When Kenneth Hahn was sworn in as mayor, the Original Pantry ceased to be Hizzoner's restaurant and became once again just a restaurant owned by a private citizen named Richard Riordan. It happens to be an institution of almost inconceivable age around here; it opened 77 years ago, it continues to stay open 24 hours a day.
A lot has changed since 1924, starting with the way Angelenos eat. Most recently, among the new restaurants in the neighborhood since the opening of nearby Staples Center is an Italian trattoria selling bruschetta, panini and stuff with arugula, right next door to the Pantry.
But the Pantry keeps moving its old-fashioned stews and roasts and chops in a single long, plain room that shows no sign of the decorator's touch, and people keep coming.
Though it seats only 84, it serves as many as 3,000 people a day. You may hear a customer speaking Spanish with a counter man, but he'll still be ordering baked salmon or corned beef and cabbage. There are no "starters" on the menu, no creme brulee for dessert, and entrees still come with canned vegetables and your choice of potatoes, mashed or fried.
Maybe there's a little more chicken these days; rotisserie chicken is on the menu every day, along with the rib roast and braised short ribs. A second restaurant, opened 13 years ago to take some of the overflow crowd at breakfast and lunch, offers lighter sandwiches (weekdays only) as well as the traditional huge platters of meat. The Pantry Bake and Sandwich Shoppe is brighter and more decorous--there are actually some flowered curtains on the windows in its back wall--but it's no more a trend-follower than its parent. Its burgers come with syrupy barbecue sauce on them, take it or leave it. At both places, you automatically get coleslaw in a slightly sweet creamy dressing with subtle hints of garlic and mustard, sprinkled with celery seed. It's always very fresh, since the Pantry goes through 21/2 tons of cabbage a week. Except at the Shoppe, you also get about a quarter of a loaf of good sourdough bread, too, roughly hand-cut into thick slices. Throw in some soup with the bread and slaw, and this is a meal.
Unless you're a real Pantry diner, of course, and then you want one of the daily "made dishes," which are the kind of thing it's getting hard to find in restaurants these days. On Wednesdays, they include liver and onions, franks and beans and a wonderful old-fashioned Swiss steak: three or four pieces of steak braised until nearly falling apart in a thick, rich tomato sauce--almost a pasta sauce, but a little tart, rather than sweet--with tiny chunks of carrot in it. On Thursdays, people come for ham hocks and beans, corned beef and cabbage and pork spare ribs in a sweet, sticky barbecue sauce (good old-fashioned fun, except that if you don't care to pick the ribs up, it's a mess manipulating them on a plate piled with mashed potatoes).
There's a whole blackboard of dishes like that, such as sirloin tips braised in a meaty sauce with a little tomato in it, a thick slab of rib roast (it can be a little dry in the middle) and totally plain roast turkey or pork with brown gravy and a simple bread dressing. When the blackboard dishes are sold out, the menu always lists steaks and chops. The lamb chops are three medium-sized chops on a plate; if you want sauce on it, don't expect anything but Worcestershire, A-1 and a Louisiana hot sauce. The steaks and chops aren't cheap; the New York steak is $13.35, but it's quite a good piece of meat.
For that matter, the Pantry makes very good coffee for a place that neither knows nor cares what a latte is. Dessert is old-fashioned cheesecake, layer cakes and pies. The apple pie, with a very liquid filling, comes with more liquid, a little pot of hot cinnamon-cider sauce. Breakfast still means pancakes and eggs. In an uncertain age, this is a place that still really knows its mind.
* Original Pantry, 877 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A., (213) 972-9279. Open 24 hours daily. No alcohol. Validated parking in lot across 9th Street. No credit cards (ATM on premises). Main dishes, $5.30 to $16.35; breakfasts, $3.30 to $5.80.* Pantry Bake and Sandwich Shoppe, 875 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A., (213) 627-6879. Open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Validated parking. No credit cards. Sandwiches, $3.10 to $5.80; remainder of menu as at Original Pantry.* What to Get: Swiss steak, sirloin tips, BBQ spare ribs, New York steak, hickory burger, apple pie.