The day the Apple Pan opened, on April 11, 1947, a neighbor brought flowers to crown the U-shape counter of the Pico Boulevard burger joint. Martha Gamble, now 87, daughter of the restaurant's founders, Ellen and Alan Baker, remembers the day vividly. She also remembers the neighborhood as it was then, long before the sprawling Westside Pavilion moved in across the street, when the draw of the neighborhood was pony rides, small independent shoe stores, the Picwood movie theater, and before that the Pico, the first drive-in movie theater in L.A.
Now celebrating its 70th year in business, the Apple Pan has never changed hands or accepted anything but cash. With a wait list built on memory and trust, and the motto "Quality Forever," diners and employees take comfort in finding things just as they always were. Whether it's that the recipes were timeless when the Bakers and their parents tested them in their home kitchens down the block or that Los Angeles relies on the living time capsule to preserve and serve time past isn't important. What matters is that if you ever leave Los Angeles for any amount of time, when you return, even if all else is unrecognizable, you can sit down at one of the 26 counter seats in a room of lacquered wood, brick and plaid, and order Alan Baker's quarter-pound burger with hickory sauce and his mother's apple pie.
The Bakers decided to "build a small, very unpretentious little place," says Gamble, who now runs it with her daughter, Sunny Sherman, 61.
"My mother thought of the name and my dad said, 'Oh, I like that!' That was it." Gamble's grandmothers were in charge of making the pies and figuring out the recipes; her parents honed the sandwiches at home. On the enduring menu are two burgers — the Hickoryburger and Steakburger — and five sandwiches, including a tuna sandwich with sweet pickles and black olives, and an elegantly piled Southern Baked Ham.
The who, what and where of the original family recipes, dating back as early as 1881, are recorded on the two-sided laminated menu, and they reveal a collection of Midwestern culinary traditions — from Bakers and Gambles in Ohio, Missouri and Nebraska — that found a home on this corner in Southern California.
The modest restaurant is a temple of consistency, and the belief and devotion of diners and employees alike sustains it. Sherman recalls the time they tried making a slight modification — a single ingredient — to the secret sweet-and-smoky sauce that defines their hickoryburger. After two customers, actor John Lithgow and his wife, noticed, the recipe went back to the original.
"We like what we've got and the way it's been done and really for us the challenge is to keep it that way," says Sherman.
Regulars do their part to help the Apple Pan maintain its diligent charm. In his spare time, a customer whom Sherman describes as a "bigwig in movies" would search online for the increasingly hard-to-find vintage metal cups for paper soda cones and bring them in to make up for the dozens that had disappeared in the hands of sneaky diners.
A 66-year-old who gave her name only as Dru has been an Apple Pan customer and neighbor since age 5. In the early days, she remembers, the area was full of kids and the older ones would walk the younger ones to Pico and Glendon Avenue, where they'd be served hamburgers at the counter by men who knew their names. As a single person eating at the counter, she says, people share their lives with her. Once, a cartoonist eating beside her sketched a portrait of longtime server Gordon Teske on a paper napkin; she still has the image after all these years. "I've made friends and exchanged phone numbers with people I've met at the counter here," she says.
"We've had some very, very good people working here," says Gamble. "That's important in a place like this — to have good camaraderie with each other — especially when they work as fast as they have to around here. And it was important to my mother and dad to pay them well."
Hector Morales, originally from Juarez, Mexico, has worked at the Apple Pan since 1976, when he was 22 years old. Bored at his job in a plastic factory in Santa Monica, he answered an ad he found in the Evening Outlook for a cook's helper at the Apple Pan. He initially declined the job offer because he didn't want to work the night shift, but Alan Baker was persistent — he offered Morales more money and to pay him while the restaurant was closed in July. Forty years later, he's one of the most veteran employees and a friend he recruited in 1979, Roberto Velasco, still works there too. Morales has had meals in Paris; Sydney, Australia; Bangkok, Thailand; and Madrid with people he's met at the counter. "I feel that I've learned so much from the customers that come here," he says. "And year after year they are happy to see us."
Sit down at Morales' side of the counter — each server works either the right or left side for his entire career — on a busy Saturday afternoon and you enter his stream of counter consciousness. He takes orders and refills coffee cups from the ancient urns with a rhythm that's both economical and generous. Since nothing has changed, there's nothing to explain.
Growing up in Mexico, Morales was "never into hamburgers," but he grew to love them, "of course, because they're the best hamburgers!" Even after all these years, he eats a Hickoryburger with cheese a couple of times a week. As day manager Lupe Gomez says about all things Apple Pan, "Why change something that works?"
Apple Pan, 10801 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-3585