Eat at These Classic Los Angeles Breakfast Spots While You Still Can
Here are some things Angelenos fear: Our police, inflated by tailored uniforms, bullet-proof vests, and hulking biceps, might crack our neighbor’s skull before I.C.E. deports them. Our precious coastline, choked by billionaires’ mansions, is eroding. Our unmoving freeways emit a grey haze and our black streets amplify summer’s apocalyptic heat. Horizontally slatted “flipper fences,” two-Prius driveways, and a sudden preponderance of art galleries predict that a neighborhood will soon be called cool by the New York Times’ Fashion & Style Section.
It’s the last phenomena—the hallmarks of gentrification—that are massive sources of agita in black and brown pockets of Los Angeles. There’s understandable concern that, with skyrocketing housing costs and stagnant housing stock, even minor incursions by businesses deemed “white” will have a colonizing, deracinating effect. If art galleries are considered the landing parties, new restaurants and bars are typically close behind. The thinking goes that, in places like tony Echo Park and Highland Park, there exists a two-tiered system of restaurants: one for monied gentrifiers and one for blue-collar locals.
Below is a list of classic Los Angeles (County) breakfast restaurants in gentrification hotspots, each in a different neighborhood. In a place changing at a breakneck pace, they may not be long for this world.
In 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, Clifford Clinton opened Clifton’s—ain’t that a mouthful?—on Olive Street in Downtown, steadfast in his belief that, of the nation’s millions of poor, none should go hungry. Their “Pay What You Wish” neon sign was a promise; patrons paid what they could for a hot meal, and if they were utterly bereft they were still fed. Four years later, Clinton and wife Nelda opened a second restaurant on Broadway, the flagship location of the Clifton’s franchise. Unlike their nautically themed first venture, their second, Clifton's Brookdale, was decorated like a redwood forest. A small waterfall cascaded, an animatronic raccoon took refuge in a log, and, between rocky crags, a covert chapel was carved out to further nourish weary souls. Until 2011, it remained reasonably unchanged.
If you’d set foot in Clifton’s Brookdale before real estate developer and Los Angeles nightlife magnate Andrew Meieran yuppified it in 2011, you’d have invariably seen the elderly gumming Jell-O, a junkie or three nodding off, and steaming trays piled with turkey, gravy, and 25-cent coffee. (The same year as the Clifton’s remodel, Philippe’s, another Los Angeles institution, raised its coffee from 9 cents to 45 cents; it was a very bad year for Downtown’s caffeinated and destitute.) Clifton’s was simultaneously depressing and heartening, a crushing amount of humanity, really. And, with a four-year, $14 million remodel, it was swept aside. With its massive atrium, renovated tiki bar, and unnecessary speakeasy—because, you know, Prohibition is over—Clifton’s has been returned to its former visual glory. But there’s no promise to feed the poor. There are, however, $14 cocktails, and you cannot pay what you wish for them.
The exterior of La Abeja pays tribute to the Fonseca family’s heritage. Facing Avenue 37, on a white background bordered by rippling green and red bands, Tonatiuh, the Aztec sun god, is orbited by the signs of Tochtli, Acatl, Tecpatl, and Calli. An eagle representing the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtemoc, is rendered mid-dive; Coatlicue, the snake goddess who birthed the moon and stars, hisses a forked tongue. Around the corner are portraits of three major Fonseca deities: Larry, Moe, and Curly, aka the Three Stooges.
The food at La Abeja—named “The Bee” for both the Fonseca matriarch’s erstwhile Mexico City beehives and the animal’s tireless work ethic—is textbook California-Mexican cuisine. Silk-soft carne adobada de puerco, viridescent verde or deep maroon mole enchiladas, hearty huevos rancheros, and bowls overflowing with menudo—all worthy of a weekend-morning wait. Equally comforting is the restaurant’s apparent permanence as it nears its 50th anniversary. Cypress Park, just south of soon-to-be-yoga-studio Highland Park, has yet to collapse under the weight of outside capital, and the breakfast crowd at La Abeja remains a mix of old-timers, hangover-sufferers, and doting parents.
Serving Spoon & Pann’s
Inglewood’s The Serving Spoon would like to make it clear that sagging one’s pants is “Not allowed in this establishment [and] You will be asked to leave.” If you think this rule could be a problem for you, the restaurant’s plates of melting catfish, waffles dusted with cinnamon, and fried chicken should be enticement enough to wear pants that fit. Aside from the loosely attired, the restaurant, tucked into a mini-mall on the corner of Centinela and Enterprise, takes all kinds, Bill Clinton included. (Issa Rae, the creator and star of HBO’s Insecure, is a fan.)
A half mile or so from The Serving Spoon is Pann’s, whose Googie architecture, fried chicken and biscuits, and infamous champagne brunches make it a heavily trafficked weekend destination. Founded in 1958 by George and Rena Panagopoulos, the restaurant’s zig-zagging pitched roof, rock walls, and jagged neon sign make the diner an excellent example of a bygone Los Angeles style. (Architect Helen Liu Fong, of Armet & Davis, was a prolific Googie designer and native Angeleno.) Though George has passed, Rena, nearing 100 years old, makes periodic cameos at the restaurant.
It seems that with each passing month the median home price in Los Angeles reaches a new high. Inglewood, the site of mass white flight during the Civil Rights Era, is now rife with real estate prospecting by both homebuyers and professional sports franchises. The Los Angeles Rams and Chargers are set to move into their new digs at the former Hollywood Park Racetrack (don’t let the name fool you, it’s in Inglewood), and the Los Angeles Clippers are starting the process of building their own stadium next door. Inglewood residents wary of increased rents and displacement have already begun fighting the Clippers’ overtures with an odd ally: the owners of the Forum. The former home of the Lakers—and, briefly, a megachurch—is now a well-used concert venue, and its owners claim they were tricked into giving the city land which the Clippers would use for their arena, or competition, in the Forum’s reckoning. A sure-to-be-ugly skirmish between tenants, the Forum, the Clippers, and the city government is just getting started.
Silver Lake used to be gnarly. Keith Morris, singer for legendary hardcore bands Circle Jerks and Black Flag, recounted to GQa memory from one his stints as a Millie’s waiter: “One morning I went to work at Millie’s, and it’s like, the cook’s not there and the dishwasher’s not there. And they’d been hanging out together. That was the morning I had to get the manager of that building to unlock the door, so I could go in and discover both of them dead from overdosing on heroin. And that’s just part of the character, you know? That comes with the territory.”
Before Silver Lake was a destination, Millie’s attracted a panoply of creeps, burnouts, losers, weirdos, addicts, ur-hipsters, punks, and, worst of all, literary types. The clientele has changed: You’re far more likely to see track pants than track marks. But the cafe, in the same nook near the corner of Sunset and Maltman since 1926, has continued to produce hearty, delicious meals at reasonable prices. The closet-sized kitchen, manned by balletic chefs Martin Garcia and Carlos Escobar, pumps out endless open faced omelets—“messes,” in both Millie’s parlance and appearance—pancakes, and biscuits. In a neighborhood overrun with flash-in-the-pan exercise trends, BMW station wagons, and Mid-Century Modern boutiques, Millie’s is an immovable rock.
At this little turquoise and white shack on the corner of Pico and 29th in Santa Monica biscuits and gravy cost a pittance: $1.85. For just $6.25, those hungry from weeks of toting a bindle and “riding the rails” can get the “Hobo Breakfast” of ham, bacon, sausage, and buttermilk hotcakes. Even better, Rae’s prides itself on the freshness of its ingredients. Owner Ted Delgado, who immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, and began working as a dishwasher at Rae’s in 1967, wakes up twice a week at four a.m. to buy produce for the restaurant. (Delgado also owns Teddy’s, about a mile east on Pico).
As of this writing, there are six homes listed on Zillow.com within a five block radius of Rae’s. The most expensive is $3.8 million; the “cheapest” is $1.2 million. For the price of the latter, one could buy roughly 219,780 “Club Breakfast” specials (tax included) at Rae’s. Its pricing and history are the diametric opposites of what Santa Monica—always more ritzy than Venice, but never a fully-fledged wealthy enclave—has become. There will always be a market for cheap breakfast, but, because of the 1999 Costa-Hawkins Rental Control Act, which allowed owners to raise rents when tenants move out, there’s unfortunately decreasing economic need for cheap goods in Santa Monica. In January of this year, the website Apartment Guide claimed that the median price for a Santa Monica one bedroom was $4800 per month. To paraphrase Rousseau, when the poor cannot access delicious dollar-eighty-five biscuits-n-gravy, they will eat the rich.