The Googie-style architecture at Dinah's is a draw for customers wanting a blast-from-the-past atmosphere and a delicious meal. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)
grew up just a mile from Los Angeles International Airport, and for 40 years, my family has been guarding a neighborhood secret.
One that involves a giant scoop of butter melting across a crispy, cinnamon-sugar crust.
I’m talking about the apple pancake at Dinah’s, a family diner right under the LAX flight path, just off Sepulveda Boulevard.
It opened in 1959, with Googie-style architecture. Think "The Jetsons" — big stucco orbs jutting from the ceiling, fake rock walls and vinyl booths.
My little brother, Akash, and I have been fighting over what to order here for decades. The breakfast menu is endless: chicken and waffles, chocolate waffles, even a bacon-and-cheese waffle. But in the end, I win out, insisting that we order our family staple: the apple pancake that’s more like eating a giant apple pie for breakfast.
“It takes 20 minutes, but it’s worth it,” warns our server. “You can’t find it anywhere else, and it makes your day better!”
Twenty minutes is a long time to wait at a diner where everything else arrives in minutes: eggs, toast and even decent coffee.
While we’re waiting, I chat with owner Teri Ernst. She started here as a waitress in 1972, wearing a white dress with a red apron, and a “funny little hat.”
“I had never worked at a place that was so busy. On Mondays, we had all-you-can-eat chicken, and there would be a line out the door,” Ernst says.
After that came the '70s polyester bell bottom pantsuits. But the all-you-can eat chicken special continues to this day.
Eventually Ernst married the son of the owner, and she’s been managing the place since 1989. I ask her where Dinah’s got its name. She says her in-laws were looking for something that sounded Southern, and got the idea from the song “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah.”
“This is definitely a place where time has stood still,” Carla Maraveles says. Like many of the staff here, she’s worked at Dinah’s for decades. “I mean we have food here, lots of the traditional plates that nobody makes anymore. Meatloaf. Imagine that! Who makes liver and onions nowadays? Fried chicken gizzards?"
Maraveles says everything here is made from scratch, from the Southern-style gravy and mashed potatoes to the biscuits. She knows all the regulars, and where to seat them in their favorite booths.
People like Ellis Smith, who eats here three or four times a week.
“My wife and I usually come to breakfast, and my uncle and I, we come to breakfast, and dinner every Thursday evening,” Ellis says.
Thursday is chicken night. The fried chicken is what draws many regulars to Dinah’s. It’s breaded the day before, and broasted in a special machine that seals in the flavor, called a Henny Penny.
Dinah’s has a big chicken bucket up on a pole outside its takeout department. Ernst says the guy who pioneered the design went on to take the idea to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Their '50s decor has been used as a Hollywood backdrop in shows like "Modern Family" and "Malcolm in the Middle." Its signature red-and-white chicken bucket was also featured in the film "Little Miss Sunshine."
Hollywood has helped draw in a new generation of customers looking for a hip, classic diner. People like Pete Giovine, who drives here many mornings from West Hollywood.
“I'm from New Jersey originally,” he tells me. “If there's one thing we take seriously, it's diners. This building was almost like a siren, calling to me. It reminds me of all these old-school diners back in Jersey."
Pete’s nursing a cup of coffee and a Denver omelet at the counter, writing in a notebook. He’s a comedian working on his routine. He says he gets way better material here than sitting at a Starbucks.
“You actually get to the realest people," he says. It makes him think of when presidential candidates tour Iowa during the state's caucuses. "They always go to these small-town diners and you get that feeling of like, ‘Oh, this is where the community gathers.’ Dinah’s actually is that. It just happens to be in the center of a major city."
Back at my table, my brother Akash is telling my 8-year old about eating at Dinah’s when he was the same age.
“I used to have tee ball practice down at the park. I hated sports and I hated practice,” Akash grins. “But your grandmother would bribe me with a fried chicken box if I finished practice. It was my favorite thing — this delicious-smelling red-and-white box. Like opening a Christmas present. Fried chicken with a biscuit and a side. I’d start digging into the box before we even got home.”
After hearing stories like this, we are ravenous. And after the 20-minute wait, the apple pancake is finally here.
Just as I’m biting into the hot layers of apple and cinnamon, Maraveles invites me into the kitchen to see how they are made.
“You get to meet Tio [Uncle] Salome,” she gushes. “He’s amazing. He’s been here 47 years. Everybody loves him, everybody calls him uncle. We just adore the dude.”
I head to the kitchen to see a tall man in a tall chef’s hat pouring pounds of peeled and sliced apples into a skillet of sizzling butter.
Salome Jimenez is 73 years old. He’s from Jalisco, Mexico, and he comes out of retirement on the weekends to whip up the apple pancakes for the crowd. He’s faster than anybody else.
In Spanish, he tells me that this is the only place in California that makes these pancakes individually — each the size of a pie, baked in a cast iron skillet. Dinah’s makes 4,500 each month. I watch as Jimenez pours a flour and egg mixture over the apples, then sprinkles huge scoops of cinnamon and sugar over the top.
He slides it in the oven for 10-15 minutes. When it comes out, he flips the pancake so the apples sit on top of the cinnamon sugar dough.
I am ecstatic. I am watching the apple pancake master reveal the secrets of my childhood comfort food.
In line to pay our bill, I’m practically gloating to all the other customers about my behind-the-scenes tour.
“Wow! I would have loved that!” Gail Galanter says. She’s at Dinah’s to celebrate her wedding anniversary with her husband, Dennis, over a chile relleno and an apple pancake.
“Are you going to be able to make those delicious pancakes now that you’ve seen how it’s done?” Gail asks.
“Oh no,” I tell her. “It’s more complicated than I ever imagined. The chef makes each one of those apple pancakes by hand.”
“A national treasure!” she exclaims.
This summer, Dinah’s marked its 60th anniversary with a blast-from- the-past event where they lowered all their prices to match the menu from 1959. No apple pancakes, but you could get a breakfast special — bacon or sausage, eggs and two regular pancakes for $1.25.