Editor’s note: With the opening of the Expo Line’s extension to Santa Monica, locals have a new way to explore neighboring areas. The Daily Press will publish a weekly travelogue about what to eat, see and do near each of the stations along the Expo Line, continuing this week at the third non-Santa Monica stop: Westwood/Rancho Park.
It’s hard to figure out exactly which sense to process first.
Once you pull on the first set of dark green doors and push through the second, there’s the sight of bygone-era cash registers atop a U-shaped counter dotted with metallic holders for conical paper cups as longtime workers with white soda jerk hats hustle around the frenetic but efficient central kitchen.
There’s the sound of competing conversations as customers chat over the whirring and humming din of the diner, an appropriate score to the nostalgic feel of cushioned red seatback stools, crinkling wax paper and laminated menus with recipes dating back to the 19th century.
There’s the smell of warm apple pie accentuated by wafting scents of fresh burgers and French fries, an aromatic amalgamation so enticing that it forces my uncle into a partial genuflection of worship when he walks by.
And then, of course, there’s the taste of arguably the best burger and pie in the region.
It’s a sensory nirvana only experienced at the Apple Pan, a longstanding West L.A. burger joint that’s a short, anticipation-filled walk from the Expo Line’s Westwood/Rancho Park station.
What can be written about this place, a destination since 1947, that hasn’t been before? It’s old-timey to the point where it sometimes seems on the verge of extinction, it’s iconic in a neighborhood that has seen many changes over the last decade and it’s delicious in a way that elicits raving hyperbole.
The tagline under its neon sign is “Quality Forever,” the only caveat being that the cash-only establishment is closed on Mondays.
For so many Angelenos, a trip to the Apple Pan comes with a certain esteem, whether it’s a quick midweek lunch or a pie pickup before Thanksgiving. For me, it’s practically a personal (albeit very short) mecca. It’s where I went for pre-homework fries during middle school. It’s where I’ve gone for dinner before attending basketball games at UCLA. It’s where I’ve caught up with old friends over burgers and IBC root beers. And it’s where I’ve taken dates for apple pie a la mode.
Needless to say, the gastronomic gods have blessed this corner of Pico Boulevard and Glendon Avenue with decades of foodborne thrill-ness.
When the Apple Pan is busy, which it often is, the wait is beautiful chaos. As diners-to-be line the perimeter of the 26-seat room, there are two conflicting philosophies at play. Some think it’s service on a first-arrival basis regardless of where you’re standing to wait; others believe there’s an understood separation by side. You can imagine the tension when a small group walks in, waits on the left side and watches as another party that came in after them fills a new vacancy on the right.
It would almost be worth grabbing a bowl of popcorn to watch, but I’m not here to eat popcorn. (Although, if that’s what you’re looking for, the Landmark Theatres are just a block away.) No, I’m here to eat my favorite burger on the planet.
It will look like your server is just scribbling squiggly lines on a pad of paper, but trust that your order will be done right. Ask for the hickory burger with extra sauce and extra lettuce, a side of fries and a cream soda for good measure.
You and this burger will get along famously. The inimitable hickory sauce, smoky and tangy and oozing with flavor, is the stuff of legend. (My brother swears that the sauce’s stratospheric quality climbs even higher when it has the chance to mingle with the burger’s beef patty, and he might be right.) The lettuce plays an important role as well, providing a cool, refreshing crunch. It’s simple, it’s $7.65 and it’s a reason to believe there’s hope for humanity.
When you’re finished with the burger, your server will pop up out of nowhere with a serious question: “Any pie?” There’s no wrong answer (except “No thanks,” of course). Close out your meal with a banana cream slice, a dessert so mindbogglingly good that it should be used as a peace offering at international diplomacy summits.
At this point, don’t feel bad if there are people standing behind you, waiting to eat. After all, they’re planning to enjoy the Apple Pan exactly as you did, the same way others before you have done for nearly 70 years.
It only makes sense.
The Expo Line now has 19 stations covering 15.2 miles between Downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica. A regular one-way fare is $1.75 and includes two hours of free transfers for riders using a TAP card. A daily pass good for unlimited rides on Metro is $7 and monthly passes are $100. Visit taptogo.net for more information.