Healthy Nostalgia at Hermosa Beach’s Ocean Diner
by Richard Foss
The people who can actually remember living in the 1940s are few, elderly, and probably not dining out every night. Nevertheless, Ocean Diner seems designed to appeal to their sense of nostalgia. The soundtrack is the Andrews Sisters and Benny Goodman, newspapers on the walls trumpet the Battle of the Bulge, and the décor reminds us of a time when, though conflict raged, the world seemed less complicated.
That’s probably why the Ocean Diner is attractive even to the grandchildren of people who lived through that decade. It was an era of certainties, of optimism, and comfort food. Ocean Diner’s website describes their meals as bringing back “memories of Grandma’s kitchen,” which isn’t quite true unless your grandmother was an early adopter of tofu and breakfast burritos. Those items aside, the offerings here are mostly traditional American favorites like meatloaf, pork chops, sandwiches, and the omelets and breakfast dishes that propelled the Ocean Diner to fame.
In fact, many locals think of the Ocean Diner exclusively as a breakfast or weekend brunch place, not realizing that they’ve been open for dinner since 2008.
Those breakfasts are very good. They include the option of housemade coffee cakes and granola, along with an interesting oddity: crème brulee style oatmeal, topped with caramelized brown sugar. I haven’t had this because I’m not a fan of starting the day with a sugar rush, but friends with a sweet tooth think it’s wonderful. I’m more inclined to one of the scrambles or the chili omelette, preferably with some sautéed onions added. The chili here isn’t hot but has a gentle kick and notes of cumin and herbs. I’m always surprised it doesn’t place higher in our readers’ Best Of poll each year.
I usually visit the Ocean Diner for dinner rather than breakfast, when a slightly larger menu is offered. (You can order from the breakfast or lunch menu at dinner, but not vice versa). Some of the evening items are mighty modern for grandma’s kitchen. Penne with chicken sausage, zucchini, and tomatoes in red bell pepper sauce sounds like something you’d have at a much trendier restaurant. At a more stylish place, it would cost a lot more than 12 bucks, so you should order it here. I tried a bite of someone else’s and it was delicious.
I tend to zero in on the traditional items and have found them to be very well made. The meatloaf is a particular favorite, a big hunk of ground meat with mild spices served in tasty homemade brown gravy. I wish they used a bit more onion in it, but hesitant use of onion seems to be a hallmark of the cooking here. It’s scarce in their chili and home fries too. The lack of onion aside, the meatloaf is really good and I have wished that they’d make an omelette with the stuff. (They might even do so if I asked, but I haven’t yet.) A meatloaf sandwich is an occasional lunch special, and is worth trying if you see it on the chalkboard.
The fried chicken is another popular entrée, though they use skinless breast meat pieces rather than bone-in as is traditional. I greatly prefer fried chicken on the bone, but I can’t resist swiping a piece from my wife’s order. It is greaseless with a crisp, delicately seasoned batter.
The Ocean Diner has a number of health-oriented and vegetarian selections.One is the stir-fried vegetables with tofu, served with soy ginger sauce. The menu description says the veggies are sautéed in the sauce, but when we ordered it this was on the side. I’d ask that the dish be prepared as it is described because without the sauce involved in the cooking, this is a bland dish indeed. Having the sweet, mild, and somewhat thin sauce concentrated and caramelized by stir-frying would improve the dish.
Another of the healthy items, a Tuscan chicken salad with bacon, lettuce, avocado, white beans, and blue cheese crumbles, was much more to my liking. The bacon was used with delicacy so it didn’t overwhelm the other flavors and the lemon-basil dressing was an excellent match with the other flavors. If you are looking for an excellent salad and are avoiding carbs, this is a particularly good choice.
Most lunch and dinner entrees come with soup or salad, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and a fluffy biscuit. At dinnertime, you have the option of getting scalloped corn. If you like creamed corn you should consider it. This isn’t exactly creamed corn, since it’s thicker and is baked with a layer of breadcrumbs on top, but it’s a very good but somewhat filling option. You can also get home fries instead of mashed potato.
Alcohol isn’t served here, but homemade shakes are, as well as excellent coffee. While fancy espresso drinks aren’t available, they use quality coffee and serve it fresh. Owner Rick Hankus also runs Java Man coffeehouse,
If you’ve saved enough room for dessert, you should peruse the pastry case. They make cheesecakes, muffins, and streusel-topped cake daily, though toward the end of busy evenings they have been known to run short. On a recent visit we shared a strawberry tart on a biscuit crust, which was delicate and not over-sweet.
The food at Ocean Diner isn’t a precise recreation of some Midwestern table, but a modern interpretation of it, a bit lighter and healthier. This probably means that frequent patrons will live longer to enjoy return visits and in doing so keep the retro mystique popular for another generation.
The Ocean Diner is at 959 Aviation Boulevard in Hermosa. Open Monday — Friday 6 a.m. — 9 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. – 9 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. Parking in rear or on street, no alcohol served, no corkage, many vegetarian/vegan options. Child-friendly. Menu at oceandiner.com, phone 310-372-3739. B