(photo by Ronald C Saari)
I was driving down La Cienega Blvd. when I noticed that they finally took down the "Ships Coffee Shop" sign. Of course, Ships closed years ago, but they kept the sign up even after they threw down the restaurant to build a used car lot. I figured they were going to always keep the sign up as a historic marker, much like they left up a piece of the Berlin Wall.
Ships holds a special place for me because when I moved to LA, I had my first Thanksgiving in Los Angeles there. I sat by myself, along with some other lonely guys eating their "Thanksgiving Day Specials." The waitress that night wasn’t especially friendly, but she was our "Mom" for the night. Although I don’t remember her smiling, she did bring me an extra dish of cranberry sauce.
I’ve had a lifelong attraction to coffee shops (or diners on the East Coast), but Ships was unique for one big reason: there was a toaster on every table. You toasted your own bread! When I saw that, I thought it was the cleverest gimmick I had ever seen. I used to come in just for coffee and toast, just for the pleasure of making my own toast! My toast always came out burnt, but hey, making it was exciting!
Ships was a prime example of the "Googie" 50’s-60’s style of architecture. Designed by Martin Stern Jr., Ships was famous for its Coffee Shop Modern style, from the restaurant itself to the spellbinding "space-age" marquee in front. There may be pseudo-50’s diners popping up all over the place nowadays, like Mel’s Diner, but they are nothing like the real thing. Sadly, there are only a few authentic ones left, including Pann’s near LAX. I bring my parents there whenever they fly in from NY. It’s one of my favorite places in Los Angeles, especially on a Sunday when people show up after church.
I’m not sure why I like coffee shops and diners so much. Maybe because they are simple places where the rich and poor, black and white, sit right next to each other. My father is a big coffee drinker and I started drinking coffee at an early age, despite my mother telling me that it would "stunt my growth."
In high school, I wasn’t much of a drinker or party guy. I actually never enjoyed the taste of beer. My typical Saturday night would be going to the movies with a friend or friends, and then heading for either the Hilltop Diner or the Palace Diner near Queens College. For the price of some fries and a coffee, you could sit there for three hours bullshitting about nothing, much like I do today with my blog. This is my new diner, only now I drink instant coffee.
Do kids today still hang out at diners? I know they go to Starbucks and coffee bars, but it just ain’t the same experience, especially if everyone at your Starbucks is the same age as you. It’s good education to rub shoulders with families, cops, workers, and drunkards, all sitting booth to booth. And half the fun of eating out is messing around with the waitress. Does anyone remember the unscrewing the top of the salt trick? Flipping off the Starbucks "barrista" just doesn’t give you the same thrill.
In college, I wrote half of my term papers at Tom’s Diner, made famous by Suzanne Vega and as a backdrop for Seinfeld’s diner (although the real place wasn’t half as interesting).
I would hang out there with friends, just like I did in Queens. The conversation may have been more cultural — arguing about Plato’s Republic, for instance, but basically it was the same bullshitting as it was in high school.
I added a whole new vocabulary when I came to Los Angeles: Norm’s, Du-par’s, Jan’s, and Canter’s (although that is technically a deli). Once I started dating, my coffee-shop outings lessened. What woman wants to be taken out to Norm’s? A couple of "hip" coffee shops opened in town, like "Swingers" on Beverly, but the hip concept sort of ruined it for me. You don’t really go to a coffee shop to be "seen."
When I was little, I used to love going with my mother to work because her office was in Union Square — right next door to Jason’s Coffee Shop, a really cool old-fashioned place.
In the late 80’s, as the area got more trendy, they gutted the place and renamed it "Coffee Shop." The waitresses were all model types. The customers were all twenty-three years old and my mother didn’t feel comfortable going there anymore. It may have been a cool place for awhile, but it never had the spirit of a real "coffee shop" — even if they did keep the old sign.
Debbie Harry frequents the Empire Diner, a Deco-era stalwart on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, said Donovan Low, the night manager there, while Mike Tyson was a regular at Chelsea Square. The Star on 18 Diner Café, on 10th Avenue between 17th and 18th Streets, draws a young crowd of mixed gay and straight groups; Cafeteria, Pop Burger, and Diner 24, on Eighth Avenue and 15th Street, attract a more self-consciously stylish crowd.
Sophia wasn’t a big fan of many coffee shops. She much preferred the Coffee Bean and classier joints or ethnic hole-in-the-walls. But now that I’m sort of a single man, I’ve started revisiting some of my old haunts. There’s no better place for a single guy to go for a cheap meal and friendly smile from a waitress.
Oh, by the way, I’m writing this at IHOP.