Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ships Coffee Shop

I didn't know what "Googie" architecture was—didn't know Martin Stern Jr., the designer, and couldn't tell you the name of Matthew or Emmett Shipman (or any other of their clan)—but being a Southern California girl at one point in my life, in a certain era, I knew and loved Ships Coffee Shop. There were three of them in Los Angeles, but the one I visited with my family was the one that stood at the corner of Wilshire and, I think, Glendon, marking the edge of Westwood Village. Here is what I remember about Ships, a place that provoked (along with Polly's Pies in Santa Monica) many a comfort-food foray out into restaurant land: I loved the "back to the future" look of the place, the 1960s "space-age" sign, which called to mind a rocket shooting its neon into the (smoggy) California sky. The facade of the building carried through on this visual, with an irregular roof line that echoed the arrow motif. In the early 1980s, the exterior of Ships managed to look both modern and retro at the same time. Inside, the decor felt a bit more dated, with its row of sixties light fixtures suspended over the counter. I associate the interior with grainy walnut veneers and a general palette of brown and orange; this may be completely inaccurate, but it was in any event a brown-orange-walnut-veneer kind of place. Like a neighbor's vintage family room. I do remember that the restaurant's dining hall was spacious and that the seats at the counter were not the average round, too-small toadstools, but rather cushy square ones with padded back rests (they still swiveled like regular stools). But of course we didn't go to Ships for the building or logo design, neither for the cozy interior, though these were part of the experience. We were regulars at Ships Coffee Shop for two things mainly: toast and individual deep dish pies. Anyone who has ever been to a Ships knows about the former. One of the features that helped put this coffee shop in a class of its own were the battery of electric toasters—the aluminum pop-up type with black operating lever—one on each table and also positioned at intervals along the counter. At Ships, your toast never arrived cold; it arrived as bread that you got to toast to perfection (or burn) yourself. So breakfast was almost as good as homemade, and it was a lot more fun to make toast while sitting in a restaurant booth than in your own kitchen. We also went to Ships for dinner sometimes, and at least from my perspective that was always fine because dinner also meant dessert. For dinner I would invariably eat a grilled American cheese sandwich on white bread. There'd be fries, and maybe even a milkshake. My dad ate "Ship Shape" burgers or open-faced sandwiches with potatoes and gravy. I don't know what my mom found to eat, but her drink of choice might have been Tab. All of it was in anticipation of the moment when, after our plates had been cleared, we'd order deep dish pies. There were apple and boysenberry pies, in individual-size brown ceramic ramekins. The pies were baked or heated to order, so they arrived piping hot, with sticky fruit filling bubbling and oozing down the sides. We'd take forks or spoons and break open the golden top crusts of our pies, releasing steam and the aroma of fruit. My dad usually ordered his à la mode, with vanilla ice cream. I don't remember doing the same, but I may have. The boysenberry pie was always my choice, and I loved the deep purple color of the berries and their juice. We never tired of these treats, and I never again saw them on a menu—not like this. Now, the Ships are gone. A little investigating reveals that the Westwood Ships is a parking lot, the Culver City Ships is a Starbucks, and the La Cienega location is now a truck rental business (though it seems that they've preserved the old Ships sign at least). Apparently the Ships on Wilshire—our Ships—was demolished not too long after we left Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Another bit of family tradition erased from the landscape . . . But in memory, anyway, I'll always have piping hot toast to butter and jammy boysenberry deep dish pies to eat. A slice of residual heaven.

1 comment:

  1. Mmm--have to plan that long overdue trip to LA! Can Barney's Beanery and Gladstone's 4 Fish live up to the memories?? We shall see...California dreamin'...