Photo: Norm’s. Credit: Carlos Lozano.
Note: My friend Carlos Lozano, the state editor at The Times, passed along one of the essays he calls Sunday Journal and gave me permission to post it here.
BREAKFAST AT NORM’S
The place is packed this morning. Norms is always busy, even during the week, when you can get the Four Deuces special — 2 hotcakes, 2 bacon strips, 2 eggs and 2 link sausages — for $3.99. The Monday through Friday crowd is older, mostly retirees, regulars who have lived in the neighborhood for years. But Saturdays and Sundays are different. It’s packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, nose-to-nose, egg-to-egg. And it’s a different crowd. They’re workers, they’re tired and they want someone else to flip their pancakes on the weekend. It’s also a younger crowd. You can hear the kids screaming and crying the minute you walk in. It’s all part of a familiar soundtrack, which today includes an army of waitresses barking orders in Spanish to an overworked chef named Juan, the clattering of empty plates all around and the sound of endless strips of bacon sizzzzling on the football-field size grill. Above the din can be heard the occasional refrain: “More coffee?”
I take my usual place at the counter. The people here are often alone. They share other traits: they like to read (mostly newspapers), they drink gallons of coffee and they know all the waitresses by name. Today, it’s Maria, Melissa and Flora — black pants, white shirt and red tie — behind the counter. I always like to watch 5′ foot 2” Flora. She can juggle four or five plates at a time while zig-zagging in and out of traffic. She is a wonder. But Maria is my waitress. She knows what I like. Eggbeaters. Turkey sausage. Fruit salad. “How are you?” she says, with the kind of sincerity that makes you sit up and pay attention. The best part is not having to explain yourself. Tea instead of coffee. Check. English muffin instead of toast. Check. Strawberry jam instead of grape jelly. Got it. (Norms, Exceeding Expectations Since 1949!)
Then there are the customers. Seated to my right is the Woman in Red, with extra-large gold loop earrings and a zebra striped purse that looks like it could still be alive. She hugs her boyfriend, and explains child-like that she prefers her eggs scrambled, with a dollop of Picante sauce to get her going. But Mr. Dillinger is more concerned about the Dodgers last place standing in the National League West. “Forget it! This season is lost,” he grumbles to himself, chucking the Sports section and ordering more decaf to go with his French toast. To my left is a big, burly Oakland Raiders fan, his faded pirate’s T-shirt stretched tight over a too-proud working-class belly. He glances at the menu for a moment, then unapologetically orders the Lumberjack Breakfast — basically a carton of eggs, a pile of steamy, golden brown pancakes and a Top Sirloin Steak, “the chef’s master cut.” All for $11.99. The menu is loaded with such heart-stopping delights. There’s the Bigger Better Breakfast, for example, with tons of ham and bacon on the side. Or, for wimps, the Fruit Topped Pancakes Serenade. Norms is open 24-hours so the menu covers a lot of ground. Where else in Los Angeles can your order the “ultimate” meatloaf — with sauteed garlic mushrooms — or a Super Scooper Sundae at 4 a.m.?
Everything about Norms is a throwback to ’50s L.A. From the meat-heavy menu to the cloth-covered ceiling lamps to the jet-age design of the building with its cantilever wing roof. At night, the towering orange and white neon sign spells out Norms in vertical fashion, with each letter appearing to shoot across the sky, leaving a tail-fin of smoke in its wake. Classic Kitsch. But endearing nonetheless. In 1964, L.A. artist Ed Ruscha immortalized the place when he painted Norms La Cienega on Fire. (My artist brother cracked that it should have been called Grease Fire.) Whatever Ruscha’s motivation, I like knowing there’s a painting of my favorite breakfast joint hanging in a museum somewhere. This is my place. Comfortable and comforting. It’s old L.A., right down to the plate clock on the kitchen wall, a knife and fork substituting for the hands. At Norms, it’s always time to eat.
–Carlos Valdez Lozano
Norms La Cienega
470 La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048