Nighthawks at the Café

At this downtown LA landmark, the specials never change and the doors never close.

Penny De Los Santos

The sign at the entrance to the Original Pantry Cafe could have been written by Rod Serling: through a door which has no key, you will enter a cafe that has never been closed since 1924. And there is, I've always thought, a certain Twilight Zone quality to the downtown LA landmark. The man taking orders behind the Formica counter is dressed in a white shirt and black bow tie. Handwritten signs read cash only. The specials on the blackboard are barely legible, but never mind; they've been the same for years: country-fried steak, pork chops, spaghetti and meatballs, roast beef hash. A "pantry setup"—a stack of thick-cut sourdough bread and a saucer of coleslaw—comes with every one. Each order of hash browns has a one-to-three ratio of crunchy edges to fluffy interior. The New York strip is cooked to order. The peach cobbler a la mode is served at room temperature so that the ice cream won't melt too fast. At lunchtime the place is full of office workers, local politicians, UPS drivers, and anyone else who might want a satisfying meal with a minimum of fanfare. At three in the morning, it's a different scene: friends coming off a night of clubbing trade stories of their conquests; a girl casually snags my table's ketchup bottle, asking permission as she takes it; cooks on break retreat to a quiet table in the basement to refuel before the breakfast rush. As I wait to pay the cashier, secure in her glass booth, I glance back over the starkly lit room, the graying waiters, the regulars hunched over stacks of hotcakes. It's good to know there are things in this world you absolutely can rely on. —Javier Cabral, a Los Angeles-based blogger (teenageglutster.blogspot.com)