It was the heyday of the "Red Car."
Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric Company
ambitiously laid tracks all over Southern California,
boasting over 1,200 miles of railways by the
mid-twenties. Shrill trolley whistles were an
ubiquitous sound throughout the southland, as
the little cars careened along at 45 to 55 miles
an hour, delivering passengers, mail and morning
papers. And Angels Flight was in fine feather,
carrying hundreds of delighted passengers every
Land speculation was booming and reached its
frenzied peak in '24, going bust in '25. The
Los Angeles census zoomed from an official 576,000
in 1920 to an estimated one million in 1924.
Of that, more than 43,000 were real estate agents,
prompting Will Rogers to observe, "Why,
they are thick as bootleggers. Your having no
money don't bother them, if they can just get
a couple of dollars, or an old overcoat, or
a shotgun. Anything for a first downpayment."
Los Angeles was building, Memorial
Coliseum was completed, the Hollywood Bowl under
construction. On Wilshire Boulevard, the Ambassador
Hotel opened, grandly advertised as "the
house of a thousand rooms."
Fred didn't start out to be in
the restaurant business at all. As a promising
young tenor, he had understudied the great Caruso,
and his dreams were of grand opera. But the voice
failed early, and he and Grace left the east coast
to settle in Southern California. They brought
with them the germ of an idea from a dining spot
owned by a colorful Irishman in New York, where
they had dined in an authentic railway dining
car, remodeled as a restaurant.
and Grace, or "Lovey" as she was known
to friends, family, and soon nearly the whole
city, decided to build a replica of a dining car
to their own specifications. A German friend named
Kline loaned them the use of his back yard for
the project, and another friend, "Shorty,"
started construction under a giant fig tree.
Fred and Lovey felt that the
real dining cars were too cramped, so they added
space by building their own car a little larger,
with a long counter, and rooms for tables and
chairs in back of it, and of course, the steel
wheels to move it from one location to another.
When it was completed, they rented a site at 7th
and Westlake, and moved the car in the dead of
night to avoid busy traffic.
little restaurant soon became one of the most
popular dining spots in the area. Its menu featured
good, hearty standard fare for its times. Seven
days a week, long before the 4 pm opening, savory
aromas floated from Lovey's orderly kitchen. Sturdy
vegetable soup, a tangy steak sauce of their own
invention, pies with crusts so flaky they literally
melted in the mouth, and an especially popular
apple filling all rapidly became city favorites.
Virginia, Lovey's daughter, reminisces, "She
made the most incredible pies. What a pity it
isn't an inherited feature. No one had Lovey's
light touch with a crust, and no matter how hard
I tried, it's an art form that escaped me."
As the land boom reached crazed
proportions of trade, sell and buy, the location
at 7th and Westlake was snapped up by one of the
speculators, and Pacific Dining Car was forced
to move in 1923. It was just a short jaunt uptown,
to 6th and Witmer, but in such uncertain times,
with the feverish exchange of any scrap of property,
those steel wheels were reassuring insurance against
"lost-our-lease." It was a relatively
simple matter to pack up everything and move to
any other convenient location.
The wheels never turned again.
PDC stands in the same spot today, so many,
many years later. When the lot eventually came
up for sale, Fred and Lovey bought. But in the
meantime, they rented and set about building
a flourishing dinner trade.
Lines started growing just before
the 4 pm opening time, as the downtown crowd told
each other about Lovey's ambrosial pies, and Fred's
sure hand on the grill. Reservations were unheard
of, largely due to a lack of a telephone. But,
what the heck, if you really had to make a phone
call, there was always the public booth at Perley's
Standard Oil Station next door. Business was so
good, Fred and Lovey hired a waitress to help
out. Jane Brown joined the family and stayed a
while. About 25 years.
Hot muggy dog days in Los Angeles
offered little opportunity for relief in the 20's,
and dining out at a closed-in restaurant wasn't
the most popular pastime. So PDC opened seven
days a week, nine months of the year. During the
hottest weather, the summer sign went up, and
everyone took off for a three-month vacation.
The language on the sign was so daring for its
time, it made newspapers as far east as Chicago
and New York. Fastened across the front doors,
Too D. hot in
L.A. Gone Fishing. Why the H. don't you go, too?
Fred and Grace
In 1927, one of the customers
offered to teach Fred all he knew about selecting
exactly the best kind of beef and how it should
be hung and aged. Since this Mr. Hardy was a rancher
from San Diego, Fred figured he probably knew
what he was beefing about. So, next trip to the
Abbatoir, Hardy instructed Fred on picking out
the finest cuts of prime, and how it should hang
to age properly for the best flavor and tenderest
texture, in the aging boxes there. These prime
savory steaks made an instant hit with the customers.
Naturally this kind of success was noticed. What
Fred and Lovey noticed was that their prime PDC
choices were disappearing before they could get
to the mouths of PDC diners. Not in the line of
thievery, you understand. More like a little gentle
hijacking. Their reputation for choosing the very
best and tastiest of steaks had certainly caught
While this was flattering, it
was also frustrating. Fred and Lovey solved it
by putting in their own curing box, and transporting
their prime beef directly to PDC for hanging and
aging. One of the fine traditions that has carried
through to the present day at Pacific Dining Car
is this personal selection and on-the-premises
aging of the best prime Eastern beef.
Throughout the twenties and thirties
the menu remained relatively simple, appealing
to the basic appetite for steak and fries. Prices
started at 65 cents for the Pacific Dining Car
special sirloin, up to a dollar for T-bones, buck-and-a-half
for filet, and the bank-buster double sirloin
went for $3.75. All considered quite dear in the
And remember, salad, running
25 to 35 cents, was a la carte, as was a large
baked potato at yet another 25 cents. Coffee was
10 cents a cup, and those famous home-made pies
could add 15 or 20 cents to the tab. Now, if a
fashionable young man wished to fling his money
about and impress a date by going for the most
expensive a deux combination, he could blow a
whole $5.55, not counting gratuities. At least
in those prohibition days, he didn't have to shell
out for a couple of pre-dinner cocktails. Unless
he'd already visited one of the local speaks.
The 20's were good times for
Los Angeles and Pacific Dining Car, but the gloomy
thirties tested everyone's ability to survive.
1929's stock market collapse
didn't immediately affect the west coast, but
by the late 1930's, Southern California showed
a higher bankruptcy rate than any other section
of the country. 1932 elected a new president,
Franklin Roosevelt, and brought the Tenth Olympiad
to Los Angeles. 1933 was a year of myriad crises
with Roosevelt declaring a bank holiday to restore
some kind of fiscal order, the passage of the
21st amendment ending prohibition, and on March
10th a rolling, shattering earthquake, centered
in Long Beach, left over 100 dead in Southern
Pacific Dining Car struggled
though lean days. Lovey's daughter, Virginia,
had returned to finish her education on the east
coast, and married an energetic young electrical
contractor, Wes Idol. They moved to California,
searching for better opportunities.
Wes had one thing in common with
Fred Cook -- he certainly had no plans to ever
enter the restaurant business. But an evening's
crisis brought a request for help, temporarily,
so Wes started in the kitchen. It was the beginning
of a successful lifetime career for him and Virginia.
She helped out those days as hostess and cashier
in the evenings.
Virginia remembers those times.
"We'd have at least three or four people
a day asking for any kind of work, or just a meal.
Lovey would always tell them, 'Come back at nine.
That's when staff eats, and you're welcome to
a free meal with us.' Many of them did, and then
Fred and Lovey would take whatever was left over
in the kitchen down to the mission."
Gradually, times returned to
a semblance of normal or people just got used
to being broke. With prohibition's end, a tiny
three-stool bar was added, just past and around
the corner from the counter. In 1935 Wes Idol
figured it was as good a time as any to start
a business, and took over the running of a new
venture, Cook's Steak House downtown.
As business began to pick up
and bring back some of the crowds, Fred and Lovey
added an extension to PDC, with more dining tables
and a more spacious bar in the late 30's.
It was a gathering spot for
all the downtown trade. Hustlers rubbed elbows
with stock brokers at the counter, and certain
well-endowed ladies of the area gently started
their evening with a sustaining steak. Gamblers
and newspaper reporters, lawyers and city officials
waited democratically in line for their favorite
counter or table seat, and waitressing by Jane
Every evening brought a sprinkling
of the famous or notorious personalities of the
day. Louella Parsons was a regular, with her husband,
Dr. Martin, and George Raft or Sid Ziff frequently
stopped in for dinner. When Mickey Cohen and bodyguard
dined, other guests tended to finish dinner and
fade away, but Mae West and bodyguard guaranteed
quickly concealed admiring stares. Good manners
at PDC dictated that even the most famous should
be able to enjoy a leisurely dinner without unseemly
interruptions. Another fine tradition that has
persisted throughout the years.
The 1940 Los Angeles census placed
the population at just under a million and a half,
and growing rapidly. In December of that year,
the Arroyo Seco Parkway linked Los Angeles and
Pasadena, causing Bob Hope to quip that now California
drivers can get to their accidents sooner. A hard-fought
battle was lost by downtown merchants when a causeway
built through Westlake Park opened Wilshire Boulevard
to through traffic. And then the fervor of patriotism
renamed the park to honor a general having a few
problems out in the Pacific. For some disgruntled
Angelenos, MacArthur Park will always be Westlake
Park, and the old battle resurfaces every now
Gearing for war disrupted the
economy of the entire country, and created special
problems for restaurants. Virginia Idol helped
Fred and Lovey at the Dining Car, many times taking
along her own young son, Wes Idol II. Wes Sr.
joined the army and by some twist of incredible
fate actually ended up doing his civilian job
as a mess officer. Hectic years, the 40's. Virginia
remembers that they scraped along on make-do,
substitute and ersatz, and served a lot of chicken
at the steak house.
When the war was over, Fred added
a barbecue stand to the front of the lot, catering
to the meat-hungry take-out crowd. 1947 brought
grief to the Cook family, with the passing of
Fred. Lovey just worked a little harder. She had
the upper floors over the restaurant made into
an apartment, moved in, and continued her normal
seven-day week, nine-month year.
The 1950's passed quickly, with
a dearth of customers, until they got bored with
their new television sets and came blinking out
to dinner again. By this time Lovey was almost
as well known as some of her famous customers,
and earned city-wide recognition with commendations
for her civic efforts from the mayor and city
organizations. But after all, counting up the
birthdays to 80, one does begin to slow down just
a little. So in 1960, she asked Wes Sr. and Virginia
if they were interested in buying Pacific Dining
Car, to add to their previous purchase of Cook's.
Grace Cook, fiercely independent
as she was, finally had to concede to the frailties
that one's 80's can bring, and shared her remaining
years with her daughter and son-in-law. Virginia
remembers that after Lovey's death at the age
of 90, there were cards and calls from every part
of the country, hundreds of condolences from friends
and customers at the passing such a grand lady.
In 1960, while Wes Sr. and Virginia
were contemplating the purchase of Pacific Dining
Car, Wes Idol II returned to Southern California
after his service in the army. In common with
Fred Cook and Wes Sr., he hadn't the slightest
intention of entering the restaurant business.
Especially with first-hand experience of the all-consuming
job it could be.
However... father and son talked
over the management of Pacific Dining Car, and
young Wes II began serving his apprenticeship.
Just before Memorial Day, 1960, the two Idols
closed the Dining Car for the traditional summer
vacation. Then, starting from the counter, outward,
they remodeled the whole place and had it opened
again in a mere three weeks. Discarding some of
the accoutrements that "just grew" during
the lacks of the 40's and the slow 50's, they
recarpeted, refurbished, and installed air conditioning.
The barbecue stand came down in '61.
What did the customers say? ...virtually
all of them were absolutely delighted with the
new decor, the more comfortable air-conditioned
dining. But, as can be expected with any change,
good or bad, a few bitterly complained that "you've
ruined our restaurant," and (one suspects)
harrumphed back to thumping for the re-re-naming
of MacArthur Park.
Traditionally, in the '60's California
restaurants served a few good California wines,
but not too many. Imported wines were not only
a rarity, they were a mystery to the majority
of diners. But in 1964, Wes II could see some
handwriting on the cellar wall. So he visited
the fine wineries of France and Germany, educating
his own palate, buying at first hand from the
grand and small European houses. His first trip
formed the nucleus of what has become one of the
widest selections of great imported and domestic
wines in the city.
When his father died in 1970,
Wes II carried on the family tradition, and purchased
the restaurants from his mother in '75. He began
an extensive remodeling period, giving the Dining
Car its present ambience of quietly handsome elegance.
Realizing that the diners of the late 70's were
becoming much more conscious of calories, cholesterol
and delicate nuances of flavor, he did further
research, adding still wider selections of veal
and fresh seafood. On the solid base of the fine
steak house which offers its traditionally aged-on-the-premises
prime Eastern beef, Pacific Dining Car presently
also appeals to those who appreciate a greater
range of dining experiences.
October, 1990 another Pacific Dining Car opened
in Santa Monica. In both locations, the Dining
Car's hospitable features gladden the hearts of
regulars and tourists. Breakfasts allow business
people to make their transition to the working
day more easily, waking gradually to their Journal,
sipping steamy fresh coffee, savoring creamy omelettes
or house specialties such as Eggs Blackstone.
Lunch and dinner feature a wide
selection of the freshest seafoods in season,
tender meticulously prepared veal, magnificent
steaks and, of course, the tangy original steak
sauce... all available much past the usual restaurant
closing times. For late dining, the apres theatre
group has discovered the Dining Car for a light
repast, an early morning breakfast or a full dinner.
The full 24-hour serving day at both Pacific Dining Car locations is unique for fine restaurants. It marks the first time that downtowners and Santa Monica residents have a real alternative in late-night dining. And it also gives the earliest business person a start on the day in luxurious surroundings, with caring service for a superb breakfast.
Los Angeles and Pacific Dining
Car have come through good times, bad times,
boom times and bust times together. The fine
traditions go on, with change remaining a constant,
quality an assurance, and a delightful dining
adventure to be anticipated with every visit.
Oh, yes, one almost forgets.
They did add telephones quite some years back.
And they do take reservations. Some traditions
were made to be broken.