1921 – That’s When It All Started
The Pacific Dining Car was born in a railway train car parked on a rented lot in downtown Los Angeles and continues to be family-run for 4 generations…
1921, It was a very good year for the busy city of Los Angeles, and all of Southern California. It started with a good omen. The California Bears soundly defeated Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, to the delight of the local newspapers, who scornfully declared that the Ohio team wasn’t even in the same league as ” Our Boys.”
New oil fields were virtually an every-year discovery in the basin, but June 1921 brought in the kind of find every wildcatter dreams about: the gushing riches of Signal Hill.
It was the heyday of the ” Red Car.” Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric Company ambitiously laid tracks all over Southern California, boasting over 1,200 miles of railways by the mid-twenties. Shrill trolley whistles were an ubiquitous sound throughout the southland, as the little cars careened along at 45 to 55 miles an hour, delivering passengers, mail and morning papers. And Angels Flight was in fine feather, carrying hundreds of delighted passengers every day.
Land speculation was booming and reached its frenzied peak in ‘ 24, going bust in ‘ 25. The Los Angeles census zoomed from an official 576,000 in 1920 to an estimated one million in 1924. Of that, more than 43,000 were real estate agents, prompting Will Rogers to observe, “Why, they are thick as bootleggers. Your having no money don’t bother them, if they can just get a couple of dollars, or an old overcoat, or a shotgun. Anything for a first downpayment.”
Los Angeles was building, Memorial Coliseum was completed, the Hollywood Bowl under construction. On Wilshire Boulevard, the Ambassador Hotel opened, grandly advertised as “the house of a thousand rooms.”
Growth & The Second Generation
Fred didn’t start out to be in the restaurant business at all. As a promising young tenor, he had understudied the great Caruso, and his dreams were of grand opera. But the voice failed early, and he and Grace left the east coast to settle in Southern California. They brought with them the germ of an idea from a dining spot owned by a colorful Irishman in New York, where they had dined in an authentic railway dining car, remodeled as a restaurant.
Fred and Grace, or “Lovey” as she was known to friends, family, and soon nearly the whole city, decided to build a replica of a dining car to their own specifications. A German friend named Kline loaned them the use of his back yard for the project, and another friend, “Shorty,” started construction under a giant fig tree.
Fred and Lovey felt that the real dining cars were too cramped, so they added space by building their own car a little larger, with a long counter, and rooms for tables and chairs in back of it, and of course, the steel wheels to move it from one location to another. When it was completed, they rented a site at 7th and Westlake, and moved the car in the dead of night to avoid busy traffic.
The little restaurant soon became one of the most popular dining spots in the area. Its menu featured good, hearty standard fare for its times. Seven days a week, long before the 4 pm opening, savory aromas floated from Lovey’s orderly kitchen. Sturdy vegetable soup, a tangy steak sauce of their own invention, pies with crusts so flaky they literally melted in the mouth, and an especially popular apple filling all rapidly became city favorites. Virginia, Lovey’s daughter, reminisces, “She made the most incredible pies. What a pity it isn’t an inherited feature. No one had Lovey’s light touch with a crust, and no matter how hard I tried, it’s an art form that escaped me.”
As the land boom reached crazed proportions of trade, sell and buy, the location at 7th and Westlake was snapped up by one of the speculators, and Pacific Dining Car was forced to move in 1923. It was just a short jaunt uptown, to 6th and Witmer, but in such uncertain times, with the feverish exchange of any scrap of property, those steel wheels were reassuring insurance against “lost-our-lease.” It was a relatively simple matter to pack up everything and move to any other convenient location.
The wheels never turned again. PDC stands in the same spot today, so many, many years later. When the lot eventually came up for sale, Fred and Lovey bought. But in the meantime, they rented and set about building a flourishing dinner trade.
Lines started growing just before the 4 pm opening time, as the downtown crowd told each other about Lovey’s ambrosial pies, and Fred’s sure hand on the grill. Reservations were unheard of, largely due to a lack of a telephone. But, what the heck, if you really had to make a phone call, there was always the public booth at Perley’s Standard Oil Station next door. Business was so good, Fred and Lovey hired a waitress to help out. Jane Brown joined the family and stayed a while. About 25 years.
Hot muggy dog days in Los Angeles offered little opportunity for relief in the 20’s, and dining out at a closed-in restaurant wasn’t the most popular pastime. So PDC opened seven days a week, nine months of the year. During the hottest weather, the summer sign went up, and everyone took off for a three-month vacation. The language on the sign was so daring for its time, it made newspapers as far east as Chicago and New York. Fastened across the front doors, it trumpeted:
Too D. hot in L.A. Gone Fishing. Why the H. don’t you go, too?
– Fred and Grace
Prime, Aged Cuts of Beef
In 1927, one of the customers offered to teach Fred all he knew about selecting exactly the best kind of beef and how it should be hung and aged. Since this Mr. Hardy was a rancher from San Diego, Fred figured he probably knew what he was beefing about. So, next trip to the Abbatoir, Hardy instructed Fred on picking out the finest cuts of prime, and how it should hang to age properly for the best flavor and tenderest texture, in the aging boxes there. These prime savory steaks made an instant hit with the customers. Naturally this kind of success was noticed. What Fred and Lovey noticed was that their prime PDC choices were disappearing before they could get to the mouths of PDC diners. Not in the line of thievery, you understand. More like a little gentle hijacking. Their reputation for choosing the very best and tastiest of steaks had certainly caught someone’s attention.
While this was flattering, it was also frustrating. Fred and Lovey solved it by putting in their own curing box, and transporting their prime beef directly to PDC for hanging and aging. One of the fine traditions that has carried through to the present day at Pacific Dining Car is this personal selection and on-the-premises aging of the best prime Eastern beef.
Throughout the twenties and thirties the menu remained relatively simple, appealing to the basic appetite for steak and fries. Prices started at 65 cents for the Pacific Dining Car special sirloin, up to a dollar for T-bones, buck-and-a-half for filet, and the bank-buster double sirloin went for $3.75. All considered quite dear in the twenties.
And remember, salad, running 25 to 35 cents, was a la carte, as was a large baked potato at yet another 25 cents. Coffee was 10 cents a cup, and those famous home-made pies could add 15 or 20 cents to the tab. Now, if a fashionable young man wished to fling his money about and impress a date by going for the most expensive a deux combination, he could blow a whole $5.55, not counting gratuities. At least in those prohibition days, he didn’t have to shell out for a couple of pre-dinner cocktails. Unless he’d already visited one of the local speaks.
The 20’s were good times for Los Angeles and Pacific Dining Car, but the gloomy thirties tested everyone’s ability to survive.
1929’s stock market collapse didn’t immediately affect the west coast, but by the late 1930’s, Southern California showed a higher bankruptcy rate than any other section of the country. 1932 elected a new president, Franklin Roosevelt, and brought the Tenth Olympiad to Los Angeles. 1933 was a year of myriad crises with Roosevelt declaring a bank holiday to restore some kind of fiscal order, the passage of the 21st amendment ending prohibition, and on March 10th a rolling, shattering earthquake, centered in Long Beach, left over 100 dead in Southern California.
Pacific Dining Car struggled though lean days. Lovey’s daughter, Virginia, had returned to finish her education on the east coast, and married an energetic young electrical contractor, Wes Idol. They moved to California, searching for better opportunities.
Wes had one thing in common with Fred Cook — he certainly had no plans to ever enter the restaurant business. But an evening’s crisis brought a request for help, temporarily, so Wes started in the kitchen. It was the beginning of a successful lifetime career for him and Virginia. She helped out those days as hostess and cashier in the evenings.
Virginia remembers those times. “We’d have at least three or four people a day asking for any kind of work, or just a meal. Lovey would always tell them, ‘Come back at nine. That’s when staff eats, and you’re welcome to a free meal with us.’ Many of them did, and then Fred and Lovey would take whatever was left over in the kitchen down to the mission.”
Gradually, times returned to a semblance of normal or people just got used to being broke. With prohibition’s end, a tiny three-stool bar was added, just past and around the corner from the counter. In 1935 Wes Idol figured it was as good a time as any to start a business, and took over the running of a new venture, Cook’s Steak House downtown.
As business began to pick up and bring back some of the crowds, Fred and Lovey added an extension to PDC, with more dining tables and a more spacious bar in the late 30’s.
It was a gathering spot for all the downtown trade. Hustlers rubbed elbows with stock brokers at the counter, and certain well-endowed ladies of the area gently started their evening with a sustaining steak. Gamblers and newspaper reporters, lawyers and city officials waited democratically in line for their favorite counter or table seat, and waitressing by Jane Brown.
Every evening brought a sprinkling of the famous or notorious personalities of the day. Louella Parsons was a regular, with her husband, Dr. Martin, and George Raft or Sid Ziff frequently stopped in for dinner. When Mickey Cohen and bodyguard dined, other guests tended to finish dinner and fade away, but Mae West and bodyguard guaranteed quickly concealed admiring stares. Good manners at PDC dictated that even the most famous should be able to enjoy a leisurely dinner without unseemly interruptions. Another fine tradition that has persisted throughout the years.
The 1940 Los Angeles census placed the population at just under a million and a half, and growing rapidly. In December of that year, the Arroyo Seco Parkway linked Los Angeles and Pasadena, causing Bob Hope to quip that now California drivers can get to their accidents sooner. A hard-fought battle was lost by downtown merchants when a causeway built through Westlake Park opened Wilshire Boulevard to through traffic. And then the fervor of patriotism renamed the park to honor a general having a few problems out in the Pacific. For some disgruntled Angelenos, MacArthur Park will always be Westlake Park, and the old battle resurfaces every now and again.
Gearing for war disrupted the economy of the entire country, and created special problems for restaurants. Virginia Idol helped Fred and Lovey at the Dining Car, many times taking along her own young son, Wes Idol II. Wes Sr. joined the army and by some twist of incredible fate actually ended up doing his civilian job as a mess officer. Hectic years, the 40’s. Virginia remembers that they scraped along on make-do, substitute and ersatz, and served a lot of chicken at the steak house.
When the war was over, Fred added a barbecue stand to the front of the lot, catering to the meat-hungry take-out crowd. 1947 brought grief to the Cook family, with the passing of Fred. Lovey just worked a little harder. She had the upper floors over the restaurant made into an apartment, moved in, and continued her normal seven-day week, nine-month year.
The 1950s and Into The ’60s
The 1950’s passed quickly, with a dearth of customers, until they got bored with their new television sets and came blinking out to dinner again. By this time Lovey was almost as well known as some of her famous customers, and earned city-wide recognition with commendations for her civic efforts from the mayor and city organizations. But after all, counting up the birthdays to 80, one does begin to slow down just a little. So in 1960, she asked Wes Sr. and Virginia if they were interested in buying Pacific Dining Car, to add to their previous purchase of Cook’s.
Grace Cook, fiercely independent as she was, finally had to concede to the frailties that one’s 80’s can bring, and shared her remaining years with her daughter and son-in-law. Virginia remembers that after Lovey’s death at the age of 90, there were cards and calls from every part of the country, hundreds of condolences from friends and customers at the passing such a grand lady.
In 1960, while Wes Sr. and Virginia were contemplating the purchase of Pacific Dining Car, Wes Idol II returned to Southern California after his service in the army. In common with Fred Cook and Wes Sr., he hadn’t the slightest intention of entering the restaurant business. Especially with first-hand experience of the all-consuming job it could be.
However… father and son talked over the management of Pacific Dining Car, and young Wes II began serving his apprenticeship. Just before Memorial Day, 1960, the two Idols closed the Dining Car for the traditional summer vacation. Then, starting from the counter, outward, they remodeled the whole place and had it opened again in a mere three weeks. Discarding some of the accoutrements that “just grew” during the lacks of the 40’s and the slow 50’s, they recarpeted, refurbished, and installed air conditioning. The barbecue stand came down in ’61.
What did the customers say? …virtually all of them were absolutely delighted with the new decor, the more comfortable air-conditioned dining. But, as can be expected with any change, good or bad, a few bitterly complained that “you’ve ruined our restaurant,” and (one suspects) harrumphed back to thumping for the re-re-naming of MacArthur Park.
The 1960’s Through The End Of The Millennium
Traditionally, in the ’60’s California restaurants served a few good California wines, but not too many. Imported wines were not only a rarity, they were a mystery to the majority of diners. But in 1964, Wes II could see some handwriting on the cellar wall. So he visited the fine wineries of France and Germany, educating his own palate, buying at first hand from the grand and small European houses. His first trip formed the nucleus of what has become one of the widest selections of great imported and domestic wines in the city.
When his father died in 1970, Wes II carried on the family tradition, and purchased the restaurants from his mother in ’75. He began an extensive remodeling period, giving the Dining Car its present ambience of quietly handsome elegance. Realizing that the diners of the late 70’s were becoming much more conscious of calories, cholesterol and delicate nuances of flavor, he did further research, adding still wider selections of veal and fresh seafood. On the solid base of the fine steak house which offers its traditionally aged-on-the-premises prime Eastern beef, Pacific Dining Car presently also appeals to those who appreciate a greater range of dining experiences.
In October, 1990 another Pacific Dining Car opened in Santa Monica. In both locations, the Dining Car’s hospitable features gladden the hearts of regulars and tourists. Breakfasts allow business people to make their transition to the working day more easily, waking gradually to their Journal, sipping steamy fresh coffee, savoring creamy omelettes or house specialties such as Eggs Blackstone.
Lunch and dinner feature a wide selection of the freshest seafoods in season, tender meticulously prepared veal, magnificent steaks and, of course, the tangy original steak sauce… all available much past the usual restaurant closing times. For late dining, the apres theatre group has discovered the Dining Car for a light repast, an early morning breakfast or a full dinner.
The full 24-hour serving day at both Pacific Dining Car locations is unique for fine restaurants. It marks the first time that downtowners and Santa Monica residents have a real alternative in late-night dining. And it also gives the earliest business person a start on the day in luxurious surroundings, with caring service for a superb breakfast.
Los Angeles and Pacific Dining Car have come through good times, bad times, boom times and bust times together. The fine traditions go on, with change remaining a constant, quality an assurance, and a delightful dining adventure to be anticipated with every visit.
Oh, yes, one almost forgets. They did add telephones quite some years back. And they do take reservations. Some traditions were made to be broken.