Currents & Arts

Good to the last bite

The waffle irons go cold, but the memories remain warm

By John Wilkens

August 29, 2000

When Bud Davis bought John's Waffle Shop in La Jolla in 1980, the seller gave him some advice: Don't change a thing.

At the time, the tiny restaurant had been in the Arcade Building on Girard Avenue for 27 years and was already something of a community landmark, known for its variety of waffles and for the chefs who not only cooked the food right in front of you but sometimes brought it to your table, too.

It wasn' t long before Davis began getting the same advice from others. He heard it from the regulars, the local bartenders, real estate agents and stockbrokers who were known to reach behind the counter and help themselves to more coffee when it got really busy.

He heard it from the tourists, too, folks drawn there by the write-ups in newspapers as far away as North Carolina and Hawaii. They' d order John' s Famous Golden Brown Waffle (served with John' s Famous Homemade Maple Flavored Syrup), bask in the down-to-earth ambience and tell Davis to skip the whole fern bar movement.

Davis listened. For two decades he didn' t alter much of anything. Sure, the menu saw additions to accommodate changing tastes (smoothies, wraps) but the decor stayed stubbornly in the vinyl and linoleum of the 1950s.

Then several months ago, Davis got some very different advice: Change everything. He might have ignored it except it came from his landlord, and it arrived with a rent increase.

Davis is 64 and he knows inevitability when he sees it. So he did what seemed to him the only logical thing. He decided to close the waffle shop.

The last day is Sept. 4.

"It' s going to be really sad to turn off the lights," he said. "But it' s been a great experience and I' ve got some wonderful memories."

Family feel

The restaurant opened in 1953 as Gene' s Waffle Shop. It was sold several years later to John "Dusty" King, a 1930s Hollywood actor, who gave his own first name to the eatery.

Davis, who grew up in La Mesa, remembers going to John' s as a delivery boy shortly after it opened. His father was in the wholesale meat business. Davis said he never dreamed then that he' d one day own the place.

The diner he took over in 1980 had a family feel to it, he said. It seats only 57, and people would wait in line for a chance to sit at the counter, just feet from the grill.

For many years, a chef named Felix held court there. He put on a show, flipping pancakes from one pan to another. Davis said the chef was kind of the unofficial mayor of La Jolla.

"Eat it and beat it," Felix would tell customers as he finished preparing their food. He was only half-joking.

A rapid turnover at the counter stools and tables each day has kept the restaurant profitable over the years, Davis said. He estimated that John' s, which is open for breakfast and lunch only, serves about 275 customers daily, more on weekends.

Sometimes the guests are famous, celebrities who wander over from La Valencia or other hotels in town. Davis said Johnny Carson and Barbra Streisand are among those who have dined there.

There were no stars in attendance on a recent weekday, just a slew of tourists and a handful of regulars watching chef Jose Gonzales work the grill. He' s been there about 10 years, and he' s the kind of cook who recognizes longtime patrons and starts making their food before they order it.

"We' re going to miss this place," said Mario Delgado, who works as a bartender down the street. For the past five years, he' s been eating breakfast at John' s most every morning; he said he' s been a customer off and on for 20 years.

"This is the kind of place where you can meet other workers in the area in the morning, and you develop a camaraderie," he said. "It' s a tradition, and we' re losing it. That' s sad."

Delgado said he also enjoyed playing tour guide for out-of-towners. "They' d ask me where to go to dinner, what sights to see," he said. "That' s just the kind of atmosphere the place has, everybody real friendly to each other."

Another regular, an older woman who rides the bus from Pacific Beach each morning, added, "There' s just something about this place that brings me in all the time. I like their attitude. They are business-oriented, but social. The workers are all very nice people."

The woman, who declined to give her name, paid her bill and walked outside, where Davis thanked her for coming.

"She' s been eating here for years," he said. "She always sits at the same table. We have other people who ate here as kids, and now they bring their grandkids. I think there' s kind of a mystique about the place."

Gutted and modernized

But where some see mystique, others see something else.

Others like Palmer Hughes III, the building owner. What he sees mostly is a facility in desperate need of refurbishment.

"The Waffle Shop has been a great tenant, and it has a nice ambience," he said. "But the building is old and it has to be fixed up."

The Arcade Building was constructed by Hughes' grandfather, Palmer Hughes Sr., an oil company executive. At the time, it connected a trolley station with Girard Avenue, the heart of La Jolla' s commercial district.

Hughes Sr. willed the building to his son, Palmer Hughes Jr., a foreign-car dealer. When Hughes Jr. died in November 1997, he left the building for Hughes III.

According to the owner, the building needs a new roof, new pipes, a new bathroom -- "basically bringing things up to the 20th century," he said. The restaurant space will be gutted and modernized, he added.

Hughes said Davis has been paying below-market rent for some time, and the new tenant -- Spirals, a Palo-Alto based store that sells the work of dozens of artists -- will be paying more. Davis said it' s his understanding that the rent will almost double.

"Restaurants are hard on buildings," Hughes said. "There' s a lot more wear and tear. I have a different menu for what I want to do with my building."

Davis is sad, but he said he understands. Business is business. Now his own future, and that of his five employees, is uncertain. People have encouraged him to open the Waffle Shop in a different location, "but it' s so hard to find a place that would work in La Jolla," he said.

So he' s thinking about retirement and playing more golf.

"It' s been fun, a great experience," he said, and then he added a phrase he tried hard to avoid for 20 years: "But things change."

Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.