Restaurant of the Week: Roberta’s Village Inn

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Roberta’s Village Inn, 2326 D St. (at Bonita), La Verne

The Village Inn is a diner, not a hotel, in downtown La Verne, open since 1969. I wrote a column about the restaurant, but that was about the ownership change and the people aspect. (I’ll put the column at the end of this writeup.)

Roberta’s is a charming place with Coca-Cola kitsch, gingham curtains, a counter with swivel seats, two dining rooms, a lot of regulars, a friendly staff and a homey atmosphere.

They do breakfast and lunch at Roberta’s, with all the staple items. I had breakfast there with a friend Monday. He had the special, chorizo and eggs ($6, pictured), which he liked. I had pancakes and sausage ($5.75) and had no complaints.

They also do dinner at Roberta’s now, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The menu only has a half-dozen items, but there’s always a special or two. Back in December I had chicken parmigiana over fettucine ($10), which was not only pretty good but enough food to take half home.

I returned two weeks ago for dinner and had lobster ravioli (ooh la la), price forgotten but probably $10 (pictured). The Italian wedding soup is excellent, the ravioli was good (perhaps oversauced) and it’s a good thing for my waistline there were only two garlic knots. Desserts included a couple of cobblers.

So, Roberta’s is a neat little place, where the food is solid if unspectacular. Dinner, though, is better than you’d expect.

This column was published Dec. 29, 2010.

At Roberta’s, you’re in with the Inn crowd

ROBERTA VIRGIN remembers her first day as a waitress at La Verne’s Village Inn in 1977. It didn’t go well.

“I hated it,” she told me. “I was crying, my feet hurt, I said I’d never go back.”

But her mother, Barbara, who also waitressed there, told her to stick with it. She did.

In fact, Virgin spent 24 years as waitress, the last five as manager, before buying the coffee shop. Now that’s working your way up. She even put her name on it: Roberta’s Village Inn.

A year ago, burned out after 32 years at the business, she sold the Village Inn to her chef, Francisco “Pancho” Ramirez.

A mild tremor ran through La Verne, where the Village Inn is an institution.

“We all wondered how the transition would turn out,” customer Jerry Dacus confided. “It has turned out great. The same atmosphere pervades as it did before. Everyone in town loves Pancho the way they did Roberta.”

One reason the transition went so well is that Virgin remains involved.

She’s now working as a teller at OneWest Bank a block away from the restaurant, allowing her to pop in for breakfast and lunch.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays she fills in for Ramirez so that he can take the days off — “although he never does,” she added.

When I showed up on a Thursday evening for an interview, she was setting out utensils and napkins on tables.

“I’m here a lot,” Virgin admitted.

(OK, let’s deal with her name so we can move on. She was born Roberta Culling. Virgin is her ex-husband’s name. She’s that rare woman to become a Virgin only after marriage. Ba-da-bump.)

The Village Inn, which occupies a D Street storefront in the heart of downtown, is said to have opened in 1969. The two-story building dates to the early 1900s and has housed a meat market, the library and a five-and-dime, according to La Verne historian Galen Beery, a Village Inn regular.

The menu is American comfort food and the decor is appealingly low on kitsch. What brings the place to life are the familiar faces, either the ones on the payroll or the ones in the booths.

“Everyone here is family,” Dacus, a retired minister, said after finishing dinner. “I’ve said hello to 25, 30 people since I’ve been sitting here.”

(Now that we’ve met, maybe he’ll say hello to me next time.)

Rick and Nadyne Lapi, who were also having dinner, say the transition in owners has been invisible.

“The food’s great, the employees are great, the people who come here are great,” Rick said. “It’s very homey, very comfortable.”

“It’s like the Cheers of diners,” Nadyne said.

“Employees come over and ask how you’re doing,” Rick said. “And they care how you’re doing.”

The Village Inn has always benefited from an exceptionally loyal clientele.

There was John Richards, a plumber, who used the diner as his office.

“If anyone was looking for him, they would come in here or call. He was here every day,” Virgin said.

Seats at the counter are often occupied by regulars who sit in the same sequence. A large bunch from the Hillcrest retirement home walks there for breakfast once a week. Another breakfast group meets to swap town gossip and reminisce about old-time La Verne as Beery, the historian, jots notes for posterity.

When the doors open for breakfast, customers out on the sidewalk disperse to their usual booths.

“They run to their favorite spot,” said Ramirez, the chef-turned-owner. “The girls have their water or coffee waiting. It also lets the other customers know those spots are taken.”

Regulars announce impending vacations so their absence won’t cause concern.

Virgin always closed up in August for 10 days for her one vacation of the year.

“A lot of people would plan their vacation around our vacation so they didn’t miss us,” Virgin said.

On 9/11, she debated whether to close the restaurant for the day but didn’t.

“People were so glad we were open, and so glad we didn’t have TVs. It’s kind of a comfort zone,” Virgin said of the restaurant. “People would be lost without it.”

Virgin is a guarded person, but she did share the story of a personal tragedy from 1981, a traffic accident that put her son, a passenger in her car, in a coma for three years until his death.

Virgin was paralyzed on her right side, had to learn to walk again and taught herself to write with her left hand.

She was off work for nearly two years. But customers didn’t forget.

“They collected money for me when I had my accident,” Virgin said.

When she was ready to come back to work, there was an opening for a waitress and she was rehired.

Ramirez was hired in 2001 while also working as a chef at Sierra La Verne Country Club.

Three days a week, he spent 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Roberta’s, then 3 to 11 p.m. at the country club. Three other days he was at one place or the other all day. He had only one day a week off.

“Plus he has five kids,” Virgin said. “Three of them are triplets. He’s a hard worker.”

When the triplets were born, customers chipped in $1,000 for diapers and clothes.

When Virgin, tired of the headaches of running a restaurant, decided to get out, a couple of other potential owners expressed interest, but she went with Ramirez, while retaining an ownership stake.

The sale became final on Jan. 1, 2010. Ramirez, who left the country club, now takes it easy by working six days a week at only one job.

Virgin and Ramirez have a sort of mother-son bond.

Ramirez named one of his triplets Christopher, after Virgin’s son. Ramirez is 35.

“My son would be 36 if he had lived. I think that’s why he and I are so close,” Virgin said.

Always a breakfast and lunch spot, the diner is now open for dinner three nights a week, allowing Ramirez to stretch his wings in the kitchen. But not much has changed at Roberta’s Village Inn.

Not even the name.

Virgin said Ramirez fretted that scraping “Roberta’s” off the sign, and adding “Francisco’s,” would hurt business.

Ramirez disagreed, telling me there’s more than that behind leaving Roberta’s name alone.

“I respect her a lot,” he said. “There’s no reason to change it.”

So, Roberta’s Village Inn it remains. Not a bad legacy for a woman who wanted to quit after her first day.

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, refusing to quit.

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  • linda

    I’m looking for pictures of the old Henry’s drive in restaurant in Alhambra..Went there with my parents when I was little and it was a fond memory…thanks.

  • Tom “Forty Rod” Taylor

    I have been going to Roberta’s since about 1995 when I had a business in the area, and since I retired I take the Grumpy Lunch Bunch there a few times a year.

    The food is always good and there’s plenty of it, the selection is excellent, and prices are right and the service is excellent, and they give us individual checks.

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s about time to visit again.

    Tom

  • Alf

    Does Roberta’s carry meatless chorizo? If not, they should consider doing so. It’s fabulous!

    [It's not that kind of place. -- DA]

  • DAve

    Yes, I would prefer a salad that was meat-only…