As a companion to T’s 212 series about New York institutions, the 213 column highlights beloved landmarks in and around Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is the promise of speed denied.
It’s a city of five-lane freeways where traffic crawls. A city that teases the possibility of instant stardom, yet it can take years to land a SAG card. Los Angeles is the birthplace of In-N-Out Burger — its very name auguring swift satisfaction — where the drive-through lines stretch to infinity. Behold the Maseratis in the queue: eager to race, forced to idle. Angelenos know the feeling.
So anywhere that things happen quickly and smoothly in this town? Those are the spots to be treasured. And top of the list for me is the Apple Pan, established in 1947.
Which is not to say it’s a fast-food joint — speed isn’t the intended main attraction. In fact, the Apple Pan owes its fame to two things: its menu and its time machine interior. Push through the swinging wooden double doors and you’re in the Platonic ideal of a no-frills ’40s diner. Just about everything is as it was 76 years ago. Lacquered wood lines the walls and window frames. There are no tables. Instead, a U-shaped countertop with seating for just 26 customers frames a central island of brick-lined grills, deep fryers and stainless-steel prep stations. There, a gaggle of chefs and servers in old-school paper hats churn out French fries and sandwiches with the discipline of a bee colony. A window along the back wall allows a clear view into the baking area, where more workers pull little steaming golden volcanoes from a stack of ovens. These are the Apple Pan’s famed apple pies, with their distinctive domed crusts.
All the food prep is visible at all times. The message is clear: “We have nothing to hide. We’re proud of these ingredients and we’re happy to be scrutinized as we turn them into your lunch.” A sign above the entrance proclaims, “Quality Forever.”
To live up to the slogan, the menu has been kept spartan: Just seven sandwiches, about as many pies and a couple of sides. Every detail of every dish has been refined over decades. The grilled cheese arrives garnished with three pickle slices and three olives, and you have the sense that this is the optimal number of each required. Order a whole apple pie and it comes boxed with a little cup of extra syrup, so you can add moisture during reheating at home. According to the co-owner Shelli Azoff, the secret ingredient of the signature Hickoryburger is not its smoky sauce, but the countervailing cool freshness of iceberg lettuce — each leaf selected for maximum crunch. “We don’t really use the outside leaves,” she says. “It’s all the heart.”
But while the precision-made burgers satisfy and the décor charms, I think what endears regulars to the Apple Pan, whether they realize it or not, is its breakneck, clockwork system. The sense of being cared for by a crack unit — a few of whom have worked there close to 50 years — who know exactly how to optimize every second you spend in a seat.
Take, for instance, the fries. Whatever else you order, they will be served first — in what feels like seconds. Immediately, your hunger abates. Immediately, despite the clamor, you know you’ve not been forgotten. Along with the fries comes an empty cardboard plate, onto which your server unceremoniously slaps a few dollops of ketchup from a bottle of Heinz. It turns out that makes for very convenient fry dipping. None of this is something you’d think to ask for — “Fries first please, and could I trouble you for a plate with a splash of ketchup?” But that’s the point: At the Apple Pan, you don’t need to ask. You can, for a few minutes in this sprawling, crawling city, relax someplace small and sane.
For a hint at the origins of the Apple Pan’s obsessive focus on service and longevity — quality forever — check the history of its co-founder, Alan Baker. Back in 1927, along with his mother and his brother, he opened a Hollywood sandwich joint called King’s Kitchen, which sometime thereafter burned to the ground. He, his wife, Ellen, and his family spent years saving cash and inventing recipes to launch a follow-up. You can imagine Baker’s vowing that this one would be built to last.
Sure enough, the Apple Pan became a landmark, the kind of place to which generations of West Side Angelenos have reflexively headed after Little League practice or a night at the movies. Azoff remembers frequent visits during her teen years in the 1970s, the biggest impression being the little diner’s honor system seating. “You’d have 15 people standing against the walls, waiting for a seat,” she recalls. “People would eat, and they’d go. They didn’t dillydally, because they were respectful, always, of people waiting.”
And so the Apple Pan rolled on into the 21st century, serving customers at a clip. The Bakers’ daughter, Martha Gamble, eventually took over. Then Martha brought in her own daughter, Sunny Sherman, to help run it. In 2019, word got out that Sherman was looking to sell.
Apple Pan regulars held their collective breath. Would new owners raze the place? Or worse, keep it open, and change it in any way whatsoever?
Azoff knew how they felt. She and her music mogul husband, Irving (who incidentally manages another Los Angeles institution — the rock band Eagles), had already stepped in to buy and preserve another old-school West Side eatery: the Beverly Hills diner Nate ‘n’ Al’s, established in 1945. A friend suggested they do the same for the Apple Pan. “They wouldn’t sell to just anyone,’” says Azoff. “Irving and I went out to dinner with Sunny and her mom, who has since passed. They had to feel comfortable that we were the kind of people who would keep it as it is. I said ‘Sunny, I will never change anything.’”
That goes for the staff — all of whom have been retained — the interior, the menu and the recipes (with a few additions, like an off-menu Impossible Burger and — available only on weekends — a pie that’s one-third chocolate cream and two-thirds banana or coconut cream). And even if Sunny Sherman is now off the payroll, she’s still on quality control. “She lives around the corner,” says Azoff. “Sometimes I’ll get a call from her saying, ‘There aren’t enough bananas in the pies today.’ And we immediately get to the bottom of it.”
A few other nods to modernity were forced upon Azoff by the pandemic: She converted the parking lot to outdoor dining space — which has turned out to be a boon, effectively doubling the restaurant’s seating capacity — and payment, cash only for over 70 years, can now be made by credit card. None of this has resulted in any perceivable lag in the Apple Pan system. The other week, I wolfed down some fries and a Hickoryburger and slapped down my card. In the time it took to glance briefly away, it was back — payment processed, with a receipt. I stood up from the counter, looked out at Pico Boulevard and the traffic I was about to pull into and wished I’d just taken my time.