Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Ode to the Coffee Shop

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(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!  

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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.

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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). 

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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."

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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. 

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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. 

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LadyMathematician recently sent me a NY Times article about life in the trendy Lower West Side, where some coffee shops are getting so hip that they are employing bouncers and using velvet ropes.

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 CafΓ©, 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.

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60 Comments

  1. Where does Denny’s fit in to all of this?

  2. In Baltimore (inside and on the outskirts), there are a couple of really good old diners left. They haven’t changed much. Some of them have had the same waitress for 35 years or more! The pancakes are always good and the coffee is always weak, but when I go home, I try to go to at least one.

    I love old signs. It’s awful when they are taken down. I thought that a good idea for a coffee table book (and I’m sure it already exists) would be to take photos of old signs all over the country. I have a bunch from Las Vegas that I love.

  3. I liked the movie “The Kidd” with Bruce Willis partially because of the cool diner that kept popping up everywhere.

  4. A simple and sweet post. Thanks!

    And Neil…THIS is the stuff that personal essays are made of; you can scrap that Scientology shtick.

  5. Do you know that Starbucks was a big flop and 17 million shekel write off here in Israel? Now they’re coming back to try again … it’s probably a big waste of energy – Israelis aren’t really latte types – they like their coffee very strong!

  6. I think this is my favorite post of yours since I started reading.
    I grew up in South Jersey, land of diners (most right off the circle… Jersey reference).
    Philly diners are great too… my mom’s favorite place for our Sunday breakfasts is the South Street diner and when I lived in South Philly, the Melrose was (still is) an institution.
    And although IHOP is a chain, any place that brings me a “hobble” of coffee holds a special place in my rapidly beating heart.

  7. Wow, random fact of the day. I had no idea the Seinfeld diner and the diner from the Suzanne Vega song are the same place. Thanks, Neil. πŸ™‚

  8. YAY! i love this post. finally something about which i can speak intelligently. the coffee shop is insane. always packed. and always pretentious. but still always good. and yes, i think that kids, at least in NJ, the home of the 24 hour diner, still hang out there late night. at least i would like to think so. i don’t want to think i have been out of high school for that long. but in reality i have.

  9. Neil…I can’t tell you how many nights I spent at Ships (in Westwood)burning my own toast! And Du-Pars…every Friday night in high school…walk around Westwood (over and over and over)and then off to Dupars in Encino. (now Jerry’s Deli…BLAH!). Kids do not hang out in coffee shops like we did. Starbucks just isn’t the same…they don’t have Bertha the waitress, whose been working for 30 years…knows everyone’s name. LOVE THIS POST!!!

  10. Coffee shops and diners are my favorite places. The cheap breakfast, the surly or friendly waitress, the formica tables, the counter service…I love everything about it. There are very few old diners in DC, but I remember going to an excellent one in LA years ago…I don’t recall the name, unfortunately.

  11. Great post, Neil. My mom worked at the old diners and they hold a unique memory for me.
    I’m not a huge coffee drinker, but every now and then love to stop for some frothy-mocha like concoction, but Starbucks is always so crowded and rushed. Hate it.

  12. Anne — Denny’s and Bob’s Big Boy are what we call in the coffee shop biz as “second-rate.” And Denny’s hash browns are the WORST!

    M.A. — Baltimore, home of Barry Levinson’s “Diner”!

    Josia — I remember reading about Starbucks and Israel. You ever drink real Turkish coffee where it is so strong it feels like you brain is opening up?

    Amanda — Have you been to any of those downtown coffee shops that have velvet ropes on Saturday night? Too funny!

    ACG — You’re right about IHOP. It is not in the same league as family owned places (but not as crappy as Denny’s). Although I do have a fondness for that thermos of coffee they put on the table and their pancake selection is authentically corny enough to be interesting. And, most importantly, I live two blocks away from one.

  13. I was at the Penrose Diner in South Philly yesterday, and after that meal was contemplating writing a post about diners/coffee shops, and here you’ve done it for me! Philly has some great ones, including the Melrose (which Anonymous City Girl mentioned), the Oregon Diner and the Broad Street Diner. There are also some out in the Northeast which are fun.

  14. I love Swingers, but mainly because it’s one of the few places in LA you can get food at 2 a.m.

  15. IHOP left Cleveland many years ago and I was so happy to see ’em all over when I moved to Texas. Every now and then their chocolate-chip pancakes are a MUST!!

  16. Marisa… Silk Cily makes the most amazing blueberry pie ever!

  17. And the Waffle House.
    When I lived in FLA there was nothing like hitting the all night Waffle House. One row of booths attached to the counter so the waitresses never had to come out from behind the counter to serve anyone.
    You always felt a little sticky after eating there.
    The HashBrowns… Scatter, smoother, and covered! mmmmmm…
    OH OH! and the jukebox… all songs about waffles and potatos.

  18. what i think is funny is the happening “Coffee Shop” you mentioned in n.y. now has sidewalk seating; so people stand on line for an hour to sit outside in the 90 and 95 degree weather to be “seen” instead of inside where it is air conditioned. who do they expect to see them on 16th street?

  19. we used to hang at denny’s back in high school and junior college. we didn’t really have any cool coffee shops where i grew up. well, there was one but it was sketchy and probably was owned by the mob. now where i live, we don’t even have an IHOP. i am forced to make my own pancakes.

    wait a sec, you drink INSTANT coffee? that seems wrong. just plain wrong!

  20. Ships was a special place to me. I spent many hours at La Cienega park. My grandparents lived just a quarter block down from Ships and as a little boy that sign told me that it was time for fun with them and at the park.

    And every so often they would take me to Ships.

    Cruisin Mom,

    That Du-pars in Encino is long gone, as is Loves and The Copper Penny, but I remember them all so well.

  21. Jack, Yep, that Dupars is Jerry’s Deli…Do you remember Corky’s on Van Nuys Blvd, or Tiny Naylor’s in Encino? Another great…Nibblers… And, thanks for jogging my memory to the Copper Penny!!!
    Neil, your next post should be on Cafeteria’s of the 60’s (Ontra Cafeteria, Cliftons Cafeteria…another great tradition gone by the wayside)
    Of course, were you even born yet?!

  22. In Eagle Rock, it’s Cindy’s; in Glendale, it’s The Toasted Bun and you can make your own toast at Foxy’s on Colorado in Glendale.

  23. Thanks for reminding me to try Pann’s!

    Back in Chicago we had Omega, where if you ordered an entree, they would bring out this enormous bread basket with 20 different kinds of rolls in it. The trick was to order coffee, then wait for someone to vacate their table and surreptitiously nab their leftover 19 dinner rolls.

    In Urbana, we had Steak and Shake, who taught me that “Toast is just toast, but grilled bread is full of character.”

  24. Just realized…you Americans, notably Californians, are such name-droppers.
    You can each relate to one another with these places — hate to say it, but I’m a tad jealous, living here in “Hollywood North” without any of these great diners/coffee shops to be had. The only notable one, which changed its face over the years (and perhaps, if that, only one coffee shop of the chain remains), is Fran’s. Any readers who can relate to Fran’s? Don’t all say “YEAH!!” at once, now…

  25. I can’t believe you drink instant coffee.

  26. Man, I miss Ships. Pann’s isn’t bad and I like Paty’s in Toluca Lake. (What’s up with the oddly-spelled diner names, anyway? Johnie’s? Too much scratch for the extra consonant?)

    I grew up on O’Connell’s, a venerable Near North Side hangout, and had my one-and-only night in the food service industry at the B/G diner in Evanston. While I wouldn’t want to eat diner food all the time (I might never move my bowels again), there’s something about a cheeseburger with crinkle-cut fries and a shake. These kids today, they don’t know what they’re missing.

    Great walk down memory lane.

    Ohβ€”and Norm’s sucks.

  27. When I was in high school, well nigh 12 to 16 years ago, we also spent quite a lot of time in diners. We drank, especially the last year, sure; but the truth is that we were a nerdy lot, and enjoyed studying, and the constant caffiene and quiet atmosphere was just right for us. Most of our diner/coffeeshops we went to in Texas were less 50s style, rather than ragtag independent establishments.

    In college we spent our fair share of time at IHOP. I’m not sure how that fits in, but I guess it does, sort of. There was also one in downtown Boston, the Blue Diner, which we enjoyed after a night out, but unfortunately it isn’t there anymore.

  28. Pants — I need to stop being lazy and make some real coffee.

    I’m not sure why I found this interesting — a photo collection of physics brainiacs from Caltech studying in their local IHOP —

    http://www.physicschick.com/pics/ihop/ihop.html

  29. Childhood memories aside (which is a sacred ground for everyone, of course) I can’t fathom what is it so special in these diners? Horrible design, food even worse, greesy kitchen smells combined with stench from the vinyl upholstery. Oh, and the most uncomfortable bar seats, usually bolted to the floor so you’re too far from the eating surface and guaranteed to embarass you have unwashable stains.

    And how coffee shop get confused for a diner, tell me? When I hear “coffee shop”, two varietis come to mind: Amsterdam item, which is not a place to order coffee, and the small place, 3-4 tables inside and may be 4 more outside, serving coffee, liquors, cigarettes and pastries. Mmmm, a bica with the almond tart and a cigarette, hot afternoon, gorgeous people rushing by, letting you relax your mind and just admire…

  30. Oh, and Neil: instant coffee?

    I’m afraid, you just did irretrievable damage to your reputation. Much worse than the hole-confusion issue.

  31. I worked at a diner during the summers in college. It was an awesome job. If it paid more I would have done it forever. What other job are you encouraged to stand around smoking cigarettes (not that I do that) and chatting with the regulars? Plus I got all my meals for free. Most of the other waitresses had been there forever, and are there everytime I go back.

  32. I got my finger caught in the door at Tiny Naylors. I was 7 and boy did I scream, you should have seen the look on the manager’s face.

    I know Nibblers well. How about Dolores.

    Anyone up for a bite at Titos or Johnnies. πŸ˜‰

  33. Julie’s blog (link off my page) talks about the Formosa Cafe out at one of the movie studios there…

  34. with this walk down memory lane about diners, does anyone know if any of those “automat” diners are still around?
    The kind in the old movies were they get the food from a bunch of little doors along the wall.

  35. Oh yeah, I’m a coffee shop addict as well. I do 90% of my writing here, at Port City Java, or at the funky downtown Indigenous Tea Room or the pierced and tattooed capital of Asheville: Beanstreets.

    Great post, Neil.

  36. ACG,
    the last one closed in 1991. They were really cool. here’s a photo of one, in case people don’t know what we’re talking about:

    http://www.mcny.org/collections/abbott/a069.htm

  37. 1991… that stinks… the same year i graduated high school… i didn’t know anything about them back then.

  38. Love the NYC diner review! So true about Coffee Shop – food is seriously sub-par in my opinion. Ever go to Veselka in E. Village on 9th St. & 2nd Ave.? It’s one of my faves! I judge all diners by the tastiness of their Belgian Waffles…Veselka is definitely up there. They also make killer borscht soup!

  39. Automats are still a big thing in Amsterdam. The main chain is called Febo, and they are de lekkerste.

  40. Instant coffee, Neil??? Come on, now! What has taken hold of you? Is this what happens to coffee when you’re seperated?!

  41. Neil, how did you find pictures of my physics brainiac friends and I at IHOP? Just kidding, I’ve never been to IHOP and I sure as hell don’t know anything about physics.

  42. Bad Maria, I lived in Eagle Rock until I was almost 9 years old, I remember Cindy’s! One night my mom burned dinner, and we went over there to have burgers, but she brought the string beans, the only surviving remnant of the meal she had been cooking. So there we were, eating our burgers with a little blue pot of string beans on the table with us.

    Anonymous City Girl, somehow I’ve never made it to Silk City. I know, this is a serious lapse in my Philly experience.

  43. For some reason both my favorite diners are named after the highway they’re on: The 59 Diner and the 29 Dinder. And they both have 9s in their name. We have a lot of kookie diner type places here but they’re always too busy to dawdle with the paper.

    For me it’s not the coffee. It’s food and the noise.

  44. I adore diners. In college, we went to ingest as much fat as possible (I remember drenching fries in Ranch dressing)…and now, I guess it’s not all that different! I’m not sure what it is, but when I walk into a diner for brunch (or whatever), I feel no guilt whatsoever about consuming about a month’s worth of calories…yum.

    This is making me want sausage links and a milkshake…

  45. What I’m finding interesting is that I think there are geographical and personal differences over what a diner represents to them. I noticed a few people mentioned burgers and milkshakes. You wouldn’t catch me dead eating a burger or milkshake at most coffee shops. In fact, most food (besides breakfast) is awful at these places, but that is besides the point. I would eat a burger at a burger joint (Tommy’s) or even a coffee shop known for their burgers (Bob’s Big Boy) or a milkshake at an ice cream parlor — jeez I sound like I should be living in “Happy Days.” At a coffee shop, I’m more of a eggs and toast, tuna fish sandwich, maybe “Greek” entree if the owner is Greek (mostly NY thing), stale pie, or turkey dinner special (with French dressing on the side) type of guy. But lately I’ve been ordering egg whites for breakfast. And can you believe my local IHOP has free internet access?! Although I once tried blogging there and was to afraid of spilling the blueberry syrup onto my Presario, so I haven’t brought it back since.

  46. Our old fashioned coffee shop burned down recently. I’m totally in mourning. I understand your pain.

  47. Yes, I do eat at diners…mostly to get a greasy breakfast of eggs (over easy), side of bacon, hash browns, and some toast. I love the diners in Hawaii though because you can get a side of rice and some soy sauce with your eggs, bacon, and potatoes. πŸ™‚

    I agree with Hilary on Swingers – good eats, open late. I grew up here in LA, used to go to Carnations on Wilshire which is now gone…but I prefer to do my blogging and coffee runs at Insomnia Cafe when I’m out of the house.

  48. …some of the best food is sold in small rinky-dink diners… thanks for the nice post. brought back a lot of great memories from my childhood.

  49. Pants β€” I need to stop being lazy and make some real coffee.

    “I’m not sure why I found this interesting β€” a photo collection of physics brainiacs from Caltech studying in their local IHOP –

    http://www.physicschick.com/pics/ihop/ihop.html

    Oh my god — Jason, the guy in the picture in the lower left corner, is one of my best friends from high school! Although I was close to getting him to come to Caltech for grad school, he went to Harvard instead.

    (We physics nerds all know each other, you know.)

  50. Hi, I’m new here. Just wanted to say hi and tell you that the fine folks of the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee are working hard every day to preserve what remains of Los Angeles’ stunning collection of ’50s & 60s architectural coffee shops. On October 2 we are opening Johnie’s at Wilshire and Fairfax for one day only. Come and get it: http://johnieswilshire.org/
    BTW, Du-Par’s currently operates a store in Studio City, is that what some of you were looking for? http://www.dupars.com/
    OK Thanks for letting me stop by.

  51. Michael’s, the 24-hour diner across the river, was the center of the late-night social scene at our college (for our crowd, anyway). I can’t recall a single time we ever hung out at a fast food place, Starbucks, or other coffee shop (though we did go to a tea room once as a group). Nope, when it was late at night and we were fooling around and got bored and hungry, we did diners.

  52. Neil,
    I am Mr Ships. The Ships business is still going. We have had huge legal matters with people using the TM without permission. Yes over 50 million
    people dined at the three Ships in wla.
    That makes 150 million slices of toast.
    The store closed in 1996/ the sign lowered 2005.For more info go to
    http://www.shipscoffeeshop.com for the REAL
    Ships info.BTW burnt toast was always
    replaced with new bread. πŸ™‚ pls update dates on your other sites.

  53. Holy Ships! You know you’ve made it as a blogger when Mr. Ships comments on your blog about your post about Ships Coffee Shops. That’s like one of the Rockefellers calling me up after I mentioned Rockefeller Center. Or Donald Trump after talking about the Trump Casino. Or John Wayne after bringing up Orange County’s John Wayne Airport.

    Well, it’s actually like none of the above, but it’s still pretty cool whoever he is.

    Hello, Mr. Ships.

  54. Neil;
    I am the third generation of the
    Ship’s owners. Ship’s is real. I am real. We are working on a new concept.
    I am glad you were in Ship’s before we closed. The Coffee Shop era has now passed. From soda fountins to coffee shops we have provided food to the public.Now for the next foodservice
    era.:) Mr.Ship’s

  55. Sounds exciting. Quite a few people have great memories of Ships. I didn’t grow up here, but some people tell me about their first cup of coffee at Ships. Looking forward to seeing you back on the California scene. We miss you and your toasters.

  56. Neil,

    Thanks for your insight on Ships, everyone enjoyed the place. Saw many movie people there too! Guess they know how to spend a buck. Check my new site, mpipes007.blogger.com and leave us a story Neil. White,Rye,Wheat,Rasin or SourDough Neil! More Coffee ?

  57. I have very fond and strong memories of Ship’s Westwood. My family lived nearby on Warnall Drive, near Century City and Westwood Village. We would always go to Ship’s, and one time my Grandfather left a napkin on the toaster and it caught fire. I was 6 or 7 years old. I remember the architecture and mid-century modern decor, the gemlike plastic screens, the lamps and mosaics, and the whole Jetsons feel of the place.
    I am now a city planner in Miami Beach, Florida, and our Miami Modern MiMo style of architecture has echoes in the Googie style coffee shop architecture of L.A. The demolition of Ship’s Westwood was a sad day for preservationists, and from what I understand, sparked the L.A. Conservancy movement to save mid-century architectural landmarks.
    Anyway, thanks so much for publicizing the old Ship’s coffee shop, it is much appreciated.

  58. I worked at Ship’s Culver City for many years when my children were young. It was a great place to work, good money for a waitress and strangely enough, good quality food (even if it was a tad greasy). I have so many very fond memories of Manny and Carlos the cooks and Bob the manager. LaVerne the cashier and Vi, Iris, Tara and quite a few great (if tired) waitresses that I worked with. I was very young and they taught me the “trade”. It was a pretty tough one, but in the end, very rewarding on so many levels. I still miss them all. Heather

  59. Heather;
    Iris left a 3 ring binder of old photos
    of many of the CC customers. Manny passed away.Did you get to keep all your
    tips (not reported) πŸ™‚ Watch the Ships
    web site for some very classic 50’s Hair styles and OMG!!! Mini Skirts!!!
    Dupar’s is owned now by the Tiny Naylor
    Family.Neil,INSTANT COFFEE, I-N-S-T-A-N-T ?? Coffee . Someone help this man. πŸ™‚

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