Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wildfires and Scrambled Eggs: Elegy for the Hidden Springs Cafe

Here in LA, we're almost used to wildfires. We're surrounded by lots of dry trees that seem to burn quickly. That's one price we pay for living in a hot, sunny, dry climate. We're starting to learn to live with them, getting better at defensive construction, getting people out of the way. But there's always an element of tragedy in fires as big as the ones we have had here in LA, particularly when, like these, they burn close to large population centers. I could see smoke - lots of it - from my office in downtown LA.

For me, the great tragedy in this fire was the loss of a small building in the middle of the Angeles National Forest, the Hidden Springs Cafe. The Website is still up, but the Cafe itself is completely gone. The LA Times, to its eternal credit, had an article about the Cafe before its fate was known. They devoted a fair amount of space to it.

I discovered the Hidden Springs Cafe several years ago, driving through the Angeles National Forest. It wasn't hard to find, once you knew where it was, but it sure was hidden. To get there, you headed up the 2, into the Forest. Once there, you drove about 7 miles, and then turned left. Then another 7 miles, and it was on your left. Impossible not to notice, because it was the only building for miles. I'd go there every few months, for a mini-vacation.

I have to admit that I didn't really go there for the food, except for the chili, which was great (it was advertised as "nearly world-famous"). Most of the rest was pretty basic diner food, but very good diner food. I usually went for the grilled ham and cheese.

But what the Hidden Springs Cafe lacked in culinary flamboyance it made up for in charm and character, and it had those in spades. It was a small place, with about 8 stools around a horseshoe counter, and a couple of picnic tables outside. There was only room for one cook in the kitchen, but that was all that was needed. The cook's name was Jim, and his twin sister Janice was the waitress. Their mother Elva was usually there too, partially because she lived upstairs, partially because she owned it, and I don't think I ever remember her not smiling. Jim and Janice traded banter like nobody's business. Their older brother Otis was there occasionally. He would play banjo for the customers. He was there the last time I was there, in July, subbing for Jim. I ordered scrambled eggs for breakfast, with toast and bacon. Otis told me that he wasn't really good with scrambled eggs. I thot this was something of an odd confession for a short order cook, but it was utterly charming that this guy would share this kind of tidbit with me. The eggs were fine, they just weren't very scrambled. But they were the only scrambled eggs I've ever ordered that I remembered, and will always remember.

The family had owned it since 1971, and you could feel every day of those years on the walls. The best of those years was carefully layered on those walls, and preserved, not so much through comprehensive attempts at preservation as through constant attention to keeping the place like it always was. Ironically, one of the major decorative features was a string of Smokey The Bear posters, including the very first one. It was the kind of place where you felt very comfortable immediately, and kept feeling that way.

It wasn't just the family that ran it that made it a fun place; it always attracted people, some regulars, and some people just wandering by. You were pretty much guaranteed a good story, either from Jim, Janice, Elva, or Otis, or from someone who had been there dozens of times and was stopping by to check in and catch up. The Hidden Springs Cafe was like its very own small town, in the middle of a National Forest the size of Rhode Island, in the middle of one of the most populous counties in the world. It was a quiet little dot a few miles north of Hollywood, world capital of spectacle and glamour. The food was cheap but as good as it could be, the root beer floats were classic, and the charm was real. Just as real was the love the people there had for each other, their jobs, the lifestyle they had carved out for themselves, and the people who had discovered this little bit of magic. I will miss the Hidden Springs Cafe.

1 comment:

Laryssa said...

So sorry! I so understand what you are feeling. Not quite the same but several favorite haunts in New Orleans are gone or forever changed for me too. :(

This place you describe reminds me of the "Whistle Stop Cafe" from "Fried Green Tomatoes. LOVE!