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Au Revoir, Red Leatherette

The place is one of those downtown industrial outposts that, if you didn’t know it was there already, you’d never know it was there: plain white brick building, wrought-iron door, trashed vacant lot across the street, no windows. Flanked by a parking lot and a check-cashing outlet that advertises: compra y venta pesos. Peopled by guys like that bum puffing that cigarette by that pay phone there.

The sign says Marty’s Patio and Indoor Dining, as well as “Open.” This is a good thing because, in this neighborhood, any God-fearing patio eatery would be closed. But inside, once you adjust to the darkness, to the smell of booze and red leatherette and cheeseburgers, you realize: This joint is jumpin’. As it has been every lunch hour now for 67 years.

This is an accomplishment for a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, where restaurants generate two kinds of stories: scandal-at-the-mayor’s (“Health Guys Nix A-Grade for Pantry!”) and “after blankety-blank years, the venerable (insert name of your establishment here) has shut down.” But even more interesting is the change now underway at Marty’s, which for two generations has drawn a cult following to what may be the ugliest block in town.

On July 31, the gray-haired proprietor, Marty Veselich, will turn over his spot at 1936 E. 7th St. to two young French guys who plan to get rid of the leatherette, line the patio with flowers, change the name to the French Garden and paint the interior a nice, bright salmon pink with navy trim.

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So, you say, this is one of those “venerable” closures, non?

Well, non. In a spin that speaks to the heart of what it means to be an Angeleno, Marty puts it succinctly: “This is not a requiem.”

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People say Los Angeles mistreats its past. That it takes for granted all the things that might, if preserved, give it some semblance of character. Easy come, easy go. Blame for this usually accrues to L.A.'s venal nature, which in turn gets blamed vaguely on “developers.”

But the fact is, the past is neither entirely expendable nor uniformly precious, which you realize when you get to be Marty Veselich’s age, which is 72. Yes, there is loss when something venerable closes, but when things change, as often as not, it’s because change was called for. “I’m getting up there,” says Marty. “I’m ready for retirement.”

Which is not to say he doesn’t appreciate the customers who have reacted to the news of his departure with the kind of anguish usually reserved for a death in the family. Though Marty’s neighborhood at 7th and Mateo looks desolate, it actually teems with workers--from the garment district, the produce district, local government--and Marty’s has been one of the few places where the food is fast, the decor is nice and the parking is cheap.

In fact, it was a regular, Gloria Rodriguez of the Department of Water and Power, who called to say Marty’s simply couldn’t be allowed to close without a public goodbye. “That patio burger is just great,” she said sadly, “and they have that Green Goddess dressing, which, anymore, you almost can’t find.”

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So true. And Marty says he’ll miss his customers too. Even now, he can reel off names of diners dating back decades, tell you what they meant when they ordered “the usual.” Tell you about the customer in the container business who advised him to open his signature patio. Point out the gentleman from the garment district who inspired him to add Chinese chicken salad to the menu. Introduce the LAPD officers who, only after Mayor Richard Riordan was elected (“I’d vote for that Riordan for president!”), were dispatched to patrol Marty’s Godforsaken neighborhood. Name the customer who donated the preposterous blue swordfish that graces the wall across from the bar.

Indeed, he thinks so much of his customers that he has made it a point to introduce them personally to the two 29-year-olds who’ll be taking over their hangout: Cyril Kappes, who discovered Marty’s when he was working in the garment district for Baby Guess?, and Benoit Lesure, a waiter at Sherman Oaks’ popular Cafe Bizou.

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“We will do the fresh fish every day, cooked in the olive oil. Also la salade nicoise, the sandwiches, the pasta . . . ,” says Lesure, who’ll be the chef. He is so enthusiastic, he scarcely blinks as one regular after another asks that one favorite dish after another be kept from the old menu.

Marty stays mum. Why get sentimental? The place--like the city that made it--will do what it has always done: change. Soon, if you didn’t know that a place called Marty’s once stood here, you’d never know it. This is how it is with letting go, which is to say, this is how it is with L.A.

Shawn Hubler’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com


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