Thursday, August 05, 2010

In One Era and Out Another

I never set foot in Edward's Steak House, which recently closed after 64 years, first in downtown Los Angeles, then in El Monte.

But I feel I know it well.

It was one of those meat-and-potato neighborhood eateries with faux turn-of-the-century decor and a wait staff, bartenders and busboys who had been there for decades. We've all hung our hats in someplace like Edward's.

Quality of food? Not gourmet but good. The drinks were stiff and the menu was as familiar as your every-day china. No pheasant in a cabernet reduction with sesame encrusted baby carrots here. Steak or prime rib or, if you must, halibut. Straight up, please, salad with blue cheese and a baked potato.

It was a place where locals celebrated births, held wakes, marked anniversaries and retirements.

Edward's was preceded in death by Monty's Steak House in Pasadena, which kept the grill fired up for 66 years and even in its final days had a lot of clients who I think may have been there on opening night. Regulars say in the old days that if they didn't finish a steak, the house would offer to take it off the bill. It closed in 2007.

Chances are, there's a place just like them in a neighborhood near you. If so, enjoy it while you can.

Some see sinister forces at work when a beloved institution closes its doors. One patron commented that "It's a shame that Obama has wrecked this country to the point that my favorite restaurant has to close."

That's slicing the baloney a bit thick. No one questions that we are in the throes of a precarious economy but its causes are numerous and widespread.

The owners of Edward's claimed dining room business was down 25 percent. But they also blamed the fact that big businesses in the area have given way to export/import operations, and the local work force is now largely single mothers who bring sack lunches.

It's the "there goes the neighborhood" explanation and a nice way of saying the ethnic makeup has changed. While that may be true to some extent, you can't always blame demographics.

El Monte's population has grown by 45,000 since Edward's moved there in 1973. Top employers, according to the city's website, include Wells Fargo Bank (operation center), Longo Toyota-Lexus (automobile sales and service), Vons Co. (distribution warehouse) and Saint Gobain Glass Container.

Besides, some of the oldest and most popular restaurants in Los Angeles thrive in what can politely be described as distressed neighborhoods that have changed dramatically over time.

Langer's Deli at 7th and Alvarado has been serving pastrami for 63 years next to MacArthur Park. Phillipe's has been going strong since 1908 near Union Station. Musso and Frank opened in Hollywood in 1919. San Antonio Winery by the L.A. River has been around for some 90 years. The Pacific Dining Car on West 6th Street in Downtown L.A. has been serving since 1921. None of these locales are garden spots.

The fact is that Edward's and Monty's had been around for nearly three-quarters of a century. They survived when better-known places such as the Brown Derby and Chasen's and Little Joe's went dark. By anyone's yardstick, that's a remarkable achievement, especially in a business known for a high failure rate.

But nothing, especially the clientele, lasts forever. You attract new customers or die.

In addition, both establishments were independent restaurants, which are on the endangered species list, being pushed toward oblivion by a combination of hard times and the growth of chain operations.

According to one survey by the restaurant industry, the number of restaurants in the United States has fallen by 5,204 since 2009. Independent restaurants took the hardest hits, while chains kept their unit counts relatively stable.

Those independents have suffered sales and traffic declines as prolonged high unemployment has weakened consumer spending. But the chains survive because the revenue of those that thrive help support those that struggle.

That's why you'll rarely see a Burger King close up shop. Yet New York's iconic Tavern on the Green in Central Park and Fraunces Tavern, which dates back to 1762, have shut their doors.

It's the Franchising of America.

And with places like Edward's and Monty's gone, the one-size-fits-all steak can't be far behind.

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