By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
“No pipe or cigar smoking,” admonishes the sign on the scuffed podium by the register at Pepy’s Galley. It hasn’t been legal to smoke in restaurants for 15 years, but the warning is still up. It feels right, since a visit to this coffee shop is as close to time travel as you can get without a special effects budget.
The restaurant housed within the Mar Vista Lanes bowling alley was apparently once tropical-themed, as evidenced by the lava rocks on the wall and the weathered tiki outside the front door, but except for those touches it’s pure 1950s coffee shop, complete with the pies in a glass case. It’s not the kind of place I usually focus much attention on, but a friend told me that some good cooking happens in this humble establishment.
The menu is mostly American standards, breakfasts, burgers, salads and the like, but the wall behind the counter is festooned with specials — multigrain pancakes, several sandwiches and a few Mexican items included. More interestingly, a note on the menu reads: “If you want a dish not on the menu, ask for it, and if we have the ingredients you get what you desire!” I liked the attitude, but didn’t challenge them with odd requests.
On the first visit we started with a cup of homemade chili, which was made with ground beef and mildly spiced. It didn’t have the kick of serious chili, but there were layers of flavor, and I’d happily have it over a burger or in an omelet. My companion, skeptical that we could find good food in this down-market environment, brightened when he tried it.
He turned gloomy again when his lunch arrived. He had ordered a Cajun burger, which we were told would be blackened on the grill with spices, but the seasoning was so faint that we wondered if the order had gone in wrong. When we asked our server, he said that they had been having complaints about these being too hot, so they use less seasoning now. Why anyone who objects to spicy food would order something called a Cajun burger is beyond me, but surely a place that offers to make random items for customers could ask diners how highly they’d like something seasoned.
I had ordered the most interesting item on the menu — ropa vieja, a Cuban dish of beef stewed with red and green bell pepper and onions. This was remarkably good and somewhat spicier than you usually find in local Cuban restaurants, and somewhat hotter than the chili. It was served with rice pilaf, beans and tortillas, and was a lot of good food for just a nickel under ten bucks.
There were enough high points in the meal that when I needed to schedule a meeting the very next day, we had lunch at Pepy’s. It was a Friday, the only day on which they serve clam chowder, so I started with that. It was a hit, with plenty of clams in a thick pepper and herb-flecked broth, and I’d happily have it again. My companion, a transplanted Midwesterner, ordered the biscuits and gravy for which he is perennially homesick. This was unfortunately not a good version — the biscuits were doughy rather than flaky, and the gravy didn’t have enough of the sausage that peps up the dish.
When we ordered, I had asked the server what the best item on the menu was, and he unhesitatingly suggested the ribeye steak. I don’t usually order coffee shop steaks because I figure that they can’t be buying top-quality meat if they’re selling it for twelve bucks, but I decided to take his advice. It wasn’t as tender as a steak costing two or three times as much, but it was surprisingly good, with a smoky char that accented the meat. Unfortunately the vegetables that came with it were the standard frozen mix out of a bag — if I had this again I’d substitute a salad.
Meals at Pepy’s are very inexpensive, with most entrees below $10, and they’re open long hours. This place has a devoted corps of regulars, and if you enjoy good coffee shop food in a classic, slightly kitschy atmosphere, you might even become another one. Read all the notices on the walls, tell them the spice level you like, and settle in for a meal in the atmosphere of an era gone by, with prices to match. If you need to work off all the calories, you could even go bowling afterward without losing your parking space.
Pepy’s is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. No alcohol, children welcome, wheelchair access good, parking lot east of the bowling alley. Enter at the corner of Grandview and Venice. Menu posted online.
Pepy’s Galley, 12125 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista (310) 390-0577 pepysgalley.com