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End of the line for cafeterias

Times Staff Writers

It’s getting harder to find that plate of green jello.

There was a time when the cafeteria was the undisputed king of Southern California dining. Before World War II, the cheap food and sprawling dining halls brought together strangers new to the region and created lasting bonds.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 6, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Disappearing cafeterias: An article in Friday’s California section about the dwindling number of cafeterias in the Southland said that Gorky’s Cafeteria was in Hollywood. It was in downtown Los Angeles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Disappearing cafeterias: An article in Friday’s California section about the dwindling number of cafeterias in the Southland said Gorky’s Cafeteria opened in Hollywood in 1983 and closed in the early ‘90s. A correction to that article that appeared on Monday’s A2 said Gorky’s was located downtown. The restaurant’s first location, in downtown Los Angeles, opened in 1983. Both it and the cafeteria’s Hollywood location closed in the early ‘90s.

The meals were inexpensive, and there was something altogether modern in the dining experience, which did without menus, waiters and tablecloths. Restaurant-goers could load their trays with cold foods and then hot, delicacies like ambrosia salad and coleslaw, liver and onions and mac and cheese, and then sidle up to the cash register to pay -- all without waiting.

Dozens of cafeterias once peppered the Southland, so many, in fact, that city directories listed them separately from restaurants.

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But today, the cafeteria is a dying breed, a victim of changing tastes, an aging population and urban sprawl.

On Wednesday, one of the last of the grande dames shut its doors after 50 years: Beadle’s in Pasadena.

“I want to pinch myself and hope it suddenly opens. It really hurts,” said longtime diner Bob Malsman, 57, who already misses the grilled salmon he always got. “It’s real food. Real comfort food. Everything now is fast food. It’s all garbage. It’s cheap. You just go in and out.”

A few cafeterias survive -- Clifton’s in downtown and Arnold’s in Long Beach -- but even there, patrons say they worry about the future.

“The average person would rather see their food fixed for them,” said Benjamin Alsop, a Clifton’s regular, who was quietly eating fried rice and an egg roll at a table on the mezzanine level of the woodsy themed restaurant, a few steps away from the indoor waterfall.

Beadle’s was a relative latecomer to the area’s cafeteria scene when it opened on Colorado Boulevard in 1956 -- a time when many cafeterias were already being shuttered, in part because their faithful customers were moving to the suburbs and being wooed by fast-food franchises. The cafeteria’s longtime owner, Gordon Hammond, had spent years working for the famed Boos Brothers cafeteria, and then the Clinton family, which ran a chain of cafeterias from Laguna Hills to Century City.

Along with its sister restaurant, the Pasadena Cafeteria, Beadle’s fed a generation of Pasadenans comfort food: green jello -- which almost defied gravity -- chicken pot pie and Thanksgiving-style turkey with stuffing on almost any day of the year. Gourmet chefs would complain that they could not get a high-end restaurant off the ground in Pasadena because residents’ tastes were tempered by years of Beadle’s food.

But the cafeteria fell victim to changing tastes and a series of missteps. Long-loyal clientele had begun to die off, and were not being replaced by enough younger patrons.

Beadle’s began to falter after moving from Colorado Boulevard to an out-of-the way location in the early 1990s. The Hammond family sold the restaurant, and subsequent owners were not able to resurrect the cafeteria. They tried a salad bar and then Chinese and Japanese food. But it made little difference.

Malsman, who ate lunch at Beadle’s almost every weekday for the last two years, said the room was always half-empty. The old-time employees who retired were not being replaced either, he noticed.

It remained unclear Thursday what will become of the eatery. A sign on the door said it was closed for renovations. But regulars said business appeared to be going downhill recently, and the buzz in the office building near Beadle’s was that the cafeteria was gone for good. The owners could not be reached for comment.

Jim Oaks came out of the parking garage elevator, turned the corner and flushed with disappointment when he saw the front entrance to Beadle’s shuttered.

Oaks, 83, had been coming to the restaurant for more than 30 years.

“The food was actually good,” the downtown L.A. resident said. “It was only recently that business slowed. Sometimes, I bet there weren’t more than 10 people at lunch. So I’m not at all surprised it closed.”

Oaks said he was a loyal fan of the grilled salmon and the carrot cake. He turned around and said he would probably settle for Marie Callender’s.

Robert Clinton, one of the family members who still run Clifton’s downtown, said that too many changes can be a death knell for a cafeteria. He said that because cafeterias typically don’t sell alcohol, they have a very narrow profit margin. “Volume is important,” he said. “That’s what Beadle’s had a problem with.

“Our menu stays pretty fixed,” Clinton said. “I think that’s probably helped us.”

Indeed, at lunch Thursday, Clifton’s diners could choose from 24 kinds of cake and pie, including such standards as Boston cream, lemon meringue and pumpkin. The specials of the day were fried pollock or chicken, served with mashed potatoes and one vegetable -- for $5.49.

Streams of people poured into the restaurant -- a mix of races and ages that seemed to mirror the L.A. population.

Some lunchtime customers said they were regulars, and had been for 40, even 50 years. Others were like Simi Valley attorney Jeff Williams, whose visit was tinged with nostalgia.

“They used to have a treasure chest, and kids could choose from it,” said Williams, 56. His parents, he said, would take the whole family from Santa Monica to downtown for the cafeteria. “We would come to Clifton’s, eat here, and pull out a treasure. And it’s still going strong.”

Williams attributed the site’s longevity to good food and reasonable prices -- coupled with a healthy respect for tradition. “People like that,” he said. “And they need it in their lives.”

Beadle’s patron Malsman, who was without that tradition Thursday, was reluctantly forced to look elsewhere for lunch. He couldn’t drive because he feared he would lose his parking space, so he headed down Lake Avenue.

“I’ll probably go get some tacos,” he said. “Fast food. What can I do?”

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The cafeteria century

1905: Helen Mosher opens the Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles, using the slogans “Food that can be seen” and “No tips.”

* 1906: The Boos brothers expand on the concept, eventually running two cafeterias that attracted everyone from the well-heeled to the down-and-out.

* 1911: There are 14 cafeterias in Los Angeles -- so many that the city directory lists them separately from restaurants.

* 1916: The Los Angeles chapters of the YMCA and YWCA open what are apparently the world’s first institutional cafeterias.

* 1917: Webster’s Dictionary admits the word “cafeteria.”

* 1918: On the eve of Prohibition, Los Angeles has 30 cafeterias, including the world’s first vegetarian cafeteria.

* 1920s: Cafeteria concept spreads throughout the country, and even reaches France. A writer dubs L.A. “Sunny Cafeteria.”

* 1931: Clifford Clinton opens the first Clifton’s Cafeteria in L.A.; the chain specializes in culinary escapism for the Depression-era diner: extravagant decor and ultra-cheap food.

* Late 1940s: L.A.'s vast suburbs start sprawling, and fast-food chains take over. Cafeterias suffer; many close.

* 1956: Bucking the trend, Beadle’s Cafeteria opens in Pasadena; it features valet parking.

* 1978: Clifton’s opens the Greenery, the last stand-alone cafeteria built.

* 1983: Gorky’s Cafeteria opens in Hollywood, probably the last noninstitutional cafeteria. Despite Soviet-chic style and hip clientele, it does not lead to a cafeteria revival. It closes in the early ‘90s.

* 1987: The Clifton’s Cafeteria in Century City Shopping Center closes after owners of the mall decide the eatery is incompatible with a new upscale food court.

* 1997: Clifton’s Silver Spoon cafeteria on 7th Street in downtown -- operated in an opulently designed former jewelry store -- closes.

* 1999: The Clifton’s Cafeteria in Laguna Hills closes.

* 2003: The Greenery in West Covina closes.

Source: Times reports


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