By the time you read this, our Santa Monica Norms will be fading fast. By Wednesday, midnight at the latest, it will be closed for good. The wrecking ball won’t be far behind, and we will have lost forever the distinctive sign and Googie architecture that has greeted us at the corner of Lincoln and Colorado for very close to half a century. But much more than that will be lost.
Some say so what? We’re losing the Denny’s across the street too, so what? They’re just chain diners with crappy food.
I can’t go out on a gastronomic limb defending Norms’ cuisine. But it is much better than Denny’s. Their menu offers surprises not found at your typical chain diner, and all at modest prices.
But anyone who equates Norms and Denny’s, or even says it’s no worse than losing a McDonald’s, either has never gone to Norms, or didn’t pay much attention when they did.
Didn’t you notice the personal greeting you got the second you walked through the door? Didn’t you notice most of the employees smiling? Smiling at a low-pay, high-stress, physically-demanding job. Smiling not just for a bigger tip. They smile and joke with each other too. They seem to enjoy working there. For decades.
Did you notice some patrons seem to know the staff really well? That’s because quite a few have been regulars the whole 50 years. Think about that. And many others still come decades after their parents brought them as kids. Assistant manager Tina told me a couple came in recently to celebrate their 40th anniversary, because their first date was there.
I wrote in a previous column about some of the long-time employees, and the United Nations staff, and said I would try to talk with them all. Well, it wasn’t possible. Didn’t meet the pair of servers from Ethiopia, Hiwot and Ainot. Nor the Belgian lady, Ria. Helga, from Germany, retired recently but a lot of customers still ask about her.
I did get to chat with Josie, 20 years, all in Santa Monica. “We’re like a family,” she said, and that explains a lot. I have to mention the knowledgeable, charming Connie, 20 years with Norms (17 in Santa Monica), because now this is the second time she’s been written up in a newspaper. I met Tony, 31 years, who began as a dishwasher. There’s Mario, 20 years. Another cook, 25.
And then there’s Sam No. 3, not the father-son chefs Sams, but actor/Dodger Stadium security dude/police academy hopeful Sam, who goes by “Joseph” (his middle name) because manager Muhammad said he couldn’t handle that many Sams.
“Joseph” was the source of much of the information and stories I know about the staff. He’s very bright, gregarious and polished, and his eyes are always darting around the room and he constantly interrupts our conversations with an “excuse me” as he calls out a greeting to a new customer entering or inquires of the counter full of Japanese students if they need anything else or dashes off to see if someone could use a coffee or water refill.
Sam told me about the woman in her 80s who told him of working as a young waitress at the first Norms, on Sunset west of Vine, 60-some years ago. He introduced me to Bill, a long-timer with endless fascinating stories who was accurate in his memory of the Santa Monica Norms being built in late 1964, something not even the corporate office got right until they researched it. He had just moved to Santa Monica and watched it being built, he told me, and was there the first day it opened. He’ll be there for the last day, too.
Sam told me of a couple of those long-time regulars sitting at the counter recently comparing notes, and one pointed to a corner stool and said, “That’s where Arnold used to sit, every time. It was before ‘Pumping Iron’ made him famous. He had long hair and drove a broken-down VW.”
He went on to say that he had to work up the nerve to tell muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop patting the waitress on the butt — because she was his girlfriend.
Though founder Norm Roybark died in 1969, his family still owns the business, and Sam said his grandchildren often come in to the Santa Monica location. He said a few months ago he spent a delightful two hours plus with Alexandra Guarnascelli, star of “The Cooking Loft” and “Chopped,” and winner of “The Next Iron Chef.” She told Sam it was the signature Norms sign that pulled her in, on her way to LAX. He said she ordered an egg white omelet and pored over the menu, enamored by all the choices, and “was very complimentary about every aspect as she watched us work.”
Norms is the kind of folk treasure you can’t get back once it’s gone. If certain elements weren’t making Santa Monica a paradise for developers, we might’ve had it for another 50 years.
I’ve been ragging on the Twilight Concert Series I feel is less than thrilling, and the kickoff show Thursday was a real yawner. Next week should be a good one though, with promising local trio the Record Company opening for singer-rapper-bassist Meshell Ndegeocello.
But what is up with almost an hour between acts? To set up for Surfer Blood? Maybe getting the stage fog right was really difficult (?), but I think they were ready to go but it “wasn’t time” yet.
I hated it when they changed the pier concert times from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. to 10. Change it back! Opening act gets half an hour, half an hour to set up the headliner and they play an hour. I agree with the guy I saw who was glowering at the stage and finally muttered “this is ridiculous” and wheeled and took off, after suffering through opening act Terraplane Sun and the hour of nothing between acts. But rest assured, buddy, you didn’t miss anything. I wish I had joined you.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 27 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at email@example.com