I made a map of Metro Los Angeles’s oldest extant eateries based on a piece written by Nikki Kreuzer for The Los Angeles Beat titled “Offbeat L.A.: The Oldest Surviving Los Angeles Restaurants… a Master List of the Vintage, Historic and Old School.” The Los Angeles Beat piece seems to have received a fair amount of feedback and also includes restaurants in Orange County and the Inland Empire. Many are not in their original locations and operating under a slightly different name but it’s still really interesting.
This map and article, however, are not endorsed or affiliated by the staff of The Los Angeles Beat. I am indebted to Kreuzer for her work, however, and for the additions provided by readers of The Los Angeles Beat.
What are the oldest restaurants, then? The one that generally is named the oldest is Saugus Café — or, officially, “the Original Saugus Café,” which is said to have opened in 1905. In reality, James Herbert Tolfree opened the Saugus Eating House in 1888, at the Southern Pacific Railroad‘s Saugus depot. In 1899, Martin and Richard R. Wood bought it and changed the name to Saugus Café. Martin opened a new location, across the tracks, in 1905. It was enlarged in 1925 and was afterward run by wife-and-husband Helen Wood-Cone and Bryon Cone. Clarence and Olive MacDougall ran it in the 1940s until it went out of business. In 1952, the building was purchased by Bill Rolls, who demolished it and opened the Original Saugus Café nearby. So, when really was the restaurant founded? 1952, 1905, 1899, or 1888? My guy tells me 1952 — but if you disagree, I won’t lose any sleep.
The three oldest Los Angeles restaurants still operating in their original locations, then, are:
1. Cole’s – Henry Cole opened his diner, called Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet, in January 1908, inside the Pacific Electric Building. The restaurant at some point began claiming to have been the birthplace of the French Dip sandwich, a culinary invention which began appearing on menus in the 1930s (and with pork rather than the now standard beef). The name of the restaurant was changed to Cole’s French Dip. In all likelihood, however, the invention was born at Philippe’s Restaurant, which was, unlike Cole’s, owned by a Frenchman.
2. The Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain – The pharmacy began life in 1915 as the South Pasadena Pharmacy, back when pharmacies operated back before soulless corporate pharmacy chains squeezed out the cozy, charming corner pharmacy which operated as third places for those too young or merely disinclined to hang out at bars. Like the pharmacies of old, it’s much more than a place merely to get prescriptions filled and there’s a full menu at the lunch counter.
3. Philippe the Original — Philippe and Arbin Mathieu opened a deli in late 1908 at 300 North Alameda Street in the now-vanished enclave of French Town. In 1911, they opened a more upscale establishment, the New Poodle Dog French Restaurant at 156 North Spring Street but it closed in 1913, after which they opened another deli at 617 North Alameda. In 1918, Philippe opened Philippe’s Restaurant at 246 Aliso Street. In 1925, it moved to 364 Aliso Street. In 1927, Mathieu sold the restaurant, bought it back a few months later, and then sold it to David and Harry Martin after which he retired. The craze for the “new” French Dip sandwich took off in the early 1930s. Mathieu claimed to have invented the sandwich and Philippe’s Restaurant was rebranded “Philippe the Original” around 1933. Over the years, the family and restaurant offered several versions of the French Dip’s origin story. In 1951, in order to make way for the consruction of the Hollywood Freeway, the Martin’s moved Philippe’s to it’s present location, in a former auto shop.
4. Musso & Frank Grill – Firmin “Frank” Toulet and and chef Jean Rue opened Frank’s François Café on Hollywood Boulevard in 1919. In 1923, Joseph Musso became a partner and it was renamed Musso & Frank Grill. In 1927, the restaurant was purchased from the original owners by Joseph Carissimi and John Mosso. In 1936, Musso & Frank expanded into the adjacent address at 6669 Hollywood Boulevard — still referred to as “the New Room” by staff and regulars.
5. Pacific Dining Car – Fred and Grace Cook established Pacific Dining Car in 1921, behind a friend’s home. Inspired by then-popular rail car restaurants, the Cooks had a restaurant built inside a modified dining car. A restaurant built to resemble a dining car — albeit much larger — was built in Westlake and became the restaurant’s new home in 1923. Fred Cook died in 1947 and Grace Cook ran it until 1967, when she sold it to her daughter, Virginia, and her husband Wes Idol. Wes Idol II purchased it from his mother in 1975.
Some of the restaurants I like a lot — especially the old checkered tablecloth Italian places that send Gordon Ramsay into conniptions. Many, though, are relics of an era when vegetarians like myself were regarded as morally louche and thus subjected to the cucking stool, pillory, or worse. Their meat-eating peers, meanwhile, feasted on exotic grotesqueries like tuna Jell-o, ham and bananas hollandaise, and beef suet and in some cases the menus still cater to these inscrutable, antiquated palates. Inclusion on the map, in other words, is based only upon age is neither an endorsement of quality nor renouncement. Besides, even the restaurants at which I may never eat are still important for their architecture, decor, neon or incandescent signage, mascots, history, and general documentary truths, so bon appetit!