Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


A dish served rarely

Los Angeles has always been a city of changes, famous for bulldozing historic haunts that in other cities would be preserved for their character and celebrity. In January, I took my daughter to the oldest restaurant in the world, which is in Madrid and which opened in 1725, and which appears to still employ some of the original waiters. In LA, that restaurant would have long since been turned into an apartment building, and the waiters shifted into tenants.

Actually, this dynamic hasn’t troubled me much. One of the gifts of Los Angeles is that it’s a forward-looking city, always chasing what’s new — and I’m wired the same way. Plus, if we want rent to be more affordable for people, we need more apartment buildings, and many of our edifices live on in the culture: the Brown Derby exists as a simulacrum at Disneyland and Disney World. Which is the highest tribute Los Angeles can provide.

Still, even as someone with a predisposition to look at, say, Blade Runner, and think, “Wow — that looks cool! Might be fun to live there!” something happened last month that robbed me of my impassive attitude: my favorite restaurant, Pacific Dining Car, went out of business.

After 99 years in business. Because of this pandemic.

Pacific Dining Car wasn’t just the toniest restaurant I could barely afford (or not, for many years), it was also just west of downtown, and open 24/7. That meant that a theatre guy like me could wrap up his show, hang out with the cast afterward, and still go get a real dinner and quality drinks at, oh, 2 a.m. It was a place you could stop in any time between midnight and sunset and have a nice aged steak with a side of asparagus and a baked potato for just under the cost of a car payment. In 2007, I took a colleague there for lunch and it was $250. (To be fair, we ordered wine.)

I have many fond memories of the place. Many of them without my paying, but some with.

About 20 years ago, having an unexpectedly good year, and coming off a year so bad that I’d actually started selling possessions (glorious old comic books and original art that I still miss, dammit), I invited two theatre friends out to dinner after one of our shows. It was almost midnight and we hadn’t eaten. One of them suggested the Astro, a nearby retro diner that is revered among Los Angelenos and that has been featured in many movies that I’m not going to look up at this moment, and where an entree is about ten bucks. Perfect for theatre people! But I said, “Let’s go to Pacific Dining Car! It’s on me!” One of my theatre pals protested that it was too much, but I insisted, and I wore them down, and y’know what? We had a great time, and it’s a cherished memory… because the one friend is now dead. I miss him terribly, think about him often, and I’m glad I got to buy him a goddamn expensive steak and also the split-pea-and-turtle soup.

At some point about 15 years ago, I had a writing client who wanted to meet only there to discuss his work. Which was fine by me. He’s a good writer; like most of us, he wanted someone to bounce his work off of. We met there once a month for about a year, maybe longer, and he picked up the tab and paid me my fee and my waistline visibly expanded in all the photos of that time period.

Another time, when I was still driving convertibles (and what I did to lose my mojo and give up convertibles two years ago I don’t know, but I’ve got to get that back), I was shuttling around a good friend from out of town. I said, “Hey! There’s this great restaurant, Pacific Dining Car! Want to go?” He said that’d be great, and I said it’s kind of pricey, and he said he’d pay, if only I’d put up the top. Sure, it was after 10 on an evening in November — but why have a convertible if you’re not going to put the top down?

I pulled over and put up the top. He paid.

So, now, in this annus horribilis, Pacific Dining Car, a restaurant built out of railroad dining cars and summoning up an era of classy white-glove service at a rarefied price since 1921, is closed.

The last time I ate there, May 30 of last year, I took my wife. I’d had dozens of business meals there that I’d dutifully itemized off my taxes over two dozen years , but I’d never taken her, and shame on me. I’d always bring home the plastic-wrapped and chocolate-dipped mint candy sticks they offered, each labeled with the name of the restaurant, and occasionally a piece of steak, but I’d never taken her. Thank God that last year I set about to set that straight. She never would have gone had she known the destination (she is a frugal person), but I told her that I was taking her somewhere for dinner and that it was a surprise, and that she wasn’t to ask me about it. When we pulled into Pacific Dining Car, and her eyebrows rose, I said, “Don’t even think about it.” We ordered everything and anything we wanted, and when the check came I wouldn’t show it to her and told her not to ask and we were both thrilled about the food and the service.

If there has to be a last time, I’m glad that was it. It meant a lot to her, and to me. For me, it’s a cherished memory, just like so many other memories there, and while the restaurant is gone, the memories persist.

Except… in the true fashion of Los Angeles, where there’s always the chance of a sequel or a revival… this may not be the end. According to LA Eater, PDC may be coming back. The great-grandson of the founders says he’s using this time for a remodel and will reopen.

Let’s hope so. I’d love to go back, I’m not the type to ever visit the eventual knockoff at Disneyland.

2 Responses to “A dish served rarely”

  1. Adrian Says:

    Lee that’s a wonderful tribute – I can visualise the place just from your writing. I do hope it’s not the end for it.

  2. Dan Says:

    Just plain good writing!

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