand why more young people don’t eat there. After all, what could be better than bean salad and roast beef?

He seems harried, and his face is red with exertion. As he talks, his eyes move around the room, and he keeps losing his train of thought. Has that man been helped? Is the coffee running low? “I love the business, it’s just that I’m plain worn out,” Weinreich said.

He is thinking of retiring, and his sons don’t want the cafeteria. But in the meantime, he’s trying to revive Schaber’s by serving fajitas, and hiring swing bands on weekends.

The food and the music may be dated, but there are signs of hope.

After all, what dies as fashion can be reborn as kitsch. Writer Tandy Martin thinks so. She is in her 40s, rather younger than the Schaber’s crowd, and can’t get over the place.

When she first saw the display of Jell-O platters--which is monumental and lit--she rushed home to call a friend. “I told her, ‘You have to see this turquoise Jell-O’ ” she said. “She thought it was so amazing, she got two orders of it to-go to show to a friend.”


Martin persuaded Weinreich to keep what she calls “the bad art” on the walls, and she’s thinking of organizing poetry readings at the restaurant.

Visiting Schaber’s for the first time since his sixth-grade graduation, Arnel Salazar, 26, was similarly struck.

“Dude,” said Salazar, his eyes traveling over the orange vinyl chairs, “I swear to God. Nothing has changed.”

Schaber’s Cafeteria, Rich in History and Homemade Food,

Caters to a Dwindling Clientele as It Continues . . .