Welcome to a special Greasy Spoons Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
[Photo: Matthew Kang]
Teri Ernst has worked at Dinah's Family Restaurant, an iconic Westside institution, since 1975. Years later, she eventually married her husband, whose family had owned the restaurant since 1959. Teri and her husband took over the classic Googie diner in 1989 and eventually updated its decor and menu to reflect the times, though that didn't stop Hollywood from using it as a common backdrop. The famous bucket hanging over the building touting fried chicken has a history of its own. Here now, Ernst talks to Eater about Dinah's history, its development over the years, and the future of diners in L.A.
How long have you been working here? I started working here as a waitress in 1975. I had two kids at the time so it was great because there were flexible hours and the pay was good. I met my husband here and we've been running it since 1989.
How long has Dinah's been around? It's been in my husband's family since 1959. It skipped a generation before we took over. I grew up in this area and used to pass by all the time, but I never stopped in. My cousin started working here and so I thought it would be good to have a part-time job. It was a fun job.
Did you think you'd be working here a long time? I didn't think I was going to be here the whole time, let alone eventually become a part owner. It's very interesting to be on the employee side and then become the employer. You take more pride in the business. This is like my home now. When I first started managing, I was here seven days a week and worked long hours, but now we have a pretty good management team, so I'm only here three to four days a week.
What's unique about Dinah's? We can seat up to 189 diners at any given time, and on an average day, we can serve 1,000 people. It's even more on the weekend. We're famous for our fried chicken. People come from all over to eat here, and they've been coming for years. When I first started, I remember there were families that brought their babies. And now those babies come here with their families with babies of their own.
Did your chicken become immortalized in Little Miss Sunshine? They contacted us about using the packaging for the movie, and we said sure. When the film came out, my husband and I went to Santa Monica to watch it. People in the theater kept murmuring that they'd been to Dinah's, it was great. The movie brought us a lot of publicity.
That bucket hanging over the building is awesome, talk about that. Actually we had the bucket of chicken out there since before KFC had it. Apparently one of the former employees here back in the 60's took the idea with him to KFC and they started using it. But we had it first. It recently fell apart but we put in a new one.
What have you changed on the menu since the old days? When my husband and I took over, the menu had grown a little stale. We continually watch trends and make sure there's enough variety and healthy food. We also redid the place, repainting everything, putting in new booths, and upgraded all the equipment. We also started making more than apple pie. We increased the bakery side and started making cinnamon rolls, banana nut bread and more. We make everything on site.
When people think of Dinah's, what do they think? When customers come in, we treat them like family. We have this manager, Bernardo, who remembers everyone's names. People like to have the same waitress and greeted by the same person every time.
What's good to eat on the menu? The fried chicken, and the German apple pancakes, which no one else does. It takes 15-20 minutes to make in the oven. These days waffles have been really popular and people tend to get chicken and waffles together. We make the thick Belgian waffles, not the thin ones. I feel like our breakfast is really good — not a lot of people do good breakfast around here. People come from Santa Barbara or San Diego to have our breakfast, and a lot of people stop by before flying out of LAX, which is nearby.
What other movies to TV shows has Dinah's been in? We used to film scenes in The Big Lebowski. We've done Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family, and plenty of other TV shows. Every time a new season starts, I get phone calls. People like to use the place because of the interior and the classic look.
What's going to be the future of Dinah's? I always thought one of my children would take over, but none of them are interested. It's because they grew up watching us run this place. The restaurant business is hard. You have to change it and tweak it and be on top of it. Not a lot of restaurants have been around as long as we have.
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