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  • Kim Idol

A Los Angelenos Eventide

An ex-employee of the Pacific Dining Car (PDC) sent me this text last Tuesday.

“Just checking to see if you are aware PDC in Santa Monica closed a few months ago and downtown is auctioning off furniture, etc. They are focusing on online business now. Wonder if Wes III feels guilty that this happened on his watch.”

She sent this because I am the estranged great grand-daughter, granddaughter, daughter and sister of the owners of the PDC. Downtown is the original location of a family business that has existed for 99 years. After reading the text I called my ex-husband, Michael. He found the auction site. We both signed up, logged on and chatted while we scrolled.

“I don’t need 30 shot glasses,” he said. “And I don’t care about crystal tumblers although it’s kind of cool how many pieces there are for sale. Shit, I also don’t need 44 steel salt and pepper shakers. What do you need?”

I had already speedily trolled through the auction site searching for an old picture that may have been sold or acquired by one of my relatives.

“Nothing,” I said. “It’ll make me too sad to have a piece of the restaurant at home. It would be like keeping a rib or a kidney from a dead body in a jar by my bedside.”


“Ya,” I replied. “My point exactly.”

Until last Tuesday, I could have said that my family is in the restaurant business. A week later while standing in line in another restaurant waiting for a coffee—automatically counting the tables, calculating the way the floor space was being used, noticing the customer vs. waiter ratio and assessing customer and waiter interactions—I realized that all I could say anymore was that my family had been in the restaurant business. The Pacific Dining Car was founded in 1921. It had survived the Great Depression, the Great Recession and all the other economic meltdowns in between and since. I had hoped it would survive Covid as well.

You don’t own a family business. It owns you. It shapes your in-house relationships. As a family we regularly patronized other restaurants, vetting the competition. Sometimes Dad even told us what to order. We ate; he and Mom took notes. We had a wine cellar at home. My siblings and I were taught to smell and taste the difference between blends before we were technically old enough to drink. The downtown location in Los Angeles was the flagship. Later on, we opened a second branch in Newport Beach which failed, and then years later we tried again in Santa Monica. The second locations were wholly driven by my father’s ambitions. He always wanted to outshine his father’s success; as my brother has always wanted to outdo Dad’s.

My grandfather bought the business from his mother-in-law, Lovie, who allowed him to work as a bus boy only after he proved to her that he could earn money (i.e., support his wife without assistance) selling encyclopedias door to door. She refused to let him eat at the restaurant for free until he’d proved his worth to her as a dish washer and could be promoted. When he’d married my grandmother, he’d had an electronics business, but the Depression and an embezzling partner killed that, so he and his wife came to California hoping his mother-in-law would give them jobs. The restaurant actually belonged to my great grandfather Fred who’d had the practical experience. When the time came for Fred and Lovie to retire, they sold the business to my grandparents. No one inherited the restaurant in my family, they bought it. It was only after the sale that my grandparents discovered that Fred had been looting the till and had sold them a business in trouble. Like many of their generation, my grandparents just gritted their teeth and soldiered on making the business a success.

To my mind, the Pacific Dining Car was an integral part of the city and its history. Local notables became regular patrons: politicians, the Hollywood elite, sports heroes, and the like, even a few mobsters-- this was Los Angeles in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. I once walked Ken Norton to his table and had trouble speaking. I may have tripped when I pulled a chair out so that he could sit. My mother was introduced to Daryl Gates (before he was all that) as he was being seated at Mayor Bradley’s table. I loved reading about the restaurant in James Ellroy’s books and seeing it pop up in the newspaper articles. I think of my grandfather and how proud he was of his accomplishment and I remember how hard he and my father worked when I think of the restaurant. I remember walking the floor with my grandfather as he stopped to chat with staff to check their work and to see how their families were doing. How was the family, etc. To my mind, PDC was a long standing community. Multiple generations of more than one family worked there over the years. And my grandfather and father saw themselves as stewards in charge of their family, the business and of the generations of other families that depended PDC’s continued success.

“A hostess table,” Michael said, scrolling up to a picture of a piece of furniture I’d stood behind many times as an adult and hidden behind many times as a kid. “And an over the counter oven. Yes, I think so.” He bid on both items.

“You’re gonna do the dinner plates at least?” he asked.

“Nope, not even dinner plates.”

“Well, I do need plates. I’m gonna make my low bid for three dollars and go up to twenty.” The numbers popped up on the screen as he keyed in his choices. “And for the next set of plates I will bid from three up to ten cause there’s a fuck ton of them. Maybe with duplicate lots and I’ll get a better price.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Some of the lots haven’t been bid on because they are duplicates,” he said.

Michael always knows how I feel. I don’t have to explain myself to him. He’d done the exact right thing when I called. I needed to discuss the minutia of selling off leather booster chairs and lamps my father had imported from Spain. I am really sorry the restaurant is dead. I loved it.

When I visited a year ago, I talked to men still working the floor who remembered me as a kid and remembered when I worked there as a hostess and as an assistant bookkeeper. The business was a group effort. When my father fended off the unions (and a strike), he did so by offering his people a better deal than the unions did. Employees who left the strike line got their jobs back and those who’d been promoted because of the strike had their efforts rewarded as well. Employees earned a base salary, but if the take during their shifts went up, they got a piece of it. Yes, Dad did this because he had no intention of being controlled by outsiders, but also because he believed in rewarding employees when the business did better. It was his baby, but its success was everybody’s accomplishment and Dad was willing to acknowledge that financially.

During Grandfather’s tenure, the Pacific Dining Car was a magical place to me as a kid, a happy place of power. My grandparents, my siblings and I ate there every Friday night. And when we kids were done eating, we were sent into the parking lot where Jimmy, the valet, told us stories and kept us entertained until the adults were finished. Or if I promised not to interfere, I was allowed to wander into the kitchen or go down into the cutting room or visit the wine cellar where I could watch the men work. The guys were always kind to me and gave me a nickname, which I will not share with you.

Grandfather taught me how to eat a steak, how to handle silverware, and how to sit and act like a grownup at PDC. You cut a good steak in half and eat it from the center out so that if you lose your appetite you’ve eaten the best part. Ice cream came in a single scoop in a silver chalice and you ate it delicately slivering pieces off the scoop. You didn’t dig in. You always sat then immediately put a napkin in your lap at a fine establishment. I learned how to hold a wine glass, how to drink brandy from snifters, how to hold polite conversations. These benefits come with being the owner’s grandchild or child.

I remember the smell of the place, the leather backed chairs, steaming coffee in huge urns, and even the meat locker. Every family member who worked in the restaurant was taught how to select, cut and cure meat. You couldn’t sell a product if you didn’t know from hands-on experience, step by step, how it got from the animal or the farm to the restaurant. Mom and Dad were sent to Europe to learn about wines when it became time to lure in the wine connoisseurs. Wesley III, my brother, was sent to Texas when it was his turn to learn about meat. The women in my family worked the floor and kept the books. My great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother served their terms there and were as proud of the job done as everyone else. My sisters and I all worked for the business, part-time, on and off, over the years. It was the business that took my mother in straight out of college. The restaurant was where she spent years working alongside her in-laws who she liked, and her husband who wasn’t always likeable. She also learned a great deal that helped her when it was time to go out and start her own business (computers, not restaurants). When my parents divorced, as ugly as the divorce got, she never entertained the idea of destroying it. In her mind, it had to survive. It was her children’s legacy.

“Dog paintings are the most expensive thing here,” I said. Two oil paintings of dogs dressed in Edwardian garb were going for three thousand a piece. “How did that get to be a thing?”

“They’re selling the bull,” Michael said.

“The one outside?” I asked. He meant the restaurant logo that had been perched on a pedestal in the front parking lot for as long as I could remember.

“Motherfucker,” Michael said. “I’ve already lost one bid.”

“Someone is watching you bid on plates?” I asked.

“No. Your maximum bid is automatically compared to others and someone had already set a higher high bid. Ooh, Miso soup bowls.”

“Silverware?” I asked.

“I still have the stuff you gave me in the divorce,” he said. A cousin had given us several sets of PDC silverware when we’d married. When Michael had moved out. I’d been fair. I’d split everything in half.

Though my Dad always said that the last thing he ever wanted to do was end up working at the restaurant with his parents, destiny drew him in, and he evinced a mastery of the trade that kept us going and made the business grow. Dad and Grandfather were different kinds of leaders. Grandfather was a savvy businessman and a charming recontour. He liked walking the floor and talking to people. He relished being the man born in a small town in North Carolina who had failed at one business and then succeeded in a notable place like Los Angeles. He and his wife became social climbers. They worked hard, played hard and did it with style. My dad could be charming, if needs must, but he didn’t enjoy playing the host. My grandparents adored the role. Dad also wanted to do more with the restaurant than just keep it afloat. Grandfather had survived the Depression. His goals were smaller. As a result, the two ferociously fought over the future of the business on a regular basis. Dad wanted the distinction of owning a restaurant chain. When the location in Newport died, he put his efforts into revamping the Los Angeles location. He was the same savvy businessman his father was, but he also had an artist’s eye. And he used this talent to rebuild and redesign the restaurant. When I saw pieces of furniture being sold on-line, I remembered his architectural drawings and his descriptions of interior design that came alive when he modernized his father’s efforts.

“Have to drive to L.A. for some of this if I win,” Michael said.

“We will make it a trip,” I replied. Michael is still one of my favorite people. I’d drive from Las Vegas to L.A. just to spend the day with him.

My father was a bad man and a terrible parent. I suspect that my beloved grandfather, who was a fantastic grandparent, was also a bad parent. But once both men walked through the doors of the restaurant, they could be proud, and I was proud to be part of their family. To be connected to a long standing tradition, to be connected to the city by the history of the PDC was so cool. And it was so cool to see my father and grandfather dressed in dark suits sitting behind their desks upstairs or to watch them walk through the restaurant like, well, they owned the place.

“There is one thing I’d buy if I could find it,” I said scrolling up and down the list once more.

“What? What? What? Let me help,” Michael said.

“It’s a faded print of a meadow with mountains and pine trees in the background and the words “To D- Hot in LA. Gone Fishing. Why the H- Don’t You Go Too,” painted across it.

“Sounds pretty” he said.

“No, it’s old woman wearing too much mascara ugly,” I replied, but in the early days they would shut down in the summers and post that picture so everyone could see it.”

“And why do you want to own the ugly picture?”

I had to think about it for a moment. “That picture always hung on the wall somewhere no matter how the restaurant changed or who was in charge.” I rolled through the list again. “But it’s gone.”

Passing the restaurant from generation to generation was always a sticky affair. My great grandparents shafted my grandparents when they sold it to them. When Grandfather died, he left the whole thing to his wife, despite the fact his son had been running the place, and Dad threw a tantrum that had us all running for cover. Grandmother didn’t want to let go, and he wanted total control. Stubborn people fight until everyone is bruised and face down in the mud. People who grit their teeth and keep a business alive for a hundred years sometimes can’t back off from a fight. He forced Grandmother’s hand in the end. They worked it out, financially speaking. We are not an affectionate bunch. We are great story tellers. We can be great company. Some of us are hard workers and compelling public speakers. Some of us are smarter than others. But a family business turns a family’s private life into a business and that makes us a little heartless when it comes to personal matters.

My brother was slated to be the next beneficiary of PDC success. My father couldn’t envision his daughters as restaurant owners, and we all accepted that, but I think we all also knew that Wes would be the end of the road for the restaurant even if Covid had not come along. You can train a child to run a business, but he won’t be tough enough to survive if you don’t teach him emotional resiliency or how to rise above failure with equanimity. My father was hard on Wes. If he failed, Dad would sit back and watch. If he got up again, Dad would applaud his success, but he wouldn’t help Wesley recover or learn to avoid the mistake the next time. So Wes isn’t a survivor and while I write this, I am sorry to say that this is true. But you can’t just hand a business to your children and say, pick it up. You have to make them feel connected to the tradition of the place and to the people the place represents, and Dad never passed that sense of connectedness onto Wes. No, we have never been a happy family, but the one thing we could be proud of as a group was the restaurant. When my father failed to prepare my brother for his turn at the helm, he put an end to it.

Michael and I spent about a half hour trolling the site and making fun of people who would buy a set of aluminum bread baskets and such and then we called it.

“Well this was entertaining, I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “Thank you for calling me. Call me later if you need to.”

My dad died two summers ago and when I visited him the last time, I got the feeling that the business was already in financial straits. The information came to me in whispered words. I saw the Pacific Dining Car for the last time during Dad’s memorial. The place looked worn to me, like something you were done taking care of. Pieces of furniture looked dated instead of classy. It was too quiet. The staff moved too slowly across the floor. There were too few customers. Something was winding down.

But then, maybe 99 years is enough. I won’t be driving by the location ever again. Too many memories. For me it represents the best of my family as a material expression of us that I hoped would never die even though everything does eventually.

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