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Best Retro Diners

The booths are deep, the service is snappy, and the mugs stay full at these quintessential American eateries

Photograph by John Eng

There are only a handful of honest-to-goodness railcar diners in L.A. (the reopening of Phil’s in North Hollywood this month means there’s one more). But the term has come to embrace any convivial greasy spoon with hangover-busting sustenance and firecracker waitresses. A diner’s counter has long been one of the few respites for solo eaters: It’s a place to linger, whatever the time of day, with a newspaper, a cup of joe, and a slice of pie. A good diner should dole out comfort as liberally as it does gravy over biscuits—with a side of three eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns. 

Time Machines
The only thing more eye-catching than the space age architecture at Pann’s (6710 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester, 323-776-3770) is the array of elaborate church hats popping up from the red vinyl booths on Sundays. Armet & Davis—dubbed “the Frank Lloyd Wright of coffee shops”—designed this Googie gem in 1958, and it has since become a preflight ritual for the LAX bound. The kitchen whips up the city’s fluffiest biscuits, its richest sausage gravy (best when smothering a country-fried steak), and a plate of chicken and waffles that tops Roscoe’s (let the letter-writing commence).

» There’s not a whole lot that’s still original at the Original Farmers Market. Du-par’s (6333 W. 3rd St., L.A., 323-933-8446), however, has been slinging pies at 3rd and Fairfax for more than 70 years. The food at the charming landmark has slipped a tad since the old days, but we can’t help feeling like a part of history when eating a mile-high slice of coconut cream in a shiny maroon banquette. 

Today’s Special
That a former burlesque house on skid row has become a foodie destination says as much about the evolution of downtown as it does the menu at Nickel Diner (524 S. Main St., downtown, 213-623-8301). Yes, the famous bacon doughnut made its local debut here, but the spiffy joint—featuring a restored mural that proclaims This Is The Place—offers equally wanton pulled-pork hash and brioche French toast, along with an eggy cure-all called “Hangover Helper.”

» On any given night at the 101 coffee shop (6145 Franklin Ave., Hollywood, 323-467-1175), the brown leather stools might be filled with squeaky-clean tots, some off-work exotic dancers, or Justin Timberlake and entourage. Chef Brandon Boudet (Dominick’s, Little Dom’s) revamped the menu at the Formica paradise a few years ago, introducing satisfying slabs of meat loaf with mashed potatoes (skins on, of course), blackened catfish and eggs, and soda fountain treats like a root beer float and a nut-and-honey shake with peanut butter. 

Classic Havens
If the test of a chef is how well he or she cooks an egg, the short-order crew at Ed’s Coffee Shop (460 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-659-8625) is among the city’s finest. Almost in spite of its trendy locale, Ed’s remains unchic thanks to rickety gray chairs, cement floors that have seen better days, and an overall look that says, “Sit down and eat already!” Old-timers, gym rats, and high-end retail employees kick back with eggs Florentine, roast beef hash, or short stacks. Ed’s also pours the stiffest diner coffee in town.

» The 1950s neon sign at Rae’s Restaurant (2901 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, 310-828-7937) hints at the mint green walls and tiered midcentury light fixtures inside. But the crackling griddle is the main attraction, putting that certain crispy something on hash browns, tuna melts, and quarter-pound patties. 

Neighborhood Staples
If you’ve been to Patys Restaurant (10001 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, 818-761-0041) even once, there’s a good chance the servers will remember your name and how you like your eggs. Since 1960, locals and studio workers have waited for a worn green booth and a Monte Cristo sandwich.

» The neon lights beneath the cauldron-shaped sign at The Kettle (1138 Highland Ave., Manhattan Beach, 310-545-8511) beam the words Open All Night, and that’s nice to know when you need French onion soup at 2 a.m. The look of this South Bay hang is less surf shack, more ’70s hofbräu, with a low wood counter and bunnies and turtles carved into the burgundy booths. It’s the ideal place to munch a walnut turkey salad sandwich on cinnamon raisin bread with a bowl.