Eating greasy comfort food served by a lifelong waitress should be part of any traveler’s experience of the USA. The diner is an object of Americana so iconic and so powerful, you’ve probably already imagined a squeaky plastic booth, the neon sign advertising all-hours breakfast, and the boat-shaped white hats worn by the short-order cooks flipping burgers and flapjacks. In Los Angeles, a city that epitomizes early 20th-century American culture, you won’t be disappointed by the classic breakfast fare, fusion Mexican, Jewish pickles, and all-around Americana that weary travelers can find in the embrace of a vinyl seat cushion.
The first, the last, the original: The Original Pantry Cafe
As the name suggests, The Pantry has been around for a while. Since 1924, the famed downtown diner has never closed its doors. It’s been the lunchtime back room of many Los Angeles politicians, an after-work dinner destination, and a post-party pancake house for the downtown bar crowd. Try the T-bone steak for dinner and don’t miss the breakfast potatoes, which are great anytime. The peach cobbler is also something special. Its proximity to the Staples Center, where both the Lakers and the Clippers play their NBA home games and the Kings shoot pucks across the ice during the off-season, makes it a convenient stop anytime. Beware though: it’s one of the few spots in the city that is cash only.
Modern takes on old classics: Fred 62
Located in the hot eastside neighborhood of Los Feliz, Fred 62 maintains a punk-rock-meets-Happy-Days atmosphere despite the recent affluence of the surrounding Los Feliz village. This 24-hour joint specializes in fusion diner food, so it’s the only place you’ll get staples like a pastrami sandwich and the fluffiest 24-hour-a-day pancakes in the city alongside upscale fare like the Sammy Davis Jr. (a breakfast plate of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and a brioche bun), a pork belly bahn mi sandwich, and the Thai Cobb Salad (a spicy take on a traditional cob with spinach, napa cabbage, peanuts, and spicy Thai sauce). The best time to come? In the middle of the night, after you’ve visited the legendary Dresden Room down the street, where Rat Pack era crooners Marty and Elaine sing swingin’ jazz standards amidst the hipsters with White Russians.
The Mexicatessen of diners: The Brite Spot
Echo Park’s original diner, The Brite Spot, has gone through many a metamorphosis in its many years of existence. Today, it’s a Mexi-Cali diner with a vegetarian-friendly menu that leans heavier on the eggs and breakfast items than dinner entrees. Try the soy-based chorizo (a spicy Mexican sausage), if you’re a vegetarian dying to experience Mexican flavors. The impressive selection of milkshakes and homemade pies is pretty hard to resist. Take a stroll around Echo Park Lake afterwards, and rent a paddleboat to take a spin around the water to balance out the pie. The Brite Spot opens 8 AM daily. They close at 3 PM on weekdays; 1 AM on Fridays and Saturdays; and 5 PM on Sundays.
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Old fashioned never goes out of style: Apple Pan
Keeping it simple, the Apple Pan has a limited menu of steak burgers (served in wax paper, 1950s style), traditional diner sandwiches, and their specialty, house-made apple, coconut cream, and pecan pies, made from scratch daily. The slices are to die for (ask for a la mode), as is the simple soda fountain atmosphere. Cooks flip burgers behind the brick half wall, while patrons sit on bright red swivel chairs on the other side of the horseshoe counter. The Pico Boulevard institution in West Los Angeles has been in business since 1947 and never changed their motto, hanging over the door: “Quality Forever.” The Apple Pan is open from 11 AM - 12 midnight daily.
All good things rolled into one: Canter's Delicatessen
Technically, Canter’s Delicatessen is part of a sub-species of diners called “Jewish delis,” but for all intents and purposes, it meets most diner qualifications; under a giant neon sign that greets customers 24 hours a day (the same as its business hours), you’ll find two giant seating sections with a woodsy 1970s theme, updated when the 1931 eastside joint moved to the Fairfax district in 1968. Disinterested servers will take your order for typical American deli sandwiches, like a Reuben, pastrami, or smoked liver, but also for a variety of Jewish foods that you simply must try. The pickles and the matzo ball soup are must-haves and the bagels are, naturally, the best in town. Don’t forget to stock up on rugula, the chocolate chip cookie of Jewish baking, in the bakery section. Grab some cold cuts and breads from the deli section on the way out. Nearby, the Original Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax is Canter’s only contemporary; they have both been around since the 1930s.
Diners across the city
Whether downtown or near the beach, on the eastside or westside, there is a charming diner harkening back to a bygone era somewhere in the neighborhood. They each have their own kitschy quirks, which is why we love them, but they’ve all got one important thing in common: a commitment to simple, homestyle food that Mom would definitely be proud of.
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