If you could choose between flying and time travel, which would it be? If it's the latter, then you're in luck. Just a few blocks from the 110 freeway in the cuts of downtown, you can climb aboard a train to 1923, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Ninety years ago, Los Angeles was building up and out, turning deserts into cityscapes and orange groves into suburbs. In 1923, former opera singer Fred Cook parked a replica of a train car at 6th and Witmer where it stands to this day, marked by a large, steel heifer atop a pole: Pacific Dining Car. Pull open a heavy, wooden door to the original restaurant: a dimly lit room lined with tables sheathed in white cloths, surrounded by green velvet chairs. Each table is topped with a vase containing a single, white rose and it is eerily quiet. Gary Cooper sips his whisky, lights a cigarette and invites me for a drink as my imagination runs away with me.
The historical landmark never closes its doors, attracting people from many walks of life, including surgeons from Good Samaritan Hospital next door, families celebrating special occasions and industry professionals like Jen Cornett, whose workdays often culminate at 2 a.m. with ringing ears and an empty stomach.
Jen is a music coordinator for a major motion picture studio who often finds herself at Pacific Dining Car after concerts. We sit in the original dining car at a four-top set against a small window with rounded corners and burgundy valances with fringe. Above us is a gold luggage rack holding a vintage trunk. Jen's beau, Ryan DeMarti, a band manager, joins us for the trip.
Rebecca: It really feels like we're on a train. Where are we going, guys?
Jen: Anywhere we want!
Rebecca: What brought you to this place?
Jen: The first time was at about 2:45 a.m. after a show at the Mayan, being backstage with Frightened Rabbit.
Rebecca: Wow, that must have been fun.
Jen: It was! They're so great. I was actually by myself. My friends all had to go to a different show, but we decided to meet up afterwards. It was a large group of us, freakin' starving, and we didn't want to stand out in the cold at a greasy taco truck.
Rebecca: I'm sure that gets old after a while.
Jen: Yes! So our party of 10 stumbled in here in our jeans and t-shirts and it was like a time warp. It reminded me of "The Shining."
Rebecca: But without the "redrum?"
A busser dressed in white places a basket of warm, assorted breads on our table, along with a silver, seashell-shaped dish containing scalloped balls of butter.
Rebecca: I didn't realize how fancy it is here. Unusual for a 24-hour place.
Jen: We had the same reaction. At first when you ultimately see the decor you feel like you're in a nice, fancy restaurant, like you should have worn heels. But they welcome all different types of people.
Jen: I like to call it the Ron Burgundy of restaurants. It's like, stay classy, Los Angeles.
Our server, Sergio, dapper in a green velvet dinner jacket, takes our order. Jen opts for a glass of Malbec and the baseball steak off the late-night menu, as made famous by the film "Training Day." Ryan orders Crown and Coke and pork chops off the standard dinner menu. I choose a Shirley Temple and the filet mignon sandwich, also from the late-night menu. Note: The late-night menu starts at 11:00 p.m. with steeply discounted prices as compared to the dinner menu.
Jen: I can actually remember seeing the baseball steak for the first time in all its gluttonous glory. I was like wow, they must have sprinkled vegan people's tears on top it's so amazing. And it's aged.
Re becca: An old ball of meat. How do you make meat into a ball without grinding it?
Jen: I don't know, but it's amazing, trust me.
Rebecca: So as you've climbed the ladder of the music industry, would you say you've also, you know, risen above greasy, late-night fast food?
Jen: For sure. I started out as an intern and had to go to shows all the time and would basically be eating scraps. My intern friend would eat half a hamburger and give me the rest of it. I still have no idea why I don't have some extra limb growing out of my head after all that fast food.
Rebecca: That's dedication right there. Why did you have to go to all those shows?
Jen: The main reason was to have my finger on the pulse and be ahead of the competition, but the competition usually already exists once you find a band that's amazing. You have to be in consistent mode to do that and be very nocturnal.
Rebecca: Has it affected your fandom at all?
Jen: It's hard because your ears train to listen to certain things and you have to know right away if there's a hit, or if the band is worth investing in. There are a lot of factors that come with witnessing a show, but it's not like the fandom is completely turned off. And I'm not complaining -- I have one of the best jobs ever.
Sergio reappears with several white platters, each supporting a substantial slab of meat nestled against a pile of fries of both sweet and non-sweet selections. The busser sets down another silver seashell containing what appears to be ketchup.
Rebecca: That is some fancy ketchup. No plastic squeeze bottles here.
Sergio: That's actually our steak relish.
Jen and Ryan cut into their meals as I struggle to lift my filet mignon sandwich to my mouth. The thick cut of beef is far too vast for my meager bite, especially when pressed between two white, toasted buns, lettuce, tomato and raw onion. To compromise, I attack it open-faced with a serrated knife, and find the meat to be flavorful and perfectly tender.
Jen: I could have sworn the baseball steak was rounder, but I had had a few drinks last time.
Rebecca: Well it's round-ish and maybe the size of a baseball?
Jen: Yeah and the charcoal sear is awesome, not overwhelming at all. It's perfectly medium rare, not too bloody, not mooing and it melts in your mouth. And this medley of fries and sweet potatoes fries is awesome.
Ryan: Mine has onion rings.
Knives scraping ceramic plates, mouths vigorously chewing, throats gulping it all down with wine and whisky: The sounds of a meat-and-potatoes meal.
Rebecca: Well I'm officially full and tired.
Jen: Me too. This is a very relaxing place, where you can just sit and digest. Very atypical to the L.A. lifestyle.
Sergio returns to clear our plates and we unanimously order the chocolate soufflé, denying our meat-induced lethargy. The busser brushes the crumbs off our table with what he calls "the little vacuum."
Rebecca: How long have you worked here, Sergio?
Sergio: Thirty-six years, since 1976.
Rebecca: Wow. Do you work the dinner shift most of the time?
Sergio: Now I work only dinner, but before I worked all the shifts, graveyard and everything.
Rebecca: What's your favorite story in all your years working here?
Sergio: It's really a great place to work. The customers have been great. A large percentage of our customers have been coming here for at least three generations. I have plenty of regulars who ask for me. It's been a great place to work.
His expert blocking and bridging tells me if these walls could talk, we'd be in for a treat.
As we await our dessert, we take in more of our surroundings. In its almost nine decades, the restaurant has expanded from a one-roomed dining car, to a compound. Down the hall is the wine room, where gold-framed paintings of dogs decorate the walls and a window to the wine cellar is the main attraction. Further into the depths is the Northern Pacific room, lit by an antler chandelier and an antler-framed mirror to match. This, as we were reminded several times, is where a scene in "Training Day" was filmed.
The chocolate soufflé finally arrives along with a dish of homemade whipped cream.
Jen: It's so warm and crispy on top and fudgy in the middle. Look at the steam rising off of it!
Rebecca: Give me some of that cream.
Our supper concludes with one last scrape of warm chocolate off the white ramekin. After our two-hour journey, we're ready to disembark at our final destination: bed.
[Photos by Hagop Kalaidjian]
Pacific Dining Car
1310 West 6th Street, 213.483.6000