Since 1921

Our History

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…

Pacific Dining Car - the original train car in 1921
The Original Dining Car

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.”

Fred & Grace

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.”

Club Car Addition

Con­tin­ued Growth

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

Shock­ing.

Wes Idol I & Wes Idol II on cattle ranch

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.

Grace & Virginia, 2 generations in

The 1930s

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.

Original Sign Art

The 1940s

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.

3 Generations In: Wesley Idol II, Virginia Idol & Wesley Idol I

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.


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