It's better to eat late at night in the city of Angels.
The 24-hour eatery is becoming something of an endangered species in our urban centers. Here in LA, the decentralization of the city and lack of pedestrian walkways makes the economic feasibility of never closing difficult for businesses. Tucking into a plate of eggs and hash browns at an all-night joint is typically something you stumble into, on a whim, at 4 a.m. - it's usually not part of the evening's plans. And relying heavily on a car, be it yours or your Uber driver's, adds a barrier to late-night spontaneity that can often be the difference between staying out and going to bed.
Even the places you think are open all night (or places you think should be open all night) are not: Brite Spot, closes at 3 a.m. 101 Coffee Shop, closes at 3 a.m. Swingers, closes at 4 a.m. The 24-hour restaurant deserves our admiration, if only for dedication it requires: to always having someone on staff, bussing tables, manning the grill - to literally never closing (at least in theory). Matthew Kang and I hit a couple of LA's iconic 24-hour restaurants late one Saturday night/early Sunday morning.
The Original Tommy's, which opened in 1946 at Beverly and Rampart, was abuzz with activity around 12:15am. Matt and I squeezed into a parking spot next to an old, white pickup that was taking up two spaces. In the bed, five or six teenagers were seated, chowing down on burgers.
Chili and cheese melt together to become one super condiment: Chilicheese.
This location actually feels like two restaurants - there's the stand on the corner, serving up the famous chili burgers and fries - but about 100 feet to the east there's another stand, which is all part of the same restaurant, with separate kitchen and staff, serving identical food. This was done, ostensibly, to deal with crowds as Tommy's became more popular. "I've seen waits of maybe 45 minutes or an hour," said the one of the grillmasters. "I think that was after a USC game."
The actual Tommy's burger (which took literally 20 seconds to prepare - take that, In-N-Out) is more about condiments than anything else - pickles, onions, cheese and, of course, chili, all on a lightly toasted bun. The chili is smooth, industrial, and functions more like a lubricant than anything else. It's reasonably tasty and mildly spiced. It really shines on the chili cheese fries, as chili and cheese melt together to become one super condiment: Chilicheese.
It's drunk food heaven - or nostalgia heaven, depending on how you're feeling. There are better burgers, but there's something about sidling up to the counter and placing your order, receiving a cardboard box that looks like a massacre just happened inside of it, grabbing a handful of industrial paper towels from the dispenser, retreating back to your car, and taking a step back in time.
Next stop: The Original Pantry Cafe on South Figueroa. Opened in 1924, but at its current location since 1950. We groaned as we walked up and saw the line out the door. "What was going on tonight?" I asked the people in front of us. "Pitbull concert," the woman replied. "I'm so drunk right now, I can't even stand up."
Waiting in line to get into the Pantry is part of "the experience."
Waiting in line to get into the Pantry, according to the Pantry, is part of "the experience." There's a plaque outside stating as much - "There is a sense of community among people from all parts of the city and from all walks of life." Seems somewhat cruel to be taunting your customers this way, but I suppose it's just a positive way of looking at the obvious: the place is mobbed because it's damned good.
The security guard ushers us through the doors (which famously have no locks) and we take a table toward the back. There's no PA system, no pumped in music - only chatter from the clientele, activity from the kitchen, and the sound of utensils hitting plates. A man walks by with a rag on a stick and stops to reach up and erase a menu item from the chalkboard. There's a lot to look at in the Pantry - plenty of old pics of Los Angeles icons and celebrities on their "wall of fame." It's owned by former Richard Riordan - "He comes in a couple times a month," our server told us. "He usually just eats and leaves." Has the Pantry ever closed? "One time. I think in 2004 when we had to do some remodeling."
A positive aspect of the Pantry being packed like it is after an event at the Staples Center or LA Live is that there's a ton of food being made, so everything is fresh and fast. You feel like you're sitting in an extremely well-oiled breakfast food machine. Pancakes are fluffy enormities - slightly on the cake-y side, but delicious nonetheless. The ham steak and eggs was like something out of the Flintstones (also note: I originally read the menu as "ham, steak, and eggs," like you're going to get three separate things. No. It's a ham steak.).
The ham steak and eggs was like something out of the Flintstones
When our server presented it, I thought it was going to tip over the table. It's probably 14 inches in diameter. Conservatively. And ¾ inch thick. You'll wonder where the plate is, because it certainly won't be visible. Your eyes will widen, your jaw will drop, and your heart will beat faster - that's how much ham it is. Not only that, but it's prepared well - grilled nicely and not overdone. Sourdough toast is cut generously, and accompanying hash browns have a good amount of the delicious black charred bits. A side of coleslaw was cold and clean - slightly sweet and creamy but not mayonnaise-y.
We paid the bill (on the worn-out spot in the linoleum in front of the cashier. It's actually worn down, like layers of geological strata, through five or six layers of floor) and stumbled past the line of people waiting to get in, across the street to the car, overstuffed and happy.
The Original Tommy's is located at 2575 Beverly Blvd (at Rampart) in Westlake. The Original Pantry Cafe is located at 877 S Figueroa St (at 9th) in Downtown. Both places are always open.