Ontra Cafeteria

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There were several Ontras around L.A. but we used to go to the one in Beverly Hills. It was on Beverly Drive at Dayton Way. Back in 1968 when comedian Pat Paulsen waged a mock presidential campaign, he held his big fund-raising dinner there and personally rang up the cash register, charging each diner 49 cents. That wasn’t that much below what you’d normally pay for a meal there.

At an Ontra, you could get a great hot turkey sandwich carved right off the bird, right in front of you. I usually did but sometimes I went for the fried chicken, especially on “all you could eat” night. As you went through the line, they gave you enough for a normal person, plus a little flag you could put on your plate to indicate you were entitled to more. They had a young lady dressed in gingham like a farm girl who strolled the cafeteria (a pretty large place) with a basket of more fried chicken and a pair of tongs. You could signal her to come over and give you another thigh or two…and it was pretty good fried chicken.

You could get great side dishes and an incredible selection of breads and other baked goods. They had all sorts of wonderful cakes, pies and other desserts but I usually went for the orange Jell-O, which was in cubes.

They don’t make cafeterias like that anymore. Hell, they don’t make cafeterias at all. The Ontras were all huge places with pretty good food at pretty good prices and I keep waiting for that kind of establishment to make a comeback. When they do, I’ll be first in line…with my tray.

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80 Responses to Ontra Cafeteria

  • Jenny L says:

    My grandmother, Vonola Fairbanks Modine worked there in the early 1940s and here’s what she wrote about it in her diary many years later: “I had my eye on a job in the Ontra Cafeteria on Sunset and Vine Street. Two interviews had been unsuccessful, but today may be the day, and sure enough, they needed a carver at once. I was always good with knives and tools, so with a little coaching, I became head carver in one of the biggest cafeterias in the country. The carver dished the soup and before me was a ham, a standing rib roast, a leg of lamb ad a turkey. These were carved and put right on the plate. To be a good carver, the customer had to be pleased with the cut; if it was too small he would complain and if it was too big, the boss was always watching. I was a good carver and the line was never stalled at my station. There was no waste, the turkey, lamb and ham was carved right down to the bone gracefully. Most days I would carve two and sometimes three of all these items. There were two carvers, but I had the head station. You can imagine the meals that were served in a day, 10 thousand, I heard.”

  • Karen P says:

    I remember Ontra’s on Crenshaw in the late 50’s. We ate there all the time. I loved the halibut, salisbury steak, turkey leg, baked chicken, and all the side dishes. Love to have those recipes! I wonder if there was ever a recipe collection for them. Please email me in you know or have any of the recipes.

  • Frances Apolito says:

    Yes, Pa Kettle was a frequent visitor. Burt Lancaster came in, and a few
    other stars also.
    I worked as a checker, cashier and then worked in the office upstairs.

  • Frances Apolito says:

    I worked at the Hollywood & Vine Ontra in the early 1950’s, first in the
    Cafeteria then upstairs in the office. Mr. Smythe was the General Mgr.
    and Mr. Green was the Mgr. I made good friends there. I wonder what’s
    there now.

  • M Garcia says:

    I worked as a busboy in the summers of 1953 and 1954 at the Vine st. Ontra. Most of the help were from Mexico. I remember Immigration visiting the place and cleaning house but the same guys would show up again within a few days. I have fond memories of the floor supervisor Irene. I enjoyed the three square meals offered as a perk. Great waffles! Pa Kettle and Rita Moreno were frequent customers.

  • Cory Taylor says:

    When I was young, we went to the Ontra in Pasadena (in the Hastings Ranch shopping center near Sears). I loved their fried shrimp and the cocktail sauce they served with them. I’ve never found a cocktail sauce that is similar. I sure miss that food. It was good and inexpensive and a nice atmosphere.

  • Kathleen Oliver says:

    I’m another Baby Boomer who misses all the great cafeterias in Los Angeles . . . Cliftons, Sir George’s Smorgasbord, and especially The Ontra. When my father immigrated from Germany in 1961, his first job was as a “hot supply boy” at the Van Nuys Ontra. Working there helped him improve his English speaking and writing skills immensely (he learned a lot of American slang, too LOL). His only negative experience there was getting badly scalded on his arm. His job at The Ontra helped him earn a living while he was waiting to qualify for his California Barbers License (which was his and his father’s profession in the Old Country). My mom and I lived in Port Hueneme at that time (we came to America a few years earlier) and every visit to see my dad, we’d enjoy all the wonderful food at The Ontra. I also remember going to the Miracle Mile Ontra on Wilshire, after my mom and I moved to L.A. When we reunited with dad. I miss The Ontra!

  • Marie Doe says:

    I remember Ontra’s in Del Amo, back when it was an outside mall – my sister and I would feel so grown up going through the line – I remember getting a french dip or roast beef sandwich for about $2. Great memories!

  • Michelle says:

    My dad used to take us to The Ontra on Vine in Hollywood for breakfast when I was little in the late 60’s, early 70’s. I remember seeing many movie stars, including Billy Barty, who was one of the original Little People! I have very fond memories and think of it often.

  • Michelle says:

    My dad used to take us to breakfast at the Ontra on Vine in the late 60’s early 70’s. I fondly recall seeing many movie stars, including Billy Barty – he was one of the original Little People! Real good childhood memories!

  • Marc Guttman says:

    My very first job was as a bus boy at the Ontra on Van Nuys Blvd, I ws 15 years old and kied about my age. They thought I was 18. It was there I had my first date with an “OLDER” woman, Blanch was her name.

  • Scarla says:

    i remember that at some point in the early ’70s, the Ontra in Hollywood changed ownership (I think the entire chain was gone at that point), and the new tenant was quite thrifty — the order of the lettering on all the existing signage was switched around, et, voila! “Traon” cafeteria was born. Didn’t last too long!

  • Dennis Feely says:

    My family went there many times when I was a small boy. I loved the halibut steaks, duck, roast beef and I always got the green peas and red jello cubes. I distinctly remember the lady carving the beef sharpening her knife before slicing my piece of roast for me. They were all very nice to that little boy. It beats the hell out of any cafeteria that I have been to since!

  • Linda Stephenson says:

    I went to the Crenshaw Ontra in the mid 1950’s, and I also remember the jello cubes and the lollipops by the register, which must have impressed me. My Nana took me there regularly, and I also remember the Broadway, May Co and Newberry’s! A Von’s grocery store too. We lived onMuirfield Road. Small world!

  • mild cigar says:

    Growing up family was lower middle class, and eating out a restaurant was a fairly rare occasion (once every other month or so). Especially when my brother and myself were growing up in the late 60’s/early 70’s, the place to go were cafeterias.

    It seemed in the late 1960’s that you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a cafeteria, and by 1980 it seemed like they all disappeared.

    Other than seeing a Luby’s cafeteria when I recently drove through Texas, I haven’t seen a cafeteria in at least 15-20 years. I guess they just fell out of favor.

  • Grace says:

    I have very fond memories of eating at the Ontra in Pasadena; it was upstairs in the Hastings Ranch shopping center where Sears was [and still is].

    There were a lot of cafeterias back then, when I was a kid, but Ontra seemed to have better food. I remember always ordering the halibut, and I loved their tartar sauce.

    I miss cafeterias.

  • Lorenzo B says:

    We lived in Burbank, and when it was time for a cafeteria dinner, we would usually gravitate to Schaber’s in North Hollywood. Sometimes, for a change of pace, we would eat at the Ontra on Van Nuys boulevard. IIRC, they were quite similar in selection and quality, both being good.

  • Dennis Moore says:

    I was reading a newspaper article when the author made reference to Ontra cafeteria. WOW!!! Suddenly it brought back memories of my mother, grandmother, my twin sister (Denise) and myself having dinners at Ontra’s on Crenshaw Blvd. when I was in grammar school in the late 50’s and early 60’s. I remember looking forward to my favorite “fish and chips”. Good food, enjoyable times and fond memories. Thank you so very much

  • Mark I. says:

    What about the glimmering cubes of the jello served with whipped cream in a parfait glass just before you get to the cashier?

    My mom always would buy me one…ahh the good ol’ days.

  • Linda Armstrong says:

    I worked at the one in Hollywood when I was in college. I was one of the checkers. We memorized the menu and added up what was on int trays with Sweda adding machines. We got computers, but they were so slow, the lines started going around the block and everyone got mad at us, so I got a job at Sears Hollywood.

  • Sue Schmier says:

    My mother and father lived in Leimert Park for 45 years. We watched the May co and broadway being built when I was 10 years old

    In the 60s I would bring my four year old son to Ontra on Crenshaw just a few blocks from my parents home. My son Bruce would say..Mommie can we go to my favorite restaurant The Rolling Chair? That is what he called Ontra because. The highchairs were on rollers!

  • Larry H. says:

    I would love to hear from anyone who worked at the Hollywood Ontra between 1961 and 1963. I remember a lot of first names and a lot of fairly common last names but very few complete and unique names which would be traceable on Google. One that I remember quite well was Janaire Skidmore. She had a very unique name and was also one of the cutest girls I’d ever seen so her memory has always stuck with me but there were many many others, both male and female. I also had a bunch of friends there from Peru, but I’m still trying to recall their last names.

  • Larry H. says:

    My first job was at the Ontra at 1719 N. Vine in Hollywood in 1961 when I was 15 years old. I started as a busboy and during the three years I worked there I did just about every job they had at one time or another, but my favorite was “hot supply”. The manager was Alan Scott, assistant mgr. was Dave Jenner, and the hostess was Sheila Reuter. The stock room was run by Zygmunt Narolski, a survivor of the Nazi death camps in WWII. The building was torn down years ago but the memories remain. I would love to know what became of the many people I knew while working there.

  • Bob Reite says:

    I also remember going to the Ontra Cafeteria on Crenshaw Blvd. after going shopping at The Broadway with my mother.

  • C Brewer/ Nybakken says:

    I remember fondly dining in the 50’s after church and flirting with the very cute busboys. Happy days

  • W Harris says:

    Is there anyone that makes Duck with Orange Sauce like Ontra on Crenshaw. As a child I loved it.

  • Bob Moos says:

    I don’t remember how my older brother and younger sister got a job at the store on Crenshaw and Stocker, but my dad said that who ever was not working had to do the dishes at home so that left me.

    I got a job there after school too and shortly there after my brother and sister quit working. I continued working there during my 10th, 11th and 12th grades at Inglewood High School. I would take the bus to and from work. I worked cleaning dishes and trays. I also worked as a “hot supply boy” bringing the hot pans of food from the kitchen to the food line.

    After I got out of the service in the 60s, I went back to work and was put in the bake shop and learned how to make the desserts. I will always cherish my first job experience at Ontra. I wonder what happened to Mr. Hughes the manger who hired me 3 different times as a high schooler and adult.

  • Pam Espinoza says:

    My husband and I met at the Ontra in Beverly Hills in 1963.We went to the store on Vermont.We worked with Lily and Anna and Mr. Flores and many other wonderful people.They were very kind to us and gave us both a wedding and a baby shower.So many great memories.

  • Tom Maddux says:

    My mom worked at May Co. in the Crenshaw Shopping Center. Going to the Ontra cafeteria was a special event for birthdays and such. At our economic level, going to Ontra’s was high living.

  • Linda N says:

    My family ate at the Ontra Cafeteria in Torrance about once a month or so. I adored the cole slaw, macaroni & cheese, baked halibut and roast beef au jus. Also loved the eggplant side (deep fried?) which is kind of strange as I was just a young one at the time. We’d always get iced tea to drink with the meal. Oh! And the blueberry muffins were so yummy! Gosh, I miss the Ontra Cafeteria. My mother tried to duplicate the recipes at home and she was quite successful with the baked halibut and blueberry muffins. To this day one of my very favorite meals is halibut, sides of mac and cheese, cole slaw and a blueberry muffin & iced tea. Great memories!

  • Mary Creasey says:

    I can still hear the jingle in my head. “Come in and see what’s cookin’/half the fun’s in lookin’ /At Ontra, Ontra Cafeteria.” It’s not quite the second, it’s “On-truh” rather than “on-traw”.

  • Mark Foster says:

    Hi all, can you help us resolve a minor family dispute about how the name of the Ontra was pronounced… my wife and her brother use a “long A” and say “on-tray” (because the food was on a tray) my family used a “short A” and pronounced it “on-traw” (rhymes with on-draw). What do you all remember?

  • brian trester says:

    we used to have a Bishop’s here that was very much like this place cafateria style. was always great food and i miss that style of resturant as well

  • Angelica Moya says:

    My mom used to work at one. It’s nice to put a picture to the place.

  • Sam Takeo says:

    The wonderful memories I have of my mom and step dad taking me there for our Friday night dinner. I would always get the Mack and Cheese. We ate at the one on Wilshire Blvd. How I would love to travel back in time and relive the experience again and again.

  • Judy Scott Dunn says:

    Diane Elder:

    Thank you for the information on the family. I kind of remember some things but I was only five or six at the time. I remember Hattie and I knew she was my fathers aunt but I can’t remember the names of some of the other people. But I do remember the Ontra Cafeteria was a very nice place and going to the cafeteria several times with my older sister when I was a teenager in the 50’s. She worked in downtown Los Angeles and it was still special to both of us because of the family connection.

  • Vic Baron says:

    my family ate at the one on Vermont in now Korea Town, i used to love that place… we probably ate there several times a month for years!

  • DIANE ELDER says:

    Judy (Scott Dunn):

    My grandfather, U.G. James (he later legally changed his first name to Eugene; people called him Gene), was first married to my grandmother Helen Furtenau James. Helen was a hostess or cashier at the first cafeteria. They married in 1929. Helen was the mother of Eleanor and Dorothy, the two daughters you mention. My grandmother Helen was had a beautiful voice, an achingly pure soprano. I have recordings of her singing arias from La Traviata, her high notes were extraordinary. My grandfather was later married to a woman named Marjorie (@1946).

    My mother recalls that it was a family tradition to close the cafeteria once a year on Christmas day so that there could be a family reunion. She recalls the photograph you mention.

    My mother fondly speaks of her grandmother, Hattie Matilda. I believe that Hattie Matilda was a Scott, thus the family connection. She gave my mother dolls as well, we still have a couple of them.

    Stephanie M.:

    My mother remembers your father well. My mother remembers your father’s office next to her father’s Eugene James’s office. She recalls her father recognizing what an excellent executive he was. She recalls that your father put his three sons through Stanford and perhaps some other excellent universities. Is this correct? If your father was the manager of the restaurants in the early 50s, it should be the same gentleman. She remembers the respect the family had for your father.

    My grandfather sold the cafeterias to Conrad Hilton in the 1950s. My mother recalls that Hilton sold the cafeterias to the Catholic Church a couple years later.

  • Lorna Fenenbock says:

    Thank you so much for putting this together. I was born and raised in Encino and remember so many of these great restaurants. Well… maybe they weren’t all that great, but the memories are wonderful. Wil Wright’s had the greatest hot fudge and the tiny macaroon on the side, the best. I wish I could go there right now!

    One omission is Chicken Delight. It was a great fast-food chicken joint before KFC or most other fast-food chains. There was one in Tarzana that we got take-out from all the time, mostly in the summer. Here’s a link I found explaining its history and what happened to it. http://www.chickendelight.com/about.htm

    Again, THANK YOU for the wonderful job you’ve done bringing happiness for those of us still around to remember the good ol’ days in LA.


  • Judy Scott Dunn says:

    I am a relative of the family, my father is Charles E. Scott. I have a picture of one of the James and Scott families Christmas breakfast in Los Angeles but I am not sure which location it was but I remember we liked to slide down the banister. I was four or five (I think) so it would have been in 1946 or 1947. There is a man I knew as Gene James, his wife Marjorie and two daughters, Aunt Hattie Lange, and three other women, I think one is named Myrtle, Gene & Helen Burda, Lois & Neal Vance, The Sties family, George Moore and other people who’s names I can’t remember. I would love to hear from someone in the family as I don’t know much about them and I am the sole survivor of my immediate family. Aunt Hattie gave me a doll when I was about two that I still have.

  • Tom says:

    How can I get Ontra recipes? I’d love to relive so of those amazing meals with my family.

  • David Dee says:

    When I was a little kid, I used to go to the Vine Street location with my Mom, and the pictures definitely look like that location. They had the best Italian Salad dressing. In the alley next to the building someone had painted “Agnes Moorehead is God” Ahhh memories.

  • Stephanie M. says:

    Hi JJ,
    My dad is pretty sure that the Ontra in your photo was the Vine Street cafeteria.

  • JJ says:

    Hey Lee, I have a old photo from the 30’s with an Ontra cafeteria on the ground floor and an Odd Fellows Hall on top of it. Anyone know which location this was? Thanks

  • Eric says:

    I remember the one on Van Nuys Blvd. right across from the old Bob’s Big Boy. If Chandler Blvd. would have come straight out to Van Nuys Blvd. instead of curving as it did, it would have gone right through Ontra. For whatever reason, my sister pronounced the name as “On-Trays,” but we all knew what she meant. We had good meals there. I don’t know when they closed, but I missed it for a long time.

  • Lee Elder says:

    My grandfather, U.G. James, founded and owned the Ontra Cafeterias in Los Angeles. It started as a family enterprise. Grandfather managed the business end of things, my great-grandmother supervised the kitchen and my great aunt handled the cash register in the early years. The first Ontra Cafeteria was established in the early 1920s, located at Eighth and Vermont. Grandfather sold the business when he had Ontras in five locations, the last one being on Beverly Drive. He sold in the mid-1950s. My mother remembers very clearly that the Ontra Cafeteria played a large roll in her life.

  • Sognovero says:

    Funny, I was just remembering how Ontra’s (my mistake–I remembered it as “Ontra’s” but I can see from the signs it was simply “Ontra”) was my favorite restaurant as a kid. I think it had to do with not having to guess what I was getting (so hard for a 5-year old to know without seeing!). I also went to the one in Crenshaw in the 60s with my parents. It was probably one of the few places they could afford with five kids in tow.

  • Caesar says:

    Stepanie, I worked at Ontra on Central Ave in Phoenix, AZ. from 1960 to 1962. How would I go about locating co-workers. Specifically Yoshi Shimana who was a cook in Phoenix and then transfered back to CALIF.

  • Stephanie M. says:

    My dad used to manage all of the Ontra restaurants in the early 50s. I was just a toddler and one of the “infamous” family legends was about me, at age 3, throwing my bacon onto the adjoining (occupied!) table. My parents were mortified :)

  • Tom Alu says:

    I remember going there with my mother and sitting upstairs with a hot turkey lunch and looking across the street at the Crenshaw shopping center — May Co & Broadway dept. stores – it was a real treat as a kid.
    This was in the early 1950’s

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