In The Pipeline: Ask Alice when she's ready

HB Independent

It may be the largest cinnamon roll I've ever seen. About the size of a dog's head, warm from the oven, and made from scratch like pretty much everything else at Alice's Breakfast in the Park. Placed before me along with my eggs and toast, it's part of another memorable breakfast in one of the city's most beloved establishments.

Two years ago, I sat with Alice Gustafson at this table, in the charming parlor setting surrounded by curios, knickknacks, bird cages and other bits of wistful ephemera.

Back then, we talked about the battle she was going through with the city. It looked as if the end were near. But customer Richard Reinbolt started a petition, the people spoke out at a public hearing. Those in charge got the message. Alice's was granted a two-year reprieve; a gesture that allowed her and her family to bring down the curtain at their own pace, with dignity and grace. But here we are, and the September closing date is almost upon us. The curios surrounding us all have little price tags on them. And Alice, 79, lets out a heavy sigh.

"It's hard to believe the time is almost here. Thirty years is a long time to be doing anything, and I'm really going to miss all of this," she said, gesturing around the room, which is almost full.

By "this," she doesn't mean the decorations. She means the people.

"It's not like I make a lot of money here," she said quietly. "But I've made friends, and met people, and served the community. It's like when John owned the End Café. It was always about people."

She is referring to her late husband, who for years owned and operated the legendary restaurant at the tip of the Huntington Beach Pier. Then, 30 years ago, the city asked her and John to open a place in Huntington Central Park, and the rest is, well, cinnamon roll history.

Alice's daughter, Mary Beth Gustafson, is baking away on this sunny morning as she always is, ably assisted by her daughter Kerstin. Mary Beth is not quite sure yet where she will be taking her baking skills, but several options are being discussed (and a column about Mary Beth will follow). Today, though, it's hard not to be riveted by Alice, whose eyes twinkle as the customers wave hello and goodbye. Would she stay if the city allowed it?

"I'd have to think about that," she smiled. "On the one hand, this is my world. But I'm tired, too. You know, I think it might be time to write my customers another letter to explain what I'm thinking."

In the restroom hangs a framed letter Alice wrote in 1996. She explains some of her philosophy as a restaurateur and closes with: "I do love seeing all you wonderful people each day, so keep coming back, we will be here to love and be of service to you, and hopefully make a difference!"

If you've been to Alice's, I don't have to describe the charms of a place that's situated by a lake, where the ducks and geese keep you company and, most importantly, where the food is lovingly prepared. If you haven't been (or if you haven't been lately), I will strongly suggest you make it part of your routine for the next couple of months. Because after that, it will be gone, another memory that locals will romanticize, justifiably, as they do the Golden Bear, the Standard Market and a few other legendary local businesses.

It would be wonderful to make these last few months special for Alice and her family. To locals, it's an intimate, unique hideaway. For tourists, it's a bridge to a simpler past. May this summer be spent celebrating Alice's, a wondrously simple, old-fashioned slice of Huntington Beach that's as good for the soul as it is for the stomach.

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