FORMER VILLAGE LANDMARK DEFINED A LOST ERA

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February 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

 

Palisades Drugstore Cafe, mid-1970’s

By Bob Vickrey

When I first walked into the Palisades Drugstore Café almost forty years ago, I thought I had stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting.

Jeff Kool, the longtime owner of the Palisades Bookshelf, had told me one of the best lunches in town was right down the street at the local drugstore. As I entered the back door and passed the pharmacy counter, I made my way toward the unmistakable buzz of lively conversation emanating from the busy lunch crowd seated around two adjoining horseshoe-shaped counters.

One of the customers at the counter moved down one seat to accommodate me, and I quickly recognized her as my new next-door neighbor, Phyllis Genovese, who owned the local letter shop. She introduced me to bicycle repair-shop owner Ted Mackie and several other friends sitting nearby.

A petite silver-haired waitress was taking an order from several diners who were seated in vintage vinyl booths located along the adjacent wall. In subsequent visits, I finally met the waitress named “Zona,” who initially displayed a rather crusty personality, so I began my quest to soften her up. It worked. Over the next decade, I was successful in making her smile—exactly twice.

During those first weeks living in Pacific Palisades, I met several people there with whom lasting friendships were eventually formed, including the co-owners of the business, Judy and Jay Steuerwald.

Palisades Drug Company was already a village fixture in the Business Block building that had first opened in 1924, and now reflected a fading symbol of a bygone era. Most drugstore food counters around the country had closed by that time, as large national chain stores gained a strong foothold in the market and began to phase out food service.

The Steuerwalds bought the store in 1973, which bordered Sunset, Swarthmore, and Antioch Boulevard in the large space now occupied by Starbucks, Subway, and Petit Ami, the children’s clothing store. Ron Barnes would later join the business as partner. Both Jay and Ron were pharmacists who guided the day-to-day operations of the store, which also featured a beauty counter, as well as magazine and candy racks.

Back then, Mort’s Delicatessen was widely acknowledged as the most popular restaurant in town, but the drugstore café was a rather well-kept secret that had a loyal following among local residents. The food there was consistently good and generally easy on your pocketbook.

Miguel Diaz, the cafe’s popular chef, and his wife Carmen, could quickly whip-up a tasty Spanish omelet that kept me coming back time after time. And their Mexican dishes were some of the most popular items served during the lunch hour—especially Miguel’s enchiladas. Burgers, fries, and milkshakes were also best-sellers—just like the old Rockwell period paintings had once depicted.

One of my friends liked the “Low-Calorie Plate” that featured a simple ground-beef patty, with cottage cheese and lime jello. He always enjoyed watching the reaction of nearby diners when he also ordered a large chocolate milkshake to accompany his weight-watching meal.

The café was a perfect gathering place that offered a warm, friendly atmosphere where business meetings were often conducted. A local contractor once said he negotiated and signed more contracts at the café than any other place in town. One thing was certain; you were always assured of running into several friends each time you ate there.

I was reminded of the uniqueness of the store after entertaining friends from Texas and taking them to see the usual Westside tourist attractions—Rodeo Drive, Will Rogers Park, and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The morning of their return trip home, they asked if we could have breakfast one more time “at the counter of that quaint little drugstore.” My friends told me afterward that it had been perhaps the highlight of their trip.

When the Business Block building changed ownership in 1983, the store moved across Sunset Boulevard to the building now occupied by Goorus Yoga Studio. The owners did a great job of recreating their oval-shaped café counters and continued to offer the same great atmosphere, but many of us will always vividly remember the original store that had once swept us back to yet another time and place.

In a recent interview with the Steuerwalds, Jay talked about their difficult decision in 1996, when they decided to close the store. “I can’t begin to tell you about the sadness that set in when we began packing and cleaning out the store after 23 years in business. We realized it was truly the end of an era.”

And if you’re wondering where some of those people are now: Bookseller Jeff Kool and former drugstore business partner Ron Barnes are both now deceased, as is Ted Mackie.

Miguel hung up his spatula years ago, and about the only place he flips omelets now is in his own home kitchen. He retired four years ago from Gelson’s Market in Century City. His wife Carmen still works at Gelson’s deli counter in the Palisades.

Phyllis Genovese recently turned 103, and from what I understand, she is still a very enthusiastic and competitive bridge player.

Former owners Jay and Judy Steuerwald are now retired and enjoy a full life of travel and time spent with their grandchildren. They can be spotted nowadays in the mornings sitting with friends at their sidewalk patio table at the Palisades Garden Café.

And Zona? She turned in her apron and order-pad long ago. My guess is that she is probably dining leisurely these days at the lunch counter of Heaven’s Golden Pearly Gates Café, while gently chiding her waitress, “And don’t forget the cream for my coffee!” But I’m betting she does so with a sly little wink and smile down in our direction.

 

Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in the Houston Chronicle and is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

Palisades Drugstore Owners, Judy & Jay Steuerwald in 2017

 

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