Downtown Los Angeles is riddled with historic restaurants from the early 1900s: Philippe’s, Cole’s and the Old Pantry Cafe, to name a few. Included in this list is the Pacific Dining Car.
Founded in 1921, the restaurant has grown and changed with Downtown L.A for most of the 1900s.
It began in 1921 with a young couple, Fred and Grace Cook. They left the East Coast for Southern California, after Fred realized that his dream of becoming an opera singer was too grand for his voice. Before departing the eastern shore, Fred and Grace, or “Lovey” as her friends called her, ate at a restaurant modeled after a railway car, which inspired them to start their own restaurant venture.
On 7th St. and Westlake, in the backyard of their friend’s place, the couple built their own railway dining car. They made the car more spacious and a little larger than an authentic one, so the dining experience would be less cramped and more enjoyable.
From the start, business was booming. People loved Fred’s sure hand and Grace’s ambrosial pies which no one, not even her daughter Virginia, could duplicate.
“She made the most incredible pies,” Virginia said. “What a pity it isn’t an inherited feature. No one had Lovey’s light touch with a crust … it’s an art form that escaped me.”
In 1923, because of land speculation, the restaurant’s 7th and Westlake property was sold, forcing the Pacific Dining Car to roll its way over to 6th and Wilmer, where it stands today.
Four years after its move, a rancher from San Diego taught Fred how to pick, age, and hang beef. So Fred began cooking the tastiest steaks, which were an instant hit with customers and eventually became a restaurant staple.
Not too long after this, word got out about Fred’s beef-picking and cooking capabilities, and competitors began buying all the best beef before Fred could get his hands on it. To solve the problem, Fred and Grace decided to have all their beef delivered directly to their doorstep; they even bought their own curing box, a container made for the preservation of meat!
Business was good for the Pacific Dining Car in the ’20s, but like most businesses, times got rough for the Dining Car during the Great Depression. Yet, the Cooks’ still offered a kind hand. People came to the restaurant begging for food, and Grace would tell them to come back after nine to sit and eat with their staff. At the end of the day, anything leftover would be taken to the nearby mission.
Meanwhile the Cook’s daughter, Virginia, finished her education and returned home married to a young electrical contractor, Wes Idol. Wes never planned on entering the restaurant business, but the Cooks needed temporary help in the kitchen. Wes became part of Dining Car staff, and slowly became inspired to start his own restaurant business with Cook’s Steak House in 1935.
When World War II began, Wes joined the army. By some extraordinary coincidence, he ended up as a mess officer, someone who works in the kitchen. While Wes was away, Virginia helped out her parents at the restaurant. The Car had to make do, limiting its menu options and often serving chicken in place of its steak entree. Once the war ended, Wes returned safely to L.A., and business picked back up.
In 1947, the death of Fred Cook left Grace in charge of the Car until her 80s, when her frail body could no longer keep up with the demand of running a restaurant full-time. She asked Virginia and Wes to take over the restaurant, and she spent her remaining years with them until she died at the age of 90.
After Virginia’s death, Wes and his son Wes Jr. remodeled the restaurant to include air-conditioning, new carpet and refurnished furniture. In 1964, Wes Jr. began traveling to foreign countries such as France and Germany to learn about wine. With his knowledge, Wes Jr. slowly began introducing wine to the Dining Car’s menu.
In 1975, Wes Jr. purchased the restaurant from his mother, after his father died. He remodeled the restaurant once more to create a finer dining experience with a wider variety of menu options.
In October 1990, another Pacific Dining Car opened in Santa Monica. Both restaurants are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making it a unique alternative for late-night dining.
Currently Wes Idol III owns the restaurant. He tries to create a natural and quiet ambience in the Dining Cars, letting social interaction drive the eating expereince. There’s no music pumping throughout the restaurants and when you enter, a doorbell rings, like you’re about to enter someone’s home.
The Pacific Dining Car welcomes a variety of customers. There’s the jokster of a bartender, whose acts as the neighborhood barber for those with problems to confess; there’s the humble waiter that sees ghosts, but doesn’t mind the company; and the lovely hostess that believes honesty is the clearest pathway to understanding and resolution. The Cars are a 90-year family with just one difference…the ability to cook a very tasty steak.
Listen to a short sound profile on one of its bartenders below: