The Original Pantry Cafe
877 South Figueroa Street, Los Angeles, CA (at W 9th Street; map); 213-972-9279; pantrycafe.com
The Short Order: Eight-ounce griddle-cooked burger with great beef but on the wrong bread
Want Fries with That? Comes with excellent, crispy, skin-on fries
Price: The Pantry Burger $10.95
The Pantry is technically called The Original Pantry Cafe, but I refuse to call it that as I have yet to find another Pantry that is older than this one, which dates back to 1924.
Located in a rather dodgy part of downtown Los Angeles, The Pantry is the quintessential greasy spoon. Remarkably, it has never closed, remaining open every hour of every day since 1924. Even when they moved to their current location back in 1950 they stayed open by serving lunch at the old restaurant and dinner in the new one. There are no locks on The Pantry doors. My waitress told me that once during a blackout following an earthquake they continued to serve patrons by candle light—it was probably the closest any meal here came to being romantic.
Always Open and Never Changing
Being open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for over 80 years has its benefits and and its drawbacks. Certainly the restaurant's longevity is an indication that they must be doing something right, whether that is offering good value, good food, or a combination of both. A late night visit on a random weekday invariably finds the restaurant more than half full, and early on weekend mornings for brunch, a line forms down James M. Wood Boulevard.
But one of the downsides of never closing is that it becomes difficult to actually change either the decor or the menu much. The metal kitchen counters, which must have once gleamed with optimism, now bare only a dull sheen, betraying decades of wear and tear. So do the necessarily broad tables that line the dinning room—"necessarily broad" because the food portions at The Pantry are simply enormous, spilling off the plates and on to the tired, yellowing Formica. Even before you order your food, a loaf of bread so large that it could possibly feed the 5,000 is deposited on your table.
Meat, Meat, and More Meat
Heaping plates of coleslaw accompany most anything you order here. It is wonderful stuff, possessing perfect amounts of crunch and tang, subtly infused with caraway seed. Otherwise, the menu takes a Luddite approach to nutrition dominated by meat and starchy vegetables. There are no menus; instead, signs throughout the room list the steaks and chops and chalk boards above them list the specials. They offer no respite from meat—short ribs, chicken fried steak, beef stew—and as they sell out they get crossed off the board. It doesn't look like the menu boards have been changed for decades; they are simply amended with orange stickers to update the prices.
The Beef is Great, but the Bread and Sauce Are Not
The Pantry burger ($10.95) is eight ounces of very coarse, fresh, not frozen sirloin that is ground in-house daily. The oval patty is flattened out enough to almost spill out of the two slices of crispy bread that encase it. The beef has a wonderful flavor evoking what is actually ground steak. Griddle-cooked, it has a charred crust and was delivered perfectly rare, the inside having a glorious deep red hue.
The burger in its present form—with bread—is a relatively new development. "It has only been on the menu for about three years," my waitress informed me. Before that, it was served simply as what most people would recognize as a chopped steak (or a hamburger steak), but was always referred to as a burger on the menu. Even now I am not sure if what The Pantry serves is really a hamburger, as they use white slices that appear to be griddle fried. The bread is supremely crispy, but, while delicious in other situations, isn't so great when used in a hamburger.
If the bread they had chosen was a generic spongy white roll this could have been one of the best hamburgers I have ever eaten just because of the delicious beef. Unfortunately, the experience was somewhat sullied by the bread and the addition of a watery barbecue sauce—think Open Pit—that was completely superfluous on the burger. On the bright side, the American cheese was perfectly melted and in the perfect proportion, adding the right amount of tang. If you order the burger here be sure ask for it without the sauce. The burger comes with the aforementioned coleslaw and an extremely generous portion of excellent fries—long, crispy, skin on fries with a fluffy interior and genuine potato flavor, as opposed to the flavor of the frying oil.
I recommend visiting The Pantry if you get the chance because it is a unique experience, a genuine piece of Americana. If you get the Pantry burger be prepared to eat what you might consider a shuttle burger, a patty melt, or a hamburger sandwich—a burger served on toast. I have to say that without the barbecue sauce it is the best hamburger sandwich I have ever had by virtue of the superb beef alone. But had it been served on a white bun, it could have been one of the best hamburgers I have ever had.