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Kids 12 and under eat free—one with each paying adult—on Mondays at Arnold's Buffet Restaurant in Long Beach. It's a marketing strategy intended to whet young appetites for the dying experience known as cafeteria dining. But today is Wednesday, and the customers sliding their trays along the rail for the daily early bird special—20 percent off between 4 and 5 p.m.—are all old coots.
Somehow, that feels right, like another element of authentic ambiance in a restaurant as saturated with unintended kitsch as your still-alive-and-kickin' great-grandmother's house. It's been 55 years since Miles Arnold opened this cafeteria in the country-club-adjacent Bixby Knolls district—in those days, an event about as startling as the arrival of a new sushi bar, taco joint or Olive Garden restaurant is today . . . cafeterias were that popular. All these years later, the place is still in the family, now run by Arnold's nephew, Mike Johnson.
If you don't like marking that march of time in the wrinkling faces of the clientèle, then check out the florally papered walls, which are hung with an ever-extending collection of blue Franklin Mint plates honoring U.S. presidents. Or how about the building itself? From the outside it's as charmingly clichéd as a Thomas Kincaid, and obviously meticulously maintained over the years. Inside, however, its various updates and remodels are obvious, too, and each expansion and redecoration is a reminder of the many changes in taste over the years. The overarching intent is colonial, but within that framework exist tucked-and-rolled red leather booths, Tiffany lamps, a collection of lighthouse paintings and figurines, earth-toned tile in the men's restroom . . . it goes on and on, eventually circling back to one of the customers, an old, off-duty Elvis impersonator, who this evening was wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweat suit—and who never drew a second look.
No, it doesn't exactly "go together," yet it's not a freak show, either. To the contrary, what emerges from this ridiculous clash of styles is a wholesome sense of if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it practicality and a solid self confidence that makes you feel a little bit shallow whenever you're tempted to go all fashion police on the place.
Eventually, you've got to eat—and that came out wrong, because even when the lines are long at Arnold's Buffet, they move pretty quickly, and the menu is filled with stuff that the best places used to advertise with signs that simply read: GOOD FOOD. Arnold's Buffet serves the staples of the traditional American meal—meat and potatoes, yeah, but also salads, vegetables, breads and desserts—and dishes them up to you fresh and hot and in portions that cover the plate by the time you get to the cashier. Remember that?
Well, okay, I'm older than you.
That's why I ordered the meatloaf, rather than, say, turkey and dressing, roast round of beef, baked ham, fried chicken or the grilled rock cod, which was on special. Meatloaf is one of those things that allows a cook a little room to surprise you with seasonings and sauces and stuff. And this meatloaf was, well, not that surprising—which probably shouldn't have surprised me, considering that conversation at a nearby table revolved around the question: Did you take your pill?
So I went back to sample the center cut pork loin, which was hearty and juicy and gave my taste buds something to do, especially when punctuated by mouthfuls of wonderful collard greens (boiled with bacon until only a hint of bitterness remained, but not until soggy) and sweet, crispy corn.
I ate the entree first, before my salads, because that's the best way to do it at a cafeteria, where your hot and cool food arrives at the same time and thus moves toward room temperature simultaneously, too. Unfortunately, I forgot to put the butter on my cornbread while it was still warm, but the fresh-baked flavor endured anyway. The leafy green salad—okay, iceberg lettuce, adorned with shredded beets, grated cheese, a few bits of purple onion and croutons that crunched rather than breaking a molar—were still fresh, even beneath a coat of tangy ranch dressing, The jello and potato salads were actually more soothing than if I'd eaten them first. Dessert was blueberry pie, its rich filling thick enough to hold its shape between thin strips of sugary crust.
Used to be that just about everybody ate like this when they dined out, especially in Southern California, which basically introduced the modern cafeteria to the United States in the early 20th century. Fast-food joints and so-called casual dining restaurants have been slowly suffocating the cafeteria for decades, but Arnold's Buffet somehow continues to thrive. Its time may have passed, but it hasn't been left behind.
ARNOLD'S BUFFET RESTAURANT, 3925 ATLANTIC AVE., LONG BEACH, (562) 595-9227. OPEN SUN-SAT., 11 A.M.-8 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $25. BEER, WINE.