Sunday, January 11, 2009

The J & H Cafe: No Greasy Spoon

In the mid 1950’s, I was employed at a small restaurant located on Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. I worked there from four in the afternoon to nine at night for two out of the three years I was in High School.

It was called the J & H Café, and was run by its owners, Johnny and Holland. Holland did all of the cooking, and Johnny did most everything else. Although, the restaurant was open for lunch and dinner, I worked from four in the afternoon to about nine at night.

Nearly everything served at the J & H was made on site including dinner rolls, fruit and cream pies and cakes. The place was not open on weekends, and five days a week customers could select from three entrees such as grilled pork chops, meat loaf, Swiss steak, fried liver and onions, and chili mac.

In addition there was always a selection of cooked vegetables such as mashed potatoes, succotash, whole kernel corn, and peas and carrots. Baked potatoes, available every night, were set on top of the oven in a layer of coarse salt to keep warm. Hot sandwiches, including hamburgers, grilled cheese, and open faced hot roast beef served with mashed potatoes and gravy, were also on the menu.

Customers were always in a hurry because they had exactly 30 minutes to eat (starting at twelve minutes past the hour), and arriving back at work one minute late cost them eleven more. They worked for the Douglas Aircraft Company, located directly across Ocean Park Boulevard from the J & H, and Douglas, for reasons I never understood, divided the hour into five twelve minute segments.

To save time many dinner customers telephoned their orders into the restaurant. My responsibilities included setting their orders on the tables before they arrived. There was limited confusion because they remembered what they ordered, and always sat at the same tables. If they ordered meat loaf they simply sat down at “their” table in front of the first meatloaf they saw. All they had to do was sit down eat, and pay when they left. Customers that did not telephoned got in line, and ordered cafeteria style.

Since there was only the one dinner service, and nearly everyone left simultaneously, I bused all of the tables at the same time, and cleaned up the dining room after service was over.

During WWII the employment at Douglas Santa Monica reached 44,000 working 24/7. By the 1950’s while employment was less than at the peak Douglas was still very busy building aircraft including their last propeller driven airliner, the DC-7. The plant’s site was 255 acres and incorporated Clover Field just to the south. After the war started there was concern that the plant might be bombed by aircraft, and the entire facility was heavily camouflaged. I first heard about this some years ago, but only recently located photos on the Internet:

This view shows someone
walking under the camo netting

This photo illustrates how
effective the camo
actually is; there's a factory
under there.

Believe it or not part of the
Douglas Aircraft Company factory
is at the bottom, center of this

In about a year Johnny sold the restaurant, and I stayed to work for the new owner. After the newbie started covering telephoned orders with aluminum lids to help keep them warm business slid downhill. The aluminum lids prevented diners from recognizing their orders; they couldn’t tell meatloaf from chili mac. The resulting confusion caused disagreement and wasted time. Anyway, the customers were unforgiving, started eating elsewhere, and within about six months Johnny bought back the restaurant.

In 1959, after I was released from active duty with the Marine Corps I went to work for Douglas still located in Santa Monica. I worked at their Missiles and Space Systems Division. At the time an important product was the Thor missile that the US was busily placing in Turkey; you may remember that this contributed to the Cuban missile crisis.

One afternoon some of the guys I worked with at Douglas were discussing they were going to have lunch, and mentioned the J & H, referring to it as that “greasy spoon”. Alright, the place wasn’t Michelin star quality; I will give them that, but doggone it “greasy spoon” it wasn’t.

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