Long Beach Lunch: Friendly Cup Cafe

I can’t wait to age with dignity, if only so I can spend all day hanging out with my fellow mature homies at the Long Beach Senior Center, where access to necessary public services comes with two thrift stores, billiard tables, daily arts and crafts programs, a room of tables dedicated exclusively to doing puzzles and a simple cafeteria-style café where seniors play board games while eating free hot lunches and members of the public can wander in and dine on 50-cent coffee and $1.30 sandwiches.

The low-key former industrial building on 4th Street has long filled the city map in my brain as “that place with the mural next door to the smoke shop where I bought my first pipe in Long Beach and the carniceria that’s owned by the Palestinian who speaks fluent Spanish.” It wasn’t until recently that a lunchtime stroll past its familiar sign — “Friendly Cup Café – Public Welcome” – finally lured me inside.

What I found was a bustling community center-like day camp for our city’s beloved age-50-plus residents, one much larger (and friendlier) than it appears from the street.

Enter through the main foyer — where there’s a reading and TV room as well as a reception desk and gift shop — and you still have another quarter of a mile of hallway to trek until the café. Say hi to everyone who greets you (they’re all so damn friendly) as you keep going past the health services offices, past the fully stocked gym, past the charcoal portraits of the senior center’s trailblazers and past the auditorium where you’re sometimes lucky enough to stumble upon a concert or play by one of the center’s troupes. The Friendly Cup Café is inside the last big room, the cafeteria, before the hallway leads you into the back parking lot.
Inevitably, the room is filled with regulars, who over the years of doing crossword puzzles and talking about politics together have separated themselves into high school-like posses and cliques that, in appearances alone, are about as diverse as the city of Long Beach itself. Many of them are eating the free hot lunches, provided most days by an outside nonprofit. Others are sipping on coffee or eating slices of pie from the center’s on-site restaurant, which is, weirdly enough, operated by the Long Beach Department of Parks and Recreation.

The prices, even for a government-subsidized operation, are mind-bogglingly low. We sometimes talk about “recession-era” or “student-friendly” pricing when lunch is under $10, but 95-cents for a cup of albondigas soup (the albondigas hand-made by the sweet Mexican lady who runs the kitchen) and $1.30 for a half a tuna or turkey sandwich means that a solid meal here costs less than a refillable soda cup at most fast food restaurants. (For something sweeter, the cinnamon roll is one of the gooiest, chewiest, cinnamon-iest versions I’ve ever had.)
Time a visit on Tuesdays when $3 will get you a tuna melt or quesadilla off their “Grillin’ Tuesday” menu or on Wednesdays and Fridays, when Friendly Cup Café cooks its own hot lunches, and you can get a full multi-course feast — entrée helpings of fajitas, pasta, meatloaf and pizza with sides, a salad and dessert — all for around $4.

After I get my food, I always sit at one of the circular tables reserved for café visitors with a book (no laptops!) and let my dreams float to the days when I’ll be allowed into the reverse nightclub (50+ only!) that is the rest of the Long Beach Senior Center. In addition to free hot lunches and a place to socialize with the crew, an entire second floor of movie screenings, Tagalog classes, knitting clubs, Wii workouts and that exclusive, VIP puzzle room await.

1150 E 4th St, Long Beach; (562) 570-3500; longbeach.gov/park/park-and-facilities/directory/long-beach-senior-center

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