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A collage featuring images of piece of toast topped with a pat of butter, a cafe sign, and a slice of pie. Lille Allen/Eater

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Why, Exactly, Do We Love Old Restaurants?

A quest to understand the illogical appeal of the old and “just fine”

We were driving home from Sedona, Arizona, to Los Angeles. There were blue skies and snow-capped red mountains; I’d like to think we were listening to Willie Nelson, but it was probably Haim. We stopped in Quartzite, Arizona, (population: 2,358) at a roadside antiques store that was more of a tent than a building, where we bought a very affordable and cumbersome glass punch bowl with a dozen tiny glass cups and a heavy glass ladle. It was January 2019. We have used the punch bowl twice.

After loading it into the trunk, we sat in the car for what felt like 30 minutes but was probably closer to four or five. I scrolled through Yelp. There was a McDonald’s with 2 stars, a Subway with 2½, and a Dairy Queen with 4 (!). Burger King and Carl’s Jr. were perched familiarly along the freeway off-ramp, offering beacons of light to weary travelers looking for convenient sustenance at all hours.

I kept scrolling, proudly, defiantly.

A little farther down the page, I came to find Mountain Quail Cafe. Through a willingness to go “just a few minutes out of the way,” I was chasing a feeling. Sure, I would always rather support a small business than a fast-food chain. But more than anything, I wanted the calm satisfaction of the right meal at the right moment: something individual, or unique, or at least specific to the place.

On a surface level, I suppose I was just hoping for anything other than corporate monotony. But on a deeper level, I think I wanted to find a place of independent character and ideally someplace old, where people had been eating for decades. I wanted a restaurant that had survived a changing world and somehow wore its years gracefully but honestly. I hoped for patrons with weathered faces, and a server who’d committed a crime two states over, or maybe dated Bob Dylan in the ’60s, or fought in a war that no one remembers. The toast would come with margarine and the soda with chipped ice in a 32-ounce plastic cup, but the coffee would come in a 6-ounce mug with endless refills of varying temperatures. I wanted a steak that begged to be smothered in A-1 Sauce, maybe served as an open-face sandwich that really just means “on top of a slice of sourdough toast.” I’d order the soup of the day, no matter what is in it. I knew that I would rather fast for the next 4½ hours than eat a Deluxe McCrispy.

We drove the extra 1.6 miles to Mountain Quail Cafe. To be honest, I barely remember the food or the diner itself. But I do remember liking our server, or at least craving her approval. I bought a Mountain Quail Cafe hat that I still wear. My wife bought a shirt that says “You’ve Got Quail,” in that swoopy Mom font, printed with little-to-no irony, perched above an image of two quails sitting on a mailbox. I think the soup of the day was beef and barley. I still love Mountain Quail Cafe, or maybe just my memory of what it represents. It has become a symbol of my roadside true north: to always, always put in the time to find the other place, ideally one that opened for business at least 25 years ago.

But then more recently, I had a make-up birthday dinner with my wife and some friends, and I picked a place my wife could never enjoy: an old, vibey, and notoriously “it’s… fine?” Italian steakhouse, about an hour away from our home in typical LA traffic (so, 15 miles). The martinis are strong and come with a heavily diluted sidecar; the chicken parm is a clumsily breaded, tightly clenched fist of a breast, with squeaky melted cheese on top. The sauce is simultaneously thick and watery. I had a great time. My wife thought it was a bit.

“But you liked it, like... ironically. Right?” she asked.

“I don’t think so?” I questioned back. I pointed out that she enjoyed the iceberg antipasto salad. She pointed out that if I had cooked spaghetti like that for our family, I would have become livid at my own ineptitude and ruined everyone’s night.

I will admit that it did make me a little self-reflective. At home, I tend to participate in the “less and better” model when it comes to meat consumption: I buy prohibitively expensive animal protein from small local farms, and I don’t do it very often. But put me in a diner that opened in the 1940s, and you can serve me Sysco corned beef from a can, and I will genuflect to my server.

“I don’t think it’s ironic,” I responded the next morning, still grappling with what the hell I liked so much about these old, often mediocre places, where I am willing to put up with nearly anything, other than self-awareness or overly sleek merch.

My wife, a self-identified (and term-coining) elder millennial, believes that she is of the first generation completely tied to the internet, where nearly everything is so well trod and covered that there is an allure in finding the place that has not been exploited, or built into chains, or commercialized. “If an old diner was filled with 30-year-olds taking Instagram photos, you wouldn’t enjoy it,” she said. It was a direct hit. “It’s why we were the first ones to wear certain types of clothes ironically,” she went on, “like a ‘Lake Placid Fun Run, 1987’ T-shirt. It’s funny because there is no way you were there. In a world that now has so much that is designed and geared toward social media, to find a place that is not is in itself a special thing.” This did not, however, change her opinion of our Italian steakhouse dinner.

“We are,” said Ray, a friend of similar predilections to mine, “men of a certain age.” This echoed my wife, in a way, making me feel deeply un-special and lacking in uniqueness.

“But I think I was always this way,” I said, realizing that maybe I have always been a man of a certain age.

There is something, though, to the idea of a place completely removed from the current era, which has bits of grease still clinging to the walls from when Reagan was president. These sorts of oases — the ones that have a gravitational ability to make me pull over and go inside — are emotional time machines. They feel like relics from an old version of the world that I’ve seen only on television or imagined while reading old books. I’ve been describing it as a sort of restaurant anemoia, a nostalgia for a meal and a dining establishment that I’ve never had or been to — but somehow feels like home (to me, anyway) or like an old suit from the first moment I slide into it. It can be a 94-year-old diner in Atlanta, a cafe in Quartzite, or a soba restaurant in Tokyo that opened in the 1800s.

Growing up in a constantly changing city with rapidly increasing land value like Los Angeles, I think I also seek something that ties me to the past. I want to feel like the city is not just paving paradise, et cetera, but that I could vacation, even if just for an hour, in a booth that Raymond Chandler might have eaten in, or more specifically, where a character from a Raymond Chandler novel might have eaten in.

But this doesn’t just apply to Los Angeles. The ubiquity of more affordable chain restaurants and fast food, of predatory restaurant franchising deals, of VCs wanting to invest only in “scalable concepts” has made it all the more impressive when a place survives — almost as a public service — where the goal is not to get rich but to stay in business and to serve food to a neighborhood. These institutions, whether you find them in a dusty, freeway-adjacent town on your way to somewhere else, or by your mom’s house in a suburb of your home city, continue as absolute outliers. You want them to remain miraculously and immaculately frozen in time. They are not allowed to have a social media account unless it seems it’s being run by someone in their 70s, squinting through prescription reading glasses. They cannot have sleekly designed merchandise. The customers have to be at least a little bit annoyed when I walk in. The servers are allowed to know that the place is special, but they aren’t allowed to openly care about it.

I have long believed that context actually does affect flavor. On the one hand, it means that a taco tastes better on a street corner than it does in a gastropub. On the other, it means that a meal I would consider to be an egregious violation in one restaurant is charmingly irrelevant in another. Obviously, culinary mediocrity is not the goal for these timeless establishments. It is certainly wonderful to visit old restaurants that are truly great: Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria in Chicago; Langer’s Deli in Los Angeles; Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans. But the real dream would be to stumble upon them, having never read about them on this website or any other. I want to open a door and be transported into someone else’s reality, to appear in the background of an episode of Cheers, drinking beer and listening to people with decades of history, bickering jovially. I want to tell the bartender it’s my first time here and ask what I should eat, and he’d roll his eyes and say, “People usually get the fish-and-chips,” and then he’d walk away before I ordered to go take care of someone who has been eating there three times a week for 15 years.

As a means of meditating on this further, I met with my friend Ray, as well as Eater LA senior editor and similar lover of old historic restaurants, Farley Elliott, at Pasadena mainstay Pie ’N Burger. We sat at a counter seemingly untouched by time, and after catching up for a bit over burgers, a patty melt, macaroni salad, and fries, I got to the point. Without skipping a beat, Farley talked passionately and eloquently about the egalitarian nature of a diner, of its ability to offer something for everyone, of any age and (nearly) any dietary restriction, sometimes at all hours, of the importance that comes from genuinely and consistently nourishing a community. Historically, he pointed out, these places often served people at times and in places when no one else could or would, carving out a rectangle of dirt in a place that did not serve food, and then working long, awkward hours to cook convenience-based meals for people who wanted to eat. Most importantly, perhaps, he mentioned a deep love of pencil-thick coffee mugs. We talked about becoming new parents, which was not relevant to restaurant anemoia at the time but feels very much so now, in retrospect. As I sit at home, I think back to warm boysenberry pie buried under a slab of vanilla ice cream alongside friends; of clumsily drinking clumsy martinis in a dark steakhouse with red booths and a second floor that barely gets used anymore; of sitting in a Googie diner as a kid with my dad, sprinkling salt and pepper into my orange juice because I thought the two flavors would cancel each other out; of feeding my daughter pork chops and eggs (while trying to get her to stop biting the crayons) at the best truck stop restaurant in California.

My wife said recently, unprompted, over dinner at home, “I know this is obvious, but you eventually realize that your children will never have the same childhood as you.” As I think about that now, as a person who has worked in restaurants that are no longer open, where I served food to someone on a first date, then years later served food to their children too, I get wistful. My daughter will never experience the fried rice I used to eat for breakfast (while my dad and brother ate eggs and pancakes) at 2 C’s Diner in Santa Monica as a kid. I have come to believe that there can be connections not just between two people in a restaurant, or even between a person and the restaurant itself — I like to think that these connections are also between us and the people who have eaten in these restaurants long before us.

Maybe I’m just a hipster, or a millennial, or whatever bucket of a word the previous generation wants to use to criticize the one right after them. Maybe I’m still just the obnoxious teenager who refused to ingest new music or literature until it “stood the test of time” (puke); who listened to Tom Waits’s Intro to Eggs and Sausage a few too many times; and who now still prefers a coffee shop to a coffee bar, a dive bar to a cocktail program, and a soda fountain to a creamery. Another friend suggested that I’m “trying to live out still frames from an art film.” These all, frankly, are probably true. Maybe middle-aged white men have been the prototype of “basic bitches” this whole time. It is perhaps the epitome of solipsistic middle age to sit around trying to assign deeper meaning to whatever you’re doing with your life.

But children do add context and weight to things that previously did not have them. Movies strike different emotions, a Billie Eilish song can now cause me to erupt into tears. We project forward in ways that we were incapable of before. Even nostalgia, it turns out, can be projected forward. These precious few dining establishments that opened before I was born, or shortly after, that maintain something of their past, even if it is not the quality of the food, can still mean something much larger than the tangible things that are contained within their walls. If they get to exist, and continue to exist, then it makes me a little more optimistic about a future that is otherwise riddled with fear and anxiety. It is a small consolation to imagine my daughter getting to eat scrambled eggs or drink a bottle of beer on a stool I might have sat on, even if it is just a rationalization, a way to glorify a feeling of an older time, and a link to a past I don’t truly know anything about. These places are a comfort and a solace, even if my daughter never cares about them in the least, even if I have to squint at a chewy sirloin steak or avoid looking out the window at the outside world to see it myself.

Noah Galuten is a chef, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, and the co-host of Don’t Panic Pantry.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein