The slogan of the Apple Pan diner at 10801 West Pico Boulevard in West LA is Quality Forever, which I think is meant to sound homey and old-timey, but for me rings of a kind of grim determination. “Forever” is an impossible standard in Los Angeles, where rivers are lined with concrete and overdeveloped hillsides slide into the sea. Just this morning, there was an earthquake in Beverly Hills. The ground shifts, literally, always. To offer Forever in the southland is to be a kind of Snake Plissken, one-eyed and hunted, trying to use your Coreburner to return a bit of humanity to a dystopic future-town.
Before the new 12-screen Landmark Theater, even before the razed Westland minimall that stood where the Westside Pavilion megamall now stands, there was the Pico Drive-in movie theater that entertained Angelenos through the Great Depression and World War II. And, starting in 1947, across the street from the drive-in there was the Apple Pan, squat and cozy, with a single u-shaped counter and soda jerks who wore paper hats. It was, from the outset, so absolutely American that it was the model for the poodle-skirt and chrome-counter nostalgia chain Johnny Rockets.
It stands there still, a wood building in an asphalt city, dwarfed by the Guitar Center next door. Sixty-five years standing in one place is admirable longevity anywhere. In the town where the best foods are now literally moving around on trucks, it’s remarkable.
I went to the Apple Pan for the same thing that my grandfather, who grew up in Venice Beach, would have gone for: the burger. The style is unchanged. It’s a true Californian burger, a thin griddled patty on a squishy bun, splashed with hickory sauce and topped with the blasting cap that detonates the whole thing: a fresh, cold, crisp wedge of iceberg lettuce.
There is an appealing humility to this burger. It’s not just the simplicity of the ingredients—no kim chee burger here, thanks—it’s the size. Before there were ostentatious monster-burgers and the too-cute micro-burgers they call sliders, there was just one burger size, and it was in between the two. Enough for a meal, not so big that you have to unhinge your jaw to take a full bite.
But it goes beyond the burger. The tuna salad sandwich is simple and excellent. The coffee tastes just fine, but the vessel it comes in, a forest-green diner cup with a metal spoon and a chilled side of cream, gives it meaning. And if you order a soda, the presentation is nostalgic bordering on bizarre: served in the can, with a paper cone-cup filled with ice next to it. The apple pie? That’s baked fresh daily, the pies set to cool on racks in the back of the diner. One bite, and you’re instantly reminded of everything cinnamon: warmth, spice, a touch of sweet.
My admiration for the Apple Pan might be a minority report these days. A reviewer on Chowhound kicked the hornet’s nest by savaging the place, which thrilled the hipsters and angered the nostalgists. The reviewer is entitled to his or her disappointments, but I won’t be putting a ruler to the patty (it is thin) or lamenting the bill (the Hickory Burger with cheese, at $7.25, is far more than In-and-Out’s mighty double-double animal style). The value of the Apple Pan is its constancy. You don’t have to agree on the Quality, just respect the Forever.