A New Lease
Different owners restore a sense of style to historic Cindy’s Eagle Rock Restaurant
By Erica Wayne 09/05/2014
Cindy’s Eagle Rock Restaurant has been a local landmark for over six decades, its almost original 1948 interior beloved by movie and TV scouts as a location for “mid-century diner” shoots. I’d guess the fees the owners got for such usage far exceeded the revenue brought in over the years by generations of loyal customers frequenting the restaurant for its traditional albeit unexceptional coffee shop cuisine.
When I first mentioned Cindy’s in a 1985 review, it was to contrast it with the newly opened Rose City Diner, which, I concluded, was being run by aliens who knew what diner décor and diner food should look like but had no idea how the fare should taste. Cindy’s, on the other hand, was definitely earthling-run, as its predictable menu and kitchen demonstrated.
Well, that predictability is no more. Cindy’s recently fell into the capable hands of Monique King and Paul Rosenbluh, proprietors of South Pasadena’s Firefly Bistro. And, although the bones and décor of the restaurant remain mostly intact, the menu has definitely taken a turn toward the future instead of relying solely on the conventional diner fare that kept the restaurant going for the past 65 years.
I’ve only been to Cindy’s during daylight hours since, despite information on their website mentioning a May date, they only just began dinner service this week, right after the Labor Day holiday. But I can report almost complete satisfaction with the dishes we’ve sampled so far from both breakfast and lunch menus.
For instance, if you’re a fan of traditional Jewish potato latkes with sour cream and apple sauce, you must absolutely not miss the deep magenta potato-beet hybrid they have on hand each morning ($9.50). Topped with spiced stewed apples and a dollop of dill-seasoned cream, this plate-filling pancake duo is a superb and creative riff on the classic.
There’s a roasted mushroom omelet ($11) that’s pretty irresistible too. Fluffy egg is folded over fat slices of mushroom, candy-sweet caramelized onion and enough melted blue cheese to almost drown out the emerald parsley pesto, but not quite. (My advice: Ask for extra just to make sure.)
Omelets come with house potatoes, a hefty pile of chunked red-skin potatoes and loads of fried onion. There’s also a choice of toast, but it seems almost an afterthought — a single slice of nondescript rye for us, but the strawberry preserves are tasty. You might want to splurge instead on a sweet potato biscuit ($3) to use up that jam.
If you can convince yourself that sheer decadence is worth the guilt, bruleed French toast with bourbon-brown sugar bananas ($10) might be just the thing. The dense, thick-sliced bread from which the dish is fashioned isn’t quite as absorbent as brioche or plain ol’ white, so be advised that the centers are a little dry rather than custardy.
But the banana topping is buttery, fragrant with bourbon and immensely satisfying. An extra pour of pancake syrup, easily obtained, makes the dryness problem go away. After all, what’s another five or six hundred calories? And if you really want to turn it into the piece-de-resistance of your day’s sustenance, adding smoked pork is also an option.
Several items are pure southern comfort. Breakfast: fried chicken and eggs with house potatoes, gravy and tabasco ($14), sweet potato biscuits with sausage gravy or smoked mushroom gravy ($8) and sides of grits ($4). Lunch: Cajun and Creole recipes, including smoked chicken gumbo ($5/$7.50), fried catfish po boy with celery root remoulade, shaved fennel and tomato ($12.50), plus barbecue ribs with mac ‘n’ cheese and collards ($16.50) or fried chicken with black eyed peas, slaw and gravy ($14.50).
There’s a reason shrimp and grits with mushrooms, tasso ham, garlic and tarragon ($14.50) appears on breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch menus. It’s fabulous, with five or six large and tender shrimp, lots of mushrooms and just enough smoke from the ham and heat from the spicing to make you lap up every last bite. And (trust me) you do not want to know how much heavy cream is in the mix.
Like the potato-beet pancakes, fried chicken and eggs, and the crab/sweet potato hash (topped with eggs - $14.50) served during weekend brunch, the shrimp and grits is a variant dishes you can get at Firefly Bistro, where King and Rosenbluh have been plying their craft and perfecting recipes for nearly a decade. Despite the elegance of Firefly’s tented ambiance and its emphasis on fine wines, live music, etc., the items they’ve cloned in Eagle Rock seem just as much at home surrounded by tangerine and orange Naugahyde and wood-grain Formica.
Cindy’s original designers would probably be happy with the menu changes and with the fact that the new owners have chosen to preserve most of the building’s original fixtures and décor. The structure is an early example of “Googie” architecture, which originated in LA in the late ’40s and continued into the mid-’60s, a style used for motels, coffee houses, gas stations, drive-in movies, bowling alleys and the like. Its name derives from a 1949 coffee shop (Googies) in West Hollywood.
Influenced by car culture, jets and the space age, the style in its full flower featured upswept roofs, cantilevered structures, geometric shapes, glass, steel, neon and space-age designs like boomerangs, flying saucers, atoms, starbursts and parabolas. And, since many of these buildings were erected to be visible to and accessible by vehicular traffic, they also included large pylons with elevated signs, neon lettering and plenty of parking.
The best local example in our neck of the woods is Diner on Main in Alhambra. Another, the defunct Spring Garden in East Pasadena is in the midst of an architectural redesign to become the new Avanti Bistro and Bar, due to open in the fall. From drawings it appears that some original structural elements will remain, despite the addition of brick and wood accents foreign to the “moderne” sensibilities of Googie. The new Avanti sign, newly placed on its pylon, is a replica of the ’50s original in shape and structure.
And that brings us back to Cindy’s. While the rather plain rectangular single-story exterior design of the building doesn’t scream out Googie, the startlingly vibrant orange and lime green interior, the long subdivided 12-stool counter and otherwise all-booth seating, plate glass façade and original print wallpaper, replete with atoms and starbursts, does.
The dilapidated two-story, free-standing, multipart sign in the parking is pure Googie, with its asymmetrical announcement of the diner’s full name (Cindy’s Coffee Shop), its purpose (Restaurant) and its featured foods (Steak and Chicken), each on a separate plaque. Even the two forlorn owls, likely placed there to scare away pigeons, have a certain period je ne sais quoi.
The new owners recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $16,250 necessary to recondition the sign. The website is kickstarter.com/project/cindys/save-cindys-eagle-rock-sign. By the time this review is published, they’ll have only 12 days to raise the remainder of the money. (I hope they keep the owls!)