By Bob Vickrey
Special to the Palisades News
When I first walked into the Palisades Drugstore Café almost forty years ago, I thought I had stepped into a Norman Rockwell painting.
Jeff Kool, the longtime owner of the Palisades Bookshelf, had told me one of the best lunches in town was right down the street at the local drugstore. As I entered the back door and passed the pharmacy counter, I made my way toward the unmistakable buzz of lively conversation emanating from the busy lunch crowd seated around two adjoining horseshoe-shaped counters.
One of the customers at the counter moved down one seat to accommodate me, and I quickly recognized her as my new nextdoor neighbor, Phyllis Genovese, who owned the Palisades Letter Shop. She introduced me to bicycle repair-shop owner Ted Mackie and several other friends sitting nearby.
A petite silver-haired waitress was taking an order from several diners who were seated in vintage vinyl booths located along the adjacent wall. In subsequent visits, I finally met the waitress, “Zona,” who initially displayed a rather crusty personality, so I began my quest to soften her up. It worked. Over the next decade, I was successful in making her smile—exactly twice.
During those first weeks living in Pacific Palisades, I met several people at the cafe with whom lasting friendships were eventually formed, including the co-owners of the business, Judy and Jay Steuerwald.
Palisades Drug Company was already a village fixture in the Business Block building that had first opened in 1924, and now reflected a fading symbol of a bygone era. Most drugstore food counters around the country had closed by that time, as large national chain stores gained a strong foothold in the market and began to phase out food service. The Steuerwalds bought the store in 1973, which bordered Sunset, Swarthmore and Antioch Boulevard in the large space now occupied by Starbucks, Subway, and Petit Ami, the children’s clothing store. Ron Barnes would later join the business as partner. Both Jay and Ron were pharmacists who guided the day-to-day operations of the store, which also featured a beauty counter, as well as magazine and candy racks.
Back then, Mort’s Delicatessen was widely acknowledged as the most popular restaurant in town, but the drugstore café was a rather well-kept secret that had a loyal following among local residents. The food was consistently good and was easy on your pocketbook.
Miguel Diaz, the cafe’s popular chef, and his wife Carmen, could quickly whip up a tasty Spanish omelet that kept me coming back time after time. And their Mexican dishes were some of the most popular items served during the lunch hour—especially Miguel’s enchiladas. Burgers, fries, and milkshakes were also best-sellers—just like the old Rockwell period paintings had once depicted.
One of my friends liked the “Low-Calorie Plate” that featured a simple ground-beef patty, with cottage cheese and lime Jell-O. He always enjoyed watching the reaction of nearby diners when he also ordered a large chocolate milkshake to accompany his weight-watching meal.
The café was a perfect gathering place that offered a warm, friendly atmosphere where business meetings were often conducted. A local contractor once said he negotiated and signed more contracts at the café than any other place in town. One thing was certain: you were always assured of running into several friends each time you ate there.
When the Business Block building changed ownership in 1983, the store moved across Sunset Boulevard to the building now occupied by Goorus Yoga Studio. The owners did a great job of recreating their oval-shaped café counters and continued to offer the same great atmosphere, but many of us will always vividly remember the original store that had once swept us back to yet another time and place.
When I interviewed the Steuerwalds recently, Jay talked about their difficult decision in 1996, when they decided to close the store. “I can’t begin to tell you about the sadness that set in when we began packing and cleaning out the store after 23 years in business. We realized it was truly the end of an era.”
And if you’re wondering where some of those people are now: Bookseller Jeff Kool and former drugstore business partner Ron Barnes are both now deceased, as is Ted Mackie. But Miguel is now happily retired after working at Gelson’s market in Century City, and his wife Carmen still works at our local Gelson’s deli counter. Phyllis Genovese still lives in town and recently turned 103.
The Steuerwalds are also retired and enjoy a full life of travel and time spent with their grandchildren. They can be spotted nowadays in the mornings sitting with friends at their sidewalk patio table at the Palisades Garden Café.
Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisadian who is a regular contributor to the News. He also writes for the Houston Chronicle and the Waco Tribune-Herald.