Dining and Driving on the Empty Freeways of Los Angeles

Dining and Driving on the Empty Freeways of Los Angeles

Now, without the din of a busy dining room, the occasional poke of a stranger’s elbow in your back when you’re squashed together at the bar, without the possibility of a server chatting with you at the table, the two-way speaker is a kind of lifeline — intimate and reassuring.

“We’ve been slammed,” said the worker who stuck out the credit card PIN pad at arm’s length, when I asked how she was doing. But I couldn’t tell if she was relieved, or scared. I couldn’t tell if going to restaurants right now was supportive, or exploitative.

Before moving to Los Angeles, I associated drive-throughs with the national chains that popularized the form, but many of the city’s most reliable drive-throughs are smaller, independent restaurants. I’m thinking of places like Arry’s in Montebello, or Daglas Drive-In in Winnetka.

Writing for Eater, Farley Elliott called this category of fast-food diner the “true regional specialty restaurant of Los Angeles.” Every neighborhood has its own burger/chili/burrito/pastrami restaurant — yes, that’s a specific kind of restaurant — and it’s often complete with ancient menus and sticky booths.

Last week, I drove by for a pastrami sandwich at Rick’s Drive In & Out on Fletcher Drive. It’s an absurdly large roll of thinly shredded pink meat wrapped in a fine layer of butter-fried bread. It is possible, though perhaps inadvisable, to eat it while driving.

My order at Patra’s Charbroiled Burgers, on San Fernando Road, is the sourdough patty melt, bound together with a little too much sticky cheese and a fine dice of onion. The bread is buttery golden and crisp, never spongy, and the patty that’s hidden inside is crunchy-edged and thin. It is cut diagonally. It is consistently perfect.

Through the open window of my car, when it’s lined up with the open window of the kitchen, I can hear the cook scraping his wide metal palette knife against the hot griddle. I can hear someone calling out the orders.


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