Tuesday, November 28, 2023

What's the Oldest Restaurant in Silver Lake?

This article ran in the Los Feliz Ledger in 2019, but the demise of Café Tropical seemed like a good time to republish it. 


What’s the oldest restaurant in Silver Lake? With rising rents and upscale options fast replacing old favorites, a handful of longtime spots remain.

Though it’s been through many owners and several names, Millie’s has operated as a diner in the same spot since 1926, so it would appear to be by far the longest-running restaurant in the area—though in Atwater, the Tam O’Shanter opened in 1922.

Not many locals remember Millie’s before its first hipster rebirth, when Paul Greenstein bought the diner in 1984. The Devil’s Mess—now its signature dish—is just one of the many names Millie’s has had over its long history and the diner recently opened its first spin-off in Pasadena.

Perhaps the next oldest is the Red Lion, which is seeking city permission to upgrade and remodel after opening in 1959 as a British pub—it switched to a German theme in 1963.

The year 1962 was a big one for restaurants in the area: Taix French restaurant moved to Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park that year, after starting out downtown in 1927. Also opened in 1962 were Casita del Campo, still going strong on Hyperion Avenue, and El Cid, which was a curious jail-themed restaurant in the 1920s before turning to flamenco dancing.

In the early 1960s, thousands of Cuban refugees settled in the Echo Park and Silver Lake areas, opening travel agencies, shops, bakeries and restaurants. Few of those spots remain, but Cafe Tropical, which opened in 1975 and and El Cochinito, in 1988, give a glimpse of what the area once known as “Little Havana” was like during that era.

From Ed Ruscha's Sunset Boulevard

Locals were worried when Cafe Tropical’s distinctively purple-painted building was sold last December. Manager Alfredo Morales says that although the building’s ownership changed hands, there are currently no plans to sell the business or change anything.The clientele no longer features cigar-smoking Cuban gentlemen like it did in the 1980s, but it remains a favorite for the flaky guava cheese pastries and cafe de leche, as well as providing a community space for numerous meetings each week for the recovery community.

On a recent weekday morning, longtime customer Robert Williams said he appreciates how Tropical is “welcoming to all kinds of people.” Williams said he was happy to find it nearly the same when he returned to Los Angeles after moving away for more than 20 years.

A recent visit to El Cochinito showed the 31-year old restaurant is still a vibrant gathering place for the community, despite upscale arrivals like Trois Familia next door. Families and friends pack the mini-mall restaurant for hearty fare including one of the best Cuban sandwiches around. Another standout is the giant plate of lechon asado (slow-roasted pork), with sweet plantains, black beans and rice.

Up until the 1990s, Sunset Boulevard used to be lined with burrito joints, pupusa stands and old-school Mexican restaurants including El Chavo, El Conquistador, Zamora Brothers and La Parrilla. Just a few are left. Yuca’s on Hillhurst opened in 1976, while Tacos Delta has provided an informal option in the Sunset Junction area since 1981 and El Siete Mares, which operates several locations, started out in 1968.

Gentrification and the influx of higher-income residents are affecting businesses across the greater Eastside, and it’s inevitable that some of these old favorites will not survive. So as always, think about supporting Silver Lake’s restaurant pioneers along with the newcomers.


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