A 40-Year Moveable Breakfast Feast
By BOB VICKREY
Special to Circling the News
I’ve always been a fairly easy guy to find on most mornings in the Palisades village. Just peek in the door of my favorite local breakfast spot, and I’ll be there sipping coffee while reading my newspaper and awaiting my scrambled eggs.
Gourmet Gala on Antioch Street was one of those comfortable spots where I found a morning home for many years in the 1980s and ‘90s. The narrow little café, which was run by the lovely and personable Angela Croal, was my breakfast haunt for many years as I shared coffee and convivial conversation each day with pals Richard, Danielle, Judy, Valerie, Roger and unexpected drop-in appearances by other friends.
Many of us had initially met at Pierre’s Bakery on Swarthmore a few years earlier but had eventually drifted across Sunset Boulevard to Angela’s cozy café. The café had a counter and deli case on one side of the room and a row of small tables along the adjacent wall. A “crowd” there consisted of about a dozen customers. Good luck getting in the front doorway if you happened to be the 13th customer arriving.
I’ve always been a creature of habit and have traditionally found a comfortable spot to enjoy a morning cup of coffee with my newspaper. I realized recently that my ritual had begun all the way back in my Texas college days at Baylor University when I hung out at George’s Café, where I often worked on my stories for the campus daily newspaper.
When I first arrived in Pacific Palisades, I stumbled upon Art Poole’s Café on Sunset Boulevard where Rick Caruso’s Palisades Village now stands. I hardly knew anyone in town back then, so I sat at the counter where I was kept company by my trusty L.A. Times. I remember being waited on there by a diminutive and crusty gray-haired woman named “Zona.” After attempting to make small-talk with her that first trip, I quickly returned to my sports page.
Fortunately, I soon discovered Mort’s Delicatessen, which was then the town’s unofficial “Cheyenne Social Club,” and where I soon began meeting my community neighbors. During my first trip to Mort’s, I realized that after paying my tab at the check-out counter, all the tables were taken. As I scanned the room in search of an open seat, I noticed a friendly, well-dressed gentleman waving me over to sit with him at the large communal table near the front window.
After we introduced ourselves, I asked him what he did for a living, and he replied, “I write the “James Bond” movies.” I thought to myself “Welcome to Hollywood, Bob!” His name was Richard Maibaum. (And sure enough, the next time I saw “Goldfinger,” there was Richard’s name emblazoned across my television screen in the opening credits.) During our next few meetings at Mort’s, it seemed like he introduced me to just about every regular customer there.During the coming years, I alternated my breakfast spots in town between Mort’s, the First National Food Company (where Kay and Dave’s is now located), and the Palisades Drugstore Café. Each had its own unique character and charm.
The Drugstore Café was a friendly social spot that featured two adjoining horseshoe-shaped counters that made for easy conversation with your seatmate. When I looked up from the menu during my first visit, there was the irrepressible Zona standing impatiently next to me with her order pad in hand. This time she actually smiled at me, so I figured she must be enjoying her new working environment considerably more than her last stop. I was relieved she was in a better mood but decided not to push my luck with attempted conversation.
Starbucks became the new novelty in town in the early 1990s, so I felt compelled to see what all the fuss was about regarding this burgeoning national chain, which was opening stores about as quickly as they could sign new leases. Comedian Dennis Miller once joked, “Coffee is so popular now that Starbucks is opening up new locations inside other Starbucks.”
The first time I tried their house blend, I decided that it had the consistency—and likely the taste—of 40-weight Quaker State motor oil. I was informed by their barista that this was what real coffee was supposed to taste like, so like the glutton for punishment that I am, I kept coming back for more.
I met my friends Joey and Ken there each morning for our jolt of Quaker State. During those years, I also became great friends with Tony Verna, who regaled me with stories from his early days at CBS Sports. Turns out, Tony was one of the true innovators in television history and was the guy who actually “invented” instant replay. I often said to him, “Okay Tony, tell me a story.”
Our ritual continued through several remodeling projects, with each incarnation of the space becoming more uncomfortable than the last. We ultimately decided that management had purposely made the place as uncomfortable as possible for customers, so we would buy our coffee and keep on walking out the door. We ultimately did keep walking—and, in fact—never returned.
In recent years, I’ve frequented Gelson’s popular Victor Benes Bakery and enjoyed their tasty baked goods on their outdoor patio while simultaneously breathing in the noxious fumes of delivery trucks passing our table in the parking lot. How about a little carbon monoxide mixed with your morning blueberry muffin?
I still truly love Café Vida’s healthy breakfasts just like everyone else in the Palisades, but the half-day wait for a table began bumping into my lunch hour, so I’ve adjusted my visits there to later in the day for takeout orders.
One of the more unfortunate recent casualties of the new village project was Mayberry on Swarthmore (which evolved from the former Terri’s Cafe.) The comfortable and homey cafe was known for its generous breakfast portions, and if you were occasionally inclined to eat like a lumberjack, you knew where to go for a hearty meal. (And I also found that a smile from Whitney or Colleen could certainly make a guy’s day.)
My favorite breakfast spot these days is the somewhat under-appreciated Palisades Garden Café which is down the street from the post office on La Cruz. Their food is terrific and comes at throwback diner prices. The employees are friendly there and the place runs efficiently under the supervision of personable owner James Kwon.
However, if you decide to venture in for lunch at the Garden Cafe, you must enter at your own risk. Soon after the café opened, it quickly became the gathering spot for local teens—scores of them! If you dare enter at lunchtime, you might think you’ve just stepped into a scene from “Lord of the Flies.”
Our newest food market, Vintage Grocers on Sunset is quickly becoming known for its hot food counter—and particularly for their breakfast offerings. It features several egg dishes, as well as sides of crispy bacon and various sausages—all at bargain-basement prices, as compared to local sit-down restaurants. My cardiologist lives in town, and I fear that he might walk in and catch me scooping strips of crispy fried bacon onto my plate, so I limit my trips to that side of the counter.
We have several relatively new coffee shops in town, including Caffé Luxxe on Sunset, which already had a solid Westside following from their other stores in Santa Monica, Malibu and Brentwood. General Porpoise, located in the new Caruso complex, has excellent coffee, but unless you like jelly-filled donuts, you’re out of luck when it comes to food choices. (I will admit that their vanilla custard donut was quite tasty.)
But one of the most talked about new shops in town is Estate Coffee on Via de la Paz—the very avenue that my late friend Josh Greenfeld had once labeled “The street of broken retail dreams.” Estate is bucking the trend of retail businesses that have struggled there and has found a loyal clientele. It was just awarded “Best New Business of the Year” honors by the Palisades Chamber of Commerce. (Where else can you get a couple of perfectly cooked eggs for three bucks?)
Porto Via on Swarthmore began serving breakfast recently, and if you choose to start your day in a slightly more formal atmosphere, this is your spot. (Warning: Applewood bacon is served here!)
As even more breakfast choices in town emerge, my morning ritual may become a moveable feast between several places in town. Feel free to stop by the table anytime and pull up a chair—and I’ll promise to put aside my newspaper in your honor.
Bob Vickrey is a longtime resident of Pacific Palisades whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. His long-running “Lunch Club” series was published by the Palisades News. You can find more columns on his website: bobvickrey.net