As American as Apple Pan

The classic Apple Pan burger.
The classic Apple Pan burger.
(Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

In the shadow of the Westside Pavilion in West L.A. stands a tiny building that houses a world. People come there for burgers and pie, and they keep coming back because something about the place is magnetic. They can’t stay away.

The people who work there keep coming back too. Decade after decade, you see the same faces. The lunchtime sandwich cook, Charles Collins, has worked at the Apple Pan for 50 years. The owner, Martha Gamble, was the first waitress when her parents opened the place in 1947.

In all this time the Apple Pan has served an unchanged menu of distinctive burgers, sandwiches and pies. One regular customer estimates that he has eaten, at minimum, 1,000 steakburgers over the years.

The regulars probably aren’t surprised that the Apple Pan has turned 60. It’s been part of their lives since the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards was best known as the site of California’s first drive-in theater.

What’s the deal about this place? Looks won’t tell you much. Inside the small white building with green trim and a sign reading “The Apple Pan Quality Forever,” there’s no decor but plaid wallpaper and some much-lacquered wood paneling. Twenty-six stools line a U-shaped counter with a brick-walled grill area in the middle.

Taking sides

The moment you enter, you sense an obscure protocol in force. The room is divided into right and left sides, each with its own waiter, cash register and coffee urn. Regulars habitually sit on a favorite side, even when a stool becomes available on the other.

Why? “They’re used to a particular waiter,” Collins suggested.

“I don’t think about it,” said a young woman who didn’t want to give her name. “It’s like what side of the bed you prefer to sleep on.”

When people have to wait for a seat, there’s no room for a real line to form. Still, they yield to one another in strict order of arrival, like drivers at a four-way intersection.

At lunch, you need to place your order briskly because the waiters will be hopping from one urgent task to another. Dinner is less crowded and more leisurely.

There’s a homey Midwestern quality about the place. If you don’t feel like a soda, you can ask for buttermilk. Actual cream comes with your coffee. All the recipes are family recipes, and the back of the menu tells you where the originator of each was born, whether in Ohio, Missouri or Nebraska.

The burger arrives without a plate. It’s wrapped in paper, shoved in a bag and slapped down in front of you on its side, with an edible edge peeking skyward.

It’s on a rather nondescript bun. “Granddad didn’t want a sesame bun,” says manager Sunny Sherman. “Knowing him, I figure he didn’t think sesame added anything.”

However, this plain bun is toasted on a griddle in the old-fashioned way, giving it a crunchy brown rim. The appetizing aroma of toasting buns permeates the room.

You can watch the cooks tear lettuce heads into handfuls and line them up for the burgers to come. The first thing you smell in the burger itself is that thick wad of fresh lettuce.

The patty has a sweet ground-beef flavor. Sherman cagily describes it as ground chuck roll “plus other cuts,” which are a secret. The meat is ground for the restaurant by its meat supplier and formed into patties in the prep kitchen.

Under the patty is a smear of mayonnaise and a couple of pickles. In the steakburger, a ladleful of a ketchup-y pickle relish goes on the patty. The sum of these parts is beefy, tangy with mayo and pickles, and above all fresh and sweet because of the relish and lettuce.

The hickory burger replaces the pickle relish with a less sweet sauce, which is like ketchup with smoke flavoring and which is also made in the kitchen.

Not once in 60 years has anybody gotten a slice of tomato on either a steakburger or hickory burger because that’s how Alan Baker designed them in 1947. “My dad was a perfectionist,” says Gamble. “He tried recipes out at home until it was the way he wanted it.” However, regulars know you can request an onion slice or even fried onions, when the grill isn’t too busy.

Besides the two burgers, there are five sandwiches: Virginia ham, Swiss (you can request Cheddar instead), “combo” (ham and cheese), tuna salad or egg salad. You can specify white, wheat or rye bread, but with the cheese, they’ll put it on rye unless you say otherwise.

The tuna salad is the nearly forgotten sort that incorporates hand-chopped sweet gherkins. The magnificent egg salad is made with very fresh brown eggs that are from a farm east of Covina and are never overcooked.

Piece of the pie

Behind a plate-glass window at the back of the room is a bakery. The Apple Pan’s pies have thin, not particularly flaky crusts, rolled out on a 45-year-old Acme Crust Roller. The apple filling, though juicy, is on the bland side (the better to go with the hot cinnamon syrup and maybe a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream?). This is not a pie that would stand out in a contest, but it’s what Apple Pan diners want, because the place sells more apple pies than any other type.

The pecan pie is loaded with pecans, not as sugary as the familiar Southern version. Cream pies -- banana, chocolate and daily-changing fruit -- are topped with a good half-inch of cream whipped until it’s practically butter.

That’s it: two burgers, five sandwiches, three kinds of pie. There’s nothing else here but coffee, soft drinks and quite good fries with a nice potato aroma and a little crunchiness. (Surprisingly, for such a traditional place, they buy them frozen. “Frozen fries are better,” Sherman says. “They cook up crisper.”)

Unless you speak up pretty fast, the waiter who brought your fries will whip a thick gray pulp-paper plate in front of you and pour ketchup on it. These coarse, felt-y plates of recycled paper used to be common at lunch counters. Today, they seem conservation-minded. In the ‘40s, they were just dirt cheap.

But no more. “Pulp paper is surprisingly expensive these days,” owner Gamble says. “We keep on using it.”

In fact, the Apple Pan stubbornly keeps doing a lot of old-fashioned things. The waiters still sport the kind of neat white service caps that soda jerks wore 60 years ago.

Soft drinks are still poured in paper cones supported by stainless steel cupholders, in the 1940s lunch-counter way. Over time those bases began to disappear, and about a year ago it looked as if the restaurant would finally have to start using cardboard or plastic cups. “But then a customer found a bunch of bases for us on EBay,” Gamble says.

The coffee urns are the archaic gas-fired sort. “Farmer Brothers [coffee company] keeps parts on hand for us,” Sherman says. She keeps spares of the old tan cash registers on hand in case one of them breaks down.

“People notice if anything changes,” says left-side lunch waiter Roberto Velazquez, who’s been there 28 years.

“And they complain,” Sherman says.

The place is a restaurateur’s dream because it runs itself. If the cooks are busy assembling burgers or sandwiches, waiters bringing over order checks will toss the appropriate number of patties on the griddle for them.

The staff works essentially without supervision. “They trust us, they treat us with respect,” says right-side lunch waiter Hector Morales (31 years). “We’re very lucky.”

And the staff is remarkably eager to work there. Gamble estimates Collins has taken off perhaps three sick days in his half-century at the Apple Pan.

“I’ve attempted to leave,” Collins jests, “but every time they made it better for me.” Like several other employees, he says he’s generously paid. He’s put two sons through college flipping burgers and making sandwiches. He points out that the Apple Pan doesn’t have as much overhead to worry about as many other restaurants -- there’s no rent, because the family has owned the property from the start.

Just like family

The food doesn’t change; the equipment doesn’t change; the staff scarcely changes. It’s always a familiar place.

Or even a kind of family. At lunch, Collins is the reliable daddy, grill chef Lupe Gomez (the baby of the kitchen, having served only 17 years) the mischievous nephew who relishes opening every paper takeout bag with a loud pop.

The Apple Pan has become a true social milieu. People chat with the waiters and wave to the cooks. Customers who move out of town keep in touch. Morales says he’s had dinner with old customers when visiting Paris and Bangkok.

The menu includes a sort of mission statement: “The Apple Pan is the result of the effort to do simple things exceedingly well.” Good point. But the secret of flourishing for 60 years probably can’t be as simple as that.

This place seems to have done two things. Sixty years ago, it hit some mysterious sweet spot, and since then it’s been careful not to expand, meddle with the menu or, so far as possible, change a single thing.

Which is harder? Tough to say. But evidently the secret is doing both.

Off-menu items available at the Apple Pan:

* Grilled cheese sandwich

* Tuna melt

* Pickled peppers

* Mustard

* Ketchup

* Onion on your hamburger -- raw or (except at busy times) fried; you can even order fried onions as a side with a sandwich.