Remains of L.A.

Traces of L.A.'s past can still be found, in the kitsch of '50s diners and the decayed glamour of '40s hotspots… and sometimes the food is good, and there are nice people.

(1954) The Bear Pit, Mission Hills

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bearpitsign2As an early birthday present, my friend Corey took me for “Missouri-style” barbecue at The Bear Pit, which was pretty much the most awesome thing he could have done.

-Very rustic looking, but in a tidy sort of way. Uneven sand-colored brick on some walls, wood and yellow walls everywhere else, bear figurines and pictures everywhere, rustic wagon wheel chandeliers hanging from heavy-beamed, slanted wood ceilings, murals painted on the walls of happy animals, mostly bears, preparing barbecue. Over the cashier is a mural of two happy blue birds that look like they’re straight from Disney, and in the back room, amidst many more happy bears, is a duck wearing a chef’s hat that says, for some reason, “Long Island.” There was also one mural of a pig holding a plate of barbecued pork, and that always kind of freaks me out, but I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting so it was fine. The  blonde wood booths and tables with red seats in the front room had a bit of a look of a fast food place, but it was made up for by everything else. The whole place felt friendly and welcoming and like everyone who had ever eaten there had had a nice time.

bearpitindoors-The menu was so full of things that sounded delicious, I had a devil of a time choosing. The waitress was extremely patient and helpful, telling me her favorites and pointing out substitutions I could make. I finally settled on a combo plate that was half barbecue chicken and half beef ribs. For sides I chose tater tots and baked beans, and it came with garlic bread and a salad. All of it was incredible, with some of the best barbecue sauce I’ve ever tasted. The baked beans were so good I thought I might start to cry when I took my first bite. That’s a very weird reaction to baked beans, I know. Corey got macaroni and cheese as one of his sides instead of tater tots, but they gave him some tater tots too.

-Near the door was a stack of three large barrels with spouts sticking out of them, and a sign that said “wine,” and smaller labels that said “chablis,” and “rose,” and “burgundy.” I asked and the waitress told me it was just for show. If it had been in use I would have been tempted to order wine, which I do not drink, so maybe that’s as well.

-The menu has some of the most appealing pictures I’ve ever seen in a menu. Also there was an item called “Polar bear feast” which I almost got just because I love polar bears so much, even though it would have been more food than I could have eaten in days.

-While I was waiting for Corey–I like to get to places early so I can make all my notes about the decor without my dining partner just sitting there–a group of people came in and the hostess asked how many and the guy said, “Six. Plus two kids. ” There was a pause and then the hostess said, “…so… eight?” I was glad I wasn’t the only one who thought that was odd. Kids are people, dude!

-There seemed to be two kinds of barbecue sauce, because the kind that came in little tubs with our food looked different than the one in the bottle on the table. We worked out eventually that one was the original and one was “Shirley’s New Fashioned.” We were eating the Shirley’s one, which was a little sweet and just, really, marvelous. I wanted to try some of the other but was busy eating and forgot.

-While we were ordering the waitress, who talked to you like you were an old friend she saw almost every day, got a little distracted looking out the window, and then explained, “that car… it’s just really purple.” We turned and looked and it really was the brightest, most intense purple I’ve ever seen on a car or maybe anything. It was a lot like a hair color I had briefly when I was twenty and going for a more subdued lilac, and then never managed to quite duplicate. Every time I turned to look at the car, I was surprised again by how bright it was.

bearpitindoors2-On the wall near us was a framed picture of two men; underneath it said they were Ben Bailer–who used to own the restaurant–and Tennessee Ernie Ford. I couldn’t remember who he was until Corey sang some of “Sixteen Tons” for me.

-A large family group came in, lots of small cousins greeting one another and grandparents hugging. One lady kept exclaiming over how big the baby had gotten, which was ridiculous because the baby was outrageously tiny. I can’t imagine what she was comparing it to.

-In the back room hung an adult-sized  bib in a glass frame, with a label saying it was given to customers in the ’70s. The bib had a picture of a bear eating, and then lots of jokes and things printed on it. Things printed on it include: “Mary had a little lamb, she also had a bear. I’ve often seen Mary’s little lamb. I never saw her bear,” and “Bear me not on the lone prairie,” and “WHO is a big bad bear” and “Boys remember-a little honey catches a lot of things–beside us bears” and “-poem- The little bear sleeps in his little bear skin. He sleeps very well, I’m told. Last nite I slept in my little bear skin and caught a heck of a cold. -end of poem-” and “takes two ticks to make one tack” and “Yankee girls count on their fingers but Southern girls count on their legs” and “why slap me-I just petted your bear” and “We know it’s good but-don’t eat the bib.”

-As I was walking back from the rest rooms, a little boy–three or four, I think–was peeking around the wall into the kitchens, delighted fascination radiating from his whole body. His parents kept calling to him, “Taylor! Taylor?” but it was like he couldn’t hear them. When he left, all the staff and lots of the customers were calling after him “goodbye, Taylor!” because everyone knew his name after they’d  said it so many times.

bearpitmural-On the back wall is a sign that says, “large tables reserved for 5 or more.” In the background of the picture of Tennessee Ernie Ford, you could see a much older sign that said the same thing, except it looked like they could change the number if they wanted to, I guess if it was crowded or something. Maybe they got the new sign when they realized they hadn’t changed the number in years and weren’t ever going to.

-I overheard a part of a conversation between the waitress and the people seated behind us: Waitress: “We’re remodeling so they took it away.” Costumer 1: “But it was part of the charm!'” Waitress: “Yes, well…” Customer 2: “I bet it was a pain in the butt for you, wasn’t it.” Waitress: “[agreement noises]” My manners fought with my intense curiosity for a while; I hated to admit I’d been eavesdropping but really I needed to know, so when the waitress came by later I asked her. Turns out they used to have sawdust on the floor, and the waitress confided that it was awful, ended up in your car and your home and new shoes got ruined in days and one time someone in a grocery store asked her if she worked with horses. I’m glad they got rid of it; I’d rather have a happy server than some questionable rustic charm.

-On the counter by the register was a bear lying on its back, holding a bowl that said “5¢” and in the bowl were Andes mints. Andes mints always seemed like a very sophisticated candy to me when I was a child, but now they always make me think of childhood, probably because my mom ate them. I wanted to get one even though I can’t take sugar, just because the shiny green wrappers were so familiar and appealing.

-Outside, just above the door, it says “The Bear Pit” in neon. Except because of the way neon often does letters like they’re in cursive, it appears at first glance to say “The Bean Pit.” Which is okay, because those really were the best beans I’ve ever eaten.

What I Ate: Barbecue chicken, barbecue beef ribs, a couple bites of salad, two tater tots, baked beans, a few bites of garlic bread, a bite of Corey’s macaroni and cheese.

Who I Ate With/Things We Talked About: my friend Corey; Long John Silver’s and Arthur Treacher’s, which are restaurants I thought disappeared in the eighties but apparently still exist; the time our friend Jaime was a teenager and ran onto a stage to hug Morrissey: the movie “Spy,”  how one can think Burning Man sounds cool and yet know that it is very definitely not for one; Spencer’s Gifts.

What Sort of Ghost I’d Expect to Find if I Believed in Ghosts Which I do Not: A large happy family, grandparents and parents and big kids and little kids, all with faces just covered in barbecue sauce. Note: Unless otherwise stated, all ghosts mentioned in this blog died peacefully of old age and then reverted to the age/place of their choosing.

10825 Sepulveda Blvd, Mission Hills, CA 91345


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