There is Nothing Finer than an Altadena Diner

Since Altadena still has the allure of an old-timey town, it’s no surprise that the diner mentality is expanding here. The Little Red Hen has been around over 50 years. Fox’s was recently purchased and upgraded (by the folks who own Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock), maintaining its 66-year legacy, and the stalwart 92-year-old Millie’s Diner in Silver Lake has added a second location nearby in Pasadena. Apparently, the Alta-diners (and their diner neighbor) are making quite a statement.

The American diner is an institution. The term “diner” referred to a dining car when railroads had their own onboard restaurants. Downtown Los Angeles’ Pacific Dining Car, which opened in 1921, is a perfect example of one that isn’t going anywhere. But the origins of the diner can be traced to Walter Scott, a Rhode Island pressman who repurposed a horse-pulled wagon and parked it outside the Providence Journal, where he sold sandwiches, coffee, pies and eggs to the newspaper’s night owls. For Scott, it was what today we call a side hustle — a second job to help pay the bills. By 1872 running his wagon was a full-time job, thus birthing the American diner (and eventually the American Diner Museum in Scott’s hometown of Providence). Fifteen years later, in 1887, Altadena launched as a subdivision, though diners and people would take time to populate the foothill town.

Technically, diners were small prefabricated roadside buildings, where cheap prepared food was served in a fast, convenient way. Diners flourished until the mid-1950s when competition in the form of chain restaurants like Denny’s, IHOP and Sambo’s spread across the country. According to AmericanDinerMuseum.org, a revival of diners began in the late 1970s. The few remaining diner builders began to fabricate restaurants that were new but old-style — retro-looking diners specifically evoking a 1950s feel. Johnny Rockets is a good example. “The renewed interest in diners can be attributed to Americans looking backwards for inspiration and the values of yesterday in a time of moral and economic uncertainty,” the website says. And nothing says consistency and comfort like the tried-and-true diner, a neighborhood place where you always know who’s there and what’s being served. Like the Cheers theme song, we all want to go to a place where everyone knows our name.

Fox’s Restaurant has been a landmark in Altadena since 1955 when it was opened by Paul and Edie Fox. The physical building was moved from a different location in 1948 to its present place at 2352 N. Lake Ave. Previously it had been a private home, a pet store, a real estate office and even a restaurant before Paul and Edie took it over. In 1967 the Foxes’ son, Ken, bought the restaurant and continued the family business for another 50 years. When Ken decided to sell in 2017, he found another family of restaurateurs, husband-and-wife chefs Paul Rosenbluh and Monique King, who helm Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock. The couple decided to keep the name Fox’s and maintain its legacy of nearly seven decades. “We’re way up in Altadena, so it’s really a destination,” Rosenbluh tells Arroyo Monthly. The area is woefully underrepresented in terms of new restaurants and Fox’s new chefs have the benefit of an already loyal following who would “roll down the hill,” as Rosenbluh puts it, to visit Cindy’s. Now their commute is a little shorter. And he’s brought the same from-scratch menu items to Fox’s. “It’s really an adorable little place, a slice of Americana, and I wanted to maintain the 1950s feel,” he says.

TRY: the Southern Denver omelet with house-cured pork-butt ham, peppers, jalapeňos, cheddar cheese and house-grilled potatoes.

Just a mile from the Fox is the Hen: The Little Red Hen to be precise, located at 2697 Fair Oaks Ave. It’s been under the same name for 60 years, but 50 years ago the Shay family bought it from the original owner and now it’s one of the oldest black-owned businesses in Altadena. Most customers are familiar with Lonzia Shay, who ran it for many years, although his sister Barbara has since taken it over. “I was 17 when my mother bought Little Red Hen,” Barbara Shay tells Arroyo Monthly. “It’s a rarity for an African-American family to be doing this for 50 years.” Throughout the decades this spot has remained true to the diner concept: good food served quickly in an unpretentious environment. The Hen is small, comprised mainly of counter stools, and it isn’t retro or even vintage — it’s a unique dyed-in-the-wool place. “Cooking is a way to put my displaced hostility in a pot and mix it up,” Shay tells me with a laugh. “My spin is soulfully delicious recipes,” which include the use of organic food without being preachy about it. In addition to traditional menu items, Shay provides vegetarian and vegan options. She’s also active with her own cooking show, Cuttin’ Up in the Kitchen, through Pasadena Media public access and YouTube.

TRY: Shrimp and cheesy grits étouffée with organic greens.

When Millie’s Cafe first opened its doors in 1926 in Silver Lake, it was one of the area’s few dining establishments. And at the new Millie’s Café, which opened last November at 1399 E. Washington Blvd., business is hopping. Weekend waits are at least 20 minutes and it’s packed inside with a line out the door. Owner Robert Babish bought the Silver Lake location in 2000 and his move to Pasadena was precipitated by loyal customers in the area. “We always give you good service and good food, and that’s why we’re still in business,” he says. They have long used Alta Dena Dairy products, which might seem like a marketing ploy, but it’s not.

TRY: Neptune’s Nest — three scrambled eggs mixed with smoked salmon, cream cheese, salsa, guacamole, scallions, sour cream and sherry.

What Little Red Hen, Fox’s, and Millie’s all have in common is an emphasis on homemade food, generous portions, friendly service and a look and feel that’s both comfortable and unpretentious. Dining out never goes out of style and neither will Altadena diners.