Beadle's becomes eclectic
Still grounded in American nostalgia, Pasadena neo-cafeteria features exciting Asian dishes and more
By Dan O'Heron 04/20/2006
Lunching at Beadle's Cafeteria, six months back, I took notice of a woman in white who was minding a long stretch of steaming trays and ice-packed salads. Pacing back and forth, smiling restlessly, her eyes kept darting toward the restaurant's two entrances. She must have been looking for company. So was I.
It was 1:15 p.m. on a Thursday, and there were only nine guests in a dining room designed to seat 300. Each guest, if not old, was well-established. Sitting alone at separate tables, we would have felt more companionship at Central Park, where pigeons and squirrels are well-acquainted with their visitors.
I'd been scouting restaurants long enough to sense that this was a sign of worse things to come: One of the guests left; and then there were eight.
It was a moment that should have only gladdened a dishwasher, but the lone serving woman, looking toward the doors, still smiled away. I winced. She looked eager to please. But there was nobody to please. Baseless optimism can be more appalling than outright despair.
Let's face it. Beadle's, which opened in 1956, is lucky to have lasted this long. Paleontologists hunger to study the remains of most restaurants this old. I was wrong. Preparing to write an obit, a get-well card would have been more appropriate and prophetic.
Revisiting Beadle's a few Thursdays ago — at the same time as before, 1:15 p.m. — I counted some 40 people dining, and word that a bus with 100 tourists was about to invade sent the staff scrambling to stations.
What happened? One day, earlier this year — I hope the server was there to see it — John Park and Sue Wong walked in the door and bought the place.
In a most ambitious move, designed to keep its regular customer base while courting a wider patronage, the partners have added thick slices of modernity to mashed potatoes and gravy: Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine, sushi, an all-you-can-eat salad bar, breakfast, burgers, burritos, gift items, a big-screen TV, live entertainment, longer hours and more to come.
If the partners do any more, they'll have to charge admission. In a class by itself, Beadle's could change the way people eat and make an indelible mark on dining in the area. Now you can grab a tray and explore the mother's milk of comfort food and serve yourself — just like always — or pick a number and be served a new array of Asian and American favorites. A term minted for the occasion: neo-cafeteria.
With child-like eagerness, customers in the cafeteria line can still bump trays to gain ground on every impulse. There are a la carte dishes like sweetened, shredded carrots pebbled with raisins; audibly crisp, cold cucumber and spicy tomato salad; mashed potatoes puddled in rich brown gravy; turkey legs as big as baseball bats; whole rotisserie hams done to a turn and sliced thick; plus deep-dish emotions for apple pie and six-inch coconut cake, plastered with white icing.
The other day, instead of hefting a tray that would help me be all I can be, I checked out the new, overhead pictorial menu. It illustrated more than 100 numbered choices from three shrimp tempura pieces ($3.95) to udon noodle bowls ($4.50 to $7.95) to chicken and beef combos ($4.75 to $6.75) to multi-partitioned bento boxes ($8.95).
Decisions! Decisions! I settled on barbecue salmon ($8.95), consisting of two large, dewily glistening pink chubs, which didn't need any help from the side of teriyaki. I've paid a lot more for salmon dishes not quite as good.
The partners must get a lot of practice preparing delicious values at Royal Palace Seafood, a popular restaurant they own in Lomita.
Before entering the restaurant business, Wong spent 13 years in marketing at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). She hopes that fashion themes like "They’re Putting Us On" will fit office party catering plans and "They're Wearing Us Out" will describe big surges in the to-go biz.
Thinking business plans might be done in pencil, I suggested that the room's design is also ideal for navigating dim sum carts.
"Too intrusive on what we're doing," she said. "But I am planning a coffee bar, and we already have live entertainment [guitars, mandolins, violins] on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings."
The goal, Wong indicated, is to make Beadle's relevant to more people, while continuing to cherish senior citizens as its core customers.
An older woman, with the discerning look of one who could serve canapés on a proper tray, approached our table. "I enjoyed the meal. But aren't some of the prices too high?" Wong handed the woman a bag of chocolate cookies: "Which ones are we talking about?"
I think we've got something here.