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Column: Is the early bird dinner discount dead? Not on this critic’s watch


For those who enjoy restaurant reviews and stories about food culture, there’s a smorgasbord of information to digest. But as the author of Golden State, a column about the blessings and burdens of aging, I’ve been feeling a duty to address a glaring omission.

That’s why, back in January, I set out to become an early bird special restaurant critic. And I began by asking readers to tell me about their favorite deals.

Toby Horn, a Mid-City resident, suggested I try the “Beat the Clock” special at Du-par’s in the Original Farmers Market, at 3rd and Fairfax. Enter the restaurant between 4 and 6 p.m., Horn explained, and the price of dinner correlates with the time you walk in.

“Example: You entered at 4:13, so your dinner costs $4.13,” Horn said. “Enter at 5:45? Dinner costs $5.45.”

With the “Beat the Clock” special at Du-par’s in the Original Farmers Market, at 3rd and Fairfax, the price of dinner correlates with the time you walk in.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

This sounded too good to be true. But Frances Tario, who started as a Du-par’s server in 2004 and bought the company in 2018, told me Beat the Clock has been a fixture for nearly 20 years and is available Monday through Friday. There’s just one caveat:

“You must purchase a beverage,” Tario said, and that’ll cost you another $3.65.

The portions are smaller than the ones on the regular menu, Tario said, but still a good deal for the money. And Du-par’s will validate parking for up to 90 minutes.

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

I arrived at 4 p.m. on Tuesday with my notebook and my appetite. In a city of 4 million people, you’d think there’d be lines out the door, and maybe even some scuffling as passengers spilled out of retirement home shuttles. But host Mauricio Bojorquez told me I was the first Beat the Clock customer in the door.

You never know, he said. Sometimes it’s just a few people, sometimes a dozen or more. There’s a Beat the Clock couple who come in several days a week, Tario said, and young families often take advantage of the chance to avoid the hassles of shopping and cooking.

Two people sit at a diner booth

Mark, left, and Michael Tu eat early dinner specials at Du-par’s.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

With Beat the Clock, time is money. But I figured I could afford to go for a walk and check back later. I returned at 4:30, and again at 5. A handful of booths were occupied, but the diners were ordering off the regular menu. At 5:30, with time running out and the price of my dinner rising by the minute, Bojorquez handed me the Beat the Clock menu.

The choices were spaghetti and meatballs, chicken almondine, grilled salmon tapenade, meatloaf, or a combo plate of one pancake, one egg and choice of bacon or sausage.

Go with the salmon, Bojorquez said.

Good call.

Chef Carlos Contreras — a onetime cashier who studied culinary arts on the Du-par’s food prep line — had seared the salmon to perfection, with a crisp outer edge and a seductively soft, pink flesh. The salmon would have been proud of the care taken by Contreras, who carefully set the small fillet atop a skiff of creamed spinach — not the usual mushy, blended massacre of Popeye’s favorite carb, but a subtle celebration of the leaf itself. The side of pureed potatoes was a reminder, however bittersweet, that no marriage can rival the perfect union of butter and spuds.

A hand places a plate of food on a table

Waiter Jasson Benitez serves the salmon dinner special at Du-par’s.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

All that for $5.30, plus the cost of an iced tea. And yet I was the only Beat the Clock patron that night, which had me scrawling a question in my notebook:

Is the early bird dinner cooked?

I hadn’t received a river of recommendations from readers, and when I did my own research, I didn’t find many offerings. I knew I’d be dropping by Scardino’s in Torrance and Tony’s on the Pier in Redondo, but the flock of early bird restaurants I remembered from years past seemed to have thinned.

“It just doesn’t pencil out,” said Andy Harris, host of the Saturday morning “SoCal Restaurant Show” on KLAA-AM (830).

Restaurants have to shoulder rising costs, Harris said, and keeping extra staff on duty between traditional lunch and dinner hours makes it hard to turn a profit on discounted meals.

Chef, author and radio show personality Evan Kleiman said a lot of the mom-and-pop operations that offered early bird specials have not survived rent increases, inflation and the pandemic. She fondly recalled the budget-minded diners she used to see at Andre’s, across the street from the Farmers Market, which is now closed and possibly relocating. Meals were so inexpensive at Andre’s, you didn’t need early bird specials.

“You would see these older people … just trying to survive on Social Security, sitting in front of a giant meatball and savoring every little bit of it,” Kleiman said.

A restaurant on a pier at the beach

Tony’s on the Pier serves a “Sunset Menu” Mondays through Thursdays in Redondo Beach.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In Florida, where early bird dining was once a cultural phenomenon, a 2018 story in Eater declared that “boomers are driving the bird into extinction.” The article said early bird aficionados have died off, and their generational replacements “do not want to be reminded in any way that they’re old now, especially if they can afford the luxury.”

Seems to me that bigger factors are in play, such as the increase in fast-food options and home delivery apps. And don’t forget the ubiquitous happy hour, a ploy to sell profitable alcoholic beverages and get you loopy enough to keep ordering Brussels sprouts.

I thought surely there’d still be a buffet of early bird options in the Coachella Valley, but “a lot of those restaurants have gone by the wayside,” said Sam Harris, who refuses to give up on tradition. As owner of Sherman’s Deli & Bakery in Palm Springs, he offers eight “reward for early diners” entrees, with choice of sides and soup or salad, for $18.45.

“Are you going to have an empty restaurant between 4 and 6 p.m., or are you going to have smaller margins and stay open?” Harris asked, having answered his own question.

A sign on a restaurant wall boasts of "over 7 million served"

Tony’s on the Pier is famous for its Mai Tais, and also boasts an early bird special.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

At Tony’s on the Pier in Redondo, my Thousand Island-dressed shrimp Louie ($20 on the “Sunset Menu,” available 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday) arrived in a shell-shaped bowl with enough succulent prawns to feed the Coast Guard. Soup was included, as was the million-dollar view.

Ofelia and Rafael Flores, up from San Diego, ordered the seafood combo and the salmon, respectively, which come with lots of options. Do you want salad or chowder? Do you want linguini, potato, rice pilaf or veggies? At $25, that’s not exactly cheap, but it’s eight clams off the regular price, and by Ofelia’s reckoning, she would have paid $45 for the same meal in San Diego.

Between us, though, I recommend that you run, don’t walk, to Scardino’s on Torrance Boulevard. It’s an old-style Italian restaurant run by two guys from Mexico — Ruben Hernandez and Daniel Sanchez — who started in the kitchen many meatballs ago and ended up buying the joint.

A server delivers a pizza to a table in a restaurant

Restaurant co-owner Ruben Hernandez delivers the pizza course to Arno, left, and Carmella Zwarg, as they share a special at Scardino’s restaurant in Torrance.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

On the “Early Supper” menu, they do mean early — it’s in play from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. But think of it as your one indulgence of the day and feast on a basket of garlic bread, take your pick of soup or salad, choose from a dozen entrees including ravioli, chicken or pizza, and leave room for tiramisu, cannoli or spumoni.

They even throw in a drink, including a healthy pour of wine, and the whole thing will run you $23.95.

“The reason I keep it like that,” Hernandez said, “is that I see people who can’t afford more, and they’re very loyal.”

Airline pilot Ryota Mise, on a layover from Japan, finished off his fettuccine Alfredo — a portion that might not have fit in an overhead compartment — and declared it “yummy.”

I got the chicken Marsala and canceled a trip to Italy.

Carmella and Arno Zwarg of Torrance looked over the early supper menu, but then found something even cheaper — the weeknight special. You get salad and garlic bread for two, pasta for two and a small cheese pizza for $26.95.

At $13-plus per person, Carmella said, “you can’t even buy a hamburger for that these days.”

We live in a post-pension, high-inflation world, so if you know of any other good dinner deals, you can perform a public service by letting me know.

Tradition can’t die in silence.

Your early bird special restaurant critic won’t let it happen.

steve.lopez@latimes.com



This story originally appeared on LA Times

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