- Richard Foss
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By Richard Foss, Cuisine and Culture Writer
If you visited J. Trani’s lately you might have noticed an unusual change in the decor: a remodel that makes the place look older. The hunting lodge look is gone, replaced with vintage pictures that show a very different San Pedro. The place is heavy on memorabilia from The Majestic Café, a restaurant that was started in 1925 by Chef Dustin Trani’s great-grandfather. The photos show a crowded but casual spot; they also raise a question about the name, one that Dustin can’t answer.
“Why the Majestic Café?” Chef Dustin Trani asked, rhetorically. “Nobody knows. It was a brash place full of longshoremen and marines and the people who did business at the port, and it wasn’t fancy by any means. I asked my father once, but he had never thought to ask my great grandfather when he was still alive.”
Founder Filippo Trani emigrated from island of Ischia near Naples along with thousands of others who sought opportunity in America. Many stopped on the East Coast, but he kept going because he had friends in Wilmington. Most of that area was one big olive orchard. He worked there before he moved to San Pedro to open the restaurant. The restaurant may have served fishermen but it didn’t serve much fish.
“Seafood was expensive, and The Majestic was a working class diner,” Trani said. “They served chili beans with spaghetti, beef stew and wet roast beef sandwiches. We still serve that sandwich on the lunch menu today. It’s two large pieces of French bread with thick slices of top round, topped with au jus and chili beans. It’s a fork-and-knife sandwich. There was a tuna salad on the menu, using tuna brought in at Terminal Island. Some of the guys eating it might have caught it or canned it. They probably brought over a case and traded it for a wet beef sandwich, because they bartered a lot in those days.”
In 1925 San Pedro was a tough port town, home of bars like Shanghai Red’s where gambling, prostitution, smugglers and the people who dealt with them. Trani reveals that some colorful characters had their own private space.
“There was a back room called, The Blue Room, where bootleggers hung out and there’s mystery about it,” Trani said. “I had only seen black-and-white pictures of it and when I asked my dad one time he said that it wasn’t blue. He had no idea why it was called that and neither did anybody else. It had a back entrance and all kinds of people hung out here. My grandfather said that he saw the gangster Mickey Cohen there and thought, ‘Oh boy, we don’t want this guy around here.’ But for some reason he kept coming back to our little café even though he could afford to eat anywhere. He was a character at the restaurant and so was Freddy the Leg-Breaker, otherwise known as Freddy the Hat. If you were his friend he was Freddy the Leg-Breaker, to everybody else he was Freddy the Hat.”
The mere possibility of earning Freddy’s attention probably helped keep the clientele better behaved than the average place in town, despite the fact that they were illegally serving alcohol somewhat blatantly. It was kept under the counter until prohibition was repealed in 1933, but Filippo’s brother Lou manned the bar from a space right by the door. He was probably kept busy by a stream of customers who had visited the neighboring business.
“The place where longshoremen picked up their paychecks was next door, so there were always guys who suddenly had money in their pockets and wanted something to eat,” Trani said. “We had fed them even when they were broke, though. My great-grandfather was at the helm; he would sit at the counter all day long while my father and uncles ran the kitchen. He had the pay list of who owed us money and I assume that when their tabs got too high, that’s when you called Freddy. We used to have house accounts here at J. Trani’s until a few years ago, but it just got too complicated keeping track. And besides, everybody has credit cards now.”
The Trani family also established a tradition that went on for decades, but that ended suddenly because of one of their more colorful customers.
“We used to have the Majestic Picnic every year, always the third Sunday in August,” Trani said. “Our customers would throw money in the jar all year long, and the Tranis would match that amount and throw a picnic for the community. It was at the LAPD pistol range just off Channel Street, and there would be softball and all these other attractions for 700, 800 people. The last year they did it was 1974 and there were a lot of politicians, congressmen, Judge Perkovich, everybody who was important in town. Mickey Cohen showed up too, with his stooges. We had to get the permit for the police field from the police department and I remember my grandfather saying, ‘We can’t have this guy here!’ It was like a scene from The Godfather, all these politicians and a gangster just hanging around at a picnic. Next year the LAPD didn’t issue the permit and that ended it. I’ve always thought about bringing it back.”
Only a few years after the last picnic, the Majestic itself was on the road to disaster.
“When my great-grandfather passed away in 1978 the restaurant was left to the brothers Lou, Jim, Jack and Philip,” he said. “It was a ship with no captain; you could predict that it would start a feud and it did. In 1987, they sold the restaurant. My grandfather and father came here to start this restaurant, and my great-uncle Phil started his in Long Beach. When we opened this location there was nothing on the wall from the old restaurant, because we had put all that in the past. My grandfather would never even drive by the old restaurant because of the resentment over what happened, over losing brothers never to see them again. It took 27 years, but we have made up now and are friends again. It was sad to see, but it’s behind us now. When we did the recent remodel and updating we decided to bring in those pictures along with a lot of old photos of the history of San Pedro.”
The Tranis will share some of its history at an event on Dec. 5, when Dustin Trani will cook favorites from his great-grandfather’s menu. Prohibition-era cocktails will be served after dinner to accompany a program called “How Prohibition Changed America.” Part of the proceeds will benefit the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum, which is scheduled to open in San Pedro early next year. (Full disclosure: the author of this article is the curator of that museum and presenter of the program, as well as a regular columnist for Random Lengths News.)
The evening will be a celebration of the era, the neighborhood and of what may be the only fourth-generation restaurant in greater Los Angeles, where the family still works in the kitchen. It’s a rare example of continuity in a city and society that worship the new and novel, a chance to look back at who we were when all photos were in black and white and the booze had to be kept under the counter.
For details about the Repeal Day event on Dec. 5, check the events section at PacificFood.org or stop in at J. Trani’s for a flyer. Have a cocktail at the bar when you do; they’re really good.
Trani’s is at 584 W. 9th St. in San Pedro. Details: (310) 832-1220; www.jtrani.com