In a city that offers patties laced with bone marrow and topped with pastrami, what makes Angelenos return time and time again to a no-frills, old-school spot like The Apple Pan? There’s no air conditioning (the nearly 70-year-old building won’t support it), the menu has barely changed since the restaurant opened its doors*, and there isn’t even a salad.
Sure, people come for the Hickoryburger slathered in a smoky and tart ketchup-like sauce, piled high with lettuce and wrapped neatly in wax paper. They also come for the apple pie, made from the owner’s great grandmother’s recipe. But it’s The Apple Pan staff—most of whom have been working at the restaurant for over 25 years—who are responsible for turning the lunch counter into an institution.
Jorge Molina began working at the West L.A. lunch counter in 1997, when he was 20-years-old. He had no kitchen experience—his previous jobs had been as a cashier at a gas station and a bus boy at an Italian restaurant—but he quickly learned how to build Hickory and Steakburgers the Apple Pan way.
“It’s like you’re married to this place,” says Molina. “You spend at least 54 hours a week here, so you spend more time here than at home.” Molina and his Apple Pan cohorts are the eyes and ears that have witnessed everything over the course of The Apple Pan’s history; their service and keen attention to what customers need at any given moment is as much a part of the experience as the burger itself.
“When you go to fast-food burger stands, they just give you a packet of ketchup or a little plate,” says Molina. “When you come here, first thing, we put the fries out with a plate and—boom—pour the ketchup for you. People are always surprised.”
Besides being a neighborhood hangout, the humble burger joint is also a favorite of the Hollywood elite (although most regulars would say they feel like they receive the Brad Pitt treatment too).
That type of loyalty is contagious. Molina says about seven of his customers come to The Apple Pan at least three times a week. One of his regulars even proposed to his wife there; he asked Molina to be his witness while he gave her the ring.
We chatted with four employees about how long they’ve been working at the restaurant, their go-to orders, and the celebrity they’re most excited to see walk through The Apple Pan’s double-screen doors.
Title: Night manager
Born in: Thailand
Years spent working at The Apple Pan: 40
Favorite celebrity sighting: “Leonardo DiCaprio. He orders Hickoryburgers and apple pie a la mode. Warren Beaty comes in every chance he gets. He orders the tuna melt and fries. He used to bring his crew here to film the movies.”
On changing clientele: “Most of the old folks who were my first customers have passed away.”
How he keeps his skin so nice: No sugar or alcohol. Gym every day.
Title: Server on the right side of the counter (when you walk in)
Born in: Mexico
Years spent working at The Apple Pan: 18
How he feels about his job: “When you come here, you start working, you say hi to people and welcome them—it’s amazing. When you come here, all your stress is gone. I talk to my customers about sports, business, family. My customers are my friends.”
Favorite celebrity sighting: “Benicio Del Toro. He’s a regular customer, but when he came in for the first time, I had just watched the movie The Hunted like a week before. He was nominated for the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. I was cooking when I saw him, and I was very surprised. He went to the sidewalk to make a call, and I opened the door and said, ‘Do you mind taking a picture with me?’ And he answered me in Spanish; he said, ‘¿Por que no?’ He orders Hickory with cheese. He’s got a daughter so he brings her, too.”
Jorge’s go-to order: Steakburger with cheddar. No pickles and relish. Add ketchup and grilled onions.
Title: Server on the left side of the counter (when you walk in)
Born in: Jalisco, Mexico
Years spent working at The Apple Pan: 35
Favorite celebrity sighting: “I remember when John Wooden from UCLA used to come. We knew his order, so he didn’t have to order. He got a Hickory cheeseburger with chocolate cream pie and a root beer. He never changed it. He used to come in with [Laker] Keith Erickson.”
Roberto’s go-to order: Tuna melt with tomatoes and jalapeños [not available to customers]. Apple pie, always. “I try not to do a la mode—I’m watching my figure.”
Title: Day manager
Born in: Mexico
Years at The Apple Pan: 25
Favorite celebrity sighting: “Warren Buffet. We opened on Monday just for him and his family. Also James Worthy comes in; he orders the Steakburger. There are a lot of celebrities that come in but I can talk to them just like I’m talking to you right now.”
*There has been one change to the restaurant’s original 1947 menu; Kelly’s corned-beef sandwich is no longer on it.