PBS Online Film Festival


Atomic Cafe

In the late 1970s, when L.A.’s punk rock scene was exploding, an unlikely family-owned restaurant in Little Tokyo, started by Japanese Americans returning from America’s WWII concentration camps, became one its most popular hangouts. That’s when “Atomic Nancy,” with her “take-no-prisoners” punk makeup and demeanor, took over the café from her parents and cranked up the jukebox.

AIRED: July 12, 2021 | 0:10:24

(record player clicking)

(helicopter rumbling) (sirens wailing)

- [Atomic Nancy] It was like on a Saturday night.

(punk rock music)

Place was packed.

After two, after all,

like the Chinatown scene with the Madame Wong's

and Hong Kong Café, The Mask,

all these places they just like closed the clubs.

It was like, boom!

Go to the Atomic Café.

As soon as the doors open

I could see X waiting for their table.

They were right near the jukebox.

At that time, Jerry Brown was dating Linda Ronstadt,

and there was a window right behind them.

And I see Andy Warhol kind of looking in.

I see Sid Vicious with his entourage

ordering like I don't know

how many different kinds of fried rice.

I see the fried rice being like thrown,

like we had a food fight.

The middle table,

either The Go-Go's were there or Devo was there.

So there was a couple of times where I had to

chase a customer cause they did the dine and dash.

But when I went out,

it was like, (crowd cheering)

it looked like a freaking concert outside.

We were the noisiest

corner in J-Town. (cars honking)

- It's a huge part of my personal life.

And for, especially all the J-town brats that grew up here,

and a lot of folks from the East Los.

- It wasn't just little Tokyo folks,

you could tell there was a wide range of people going there,

and it always seemed like a really cool spot to hang out.

- I mean, let's be honest, everybody was there-- dealers,

junkies, punks, you know, gangsters, neighborhood people.

- You'd come in and there'd be like, you know,

these USC hunky, beefy Trojan guys,

you know, in the corner and then next to them

would be these punk rock guys with the crazy hair.

- So you got your women in the kimonos versus

a guy sitting in another booth with spiked hair

and earrings and studs, you know?

It was beautiful to me.


(jazz music)

- [Zen] The Atomic Café was my grandparent's restaurant,

and then my mom's restaurant.

- The Atomic Café was opened in 1946.

My dad said nobody forgot about the atomic bomb,

so nobody should forget about our food.


- The first sign, the first neon sign

was a mushroom cloud in Little Tokyo.

And, I think that got axed really quickly.

- The community really didn't want us to be that rebellious.

(jazz music)

The patrons that came were mostly I would say,

JA's, African-Americans

and local people.

Like around the mid 70s,

this is where my dad really got sick.

I took over the restaurant, cooking.

I was already married.

I already had one child.

We worked our butts off (rock music)

from four in afternoon to four in the morning,

seven days a week.

And, it was really super hard.

- [Dan] She was the life of the Atomic Café.

- [Zen] I always thought she was tough

'cause I would see her like kicking people

out all the time and working really hard

and like being the center of attention.

- [Dan] She had this incredible energy.

She remembered everyone's name.

- [Diz] And, she's just a good soul.

And she loves people and she loved the people that came in.

- [Sean] She was so welcoming to everyone

from pop stars to kids from East LA.

♪ One, two, three, four

(guitar music) - [Atomic Nancy] There were

these guys called The Screamers that were taking photos

outside of our place.

And they walked in and they thought it was really cool.

And the word of mouth that came

out of these guys really made it happen.

And all of a sudden it just started becoming a punk place.

(punk music)

- The inside of the Atomic

was like the inside of my mom's brain.

- I remember the first time I walked into Atomic Café

it was just a magical place

because you had all these album covers on the wall.

- [Zen] Floor to ceiling posters and record sleeves.

- [Sean] You just felt like you

walked into the place you belong.

(punk music)

- [Atomic Nancy] So this whole restaurant

became like a misfit artist/poet/writer/musician

hang out place.

- My mom at the Atomic...

I mean, she was like the star of that place.

- Nancy was the queen of this scene.

So everybody who came in had to talk to Nancy, you know?

If it was Blondie or The Ramones or Iggy Pop.

(punk music)

- [Zen] She had white makeup on with black eye shadow,

and she had like hairspray horns

and like these crazy tails.

- The drug use that we all did was just horrendous.

It was just crazy.

(punk music)

- [Zen] She had shaved horns into the side of her head.

And then in sharpie wrote like á*áá*á you,

and that's how she would pick me up

from kindergarten and it was really mortifying.

But once we got to the Atomic, everything made sense.

You know, it was kind of like our private circus.

- I felt like nobody understood me.

That's why I took the drugs.

And I had to work like really á*áá*áá*áá* crazy hours.

So I could just keep that place going.

(orchestral music)

- [Zen] I mean in contrast,

my grandmother was basically the Japanese Zsa Zsa Gabor.

I mean, she like had this crazy big Cadillac.

She wore like sunglasses at night.

She had like fake eyelashes.

- [Atomic Nancy] She liked gambling too, horse races.

She would be reading that racing form day in and day out.

My dad used to get pissed off.

(jazz music)

My dad went to Manzanar.

He was in the internment camp.

He actually did wear a US uniform.

To me, he was really an honorable man.

He was quite a worker, great provider.

He was the chef.

- Music was paramount to them.

Always, always both parents.

And so I think that's where

both Nancy and I got the influence.

They were always listening to music of all sorts.

(juke box operating)

- I feel like the jukebox was such an important part

of the Atomic.

So what was really cool about the jukebox...

Not only that you had like, you know, your Japanese music

Hawaiian music, some top forties,

but you had a whole load of punk.

(punk music)

These kids would make records from

I don't know where. They'd say,

"Hey Nancy, I see that you got a jukebox.

Could you throw our song?

We just cut a record today," you know.

"á*áá*á yeah, man.

Let's throw it in there."

(punk music)

In 1989, it did end, you know?

My dad had another stroke

and he got really, really sick,

and I was tired.

My mom didn't want to do it anymore.

And we just said,

all right, that's it, we're closing the doors.

That's it.

Thanksgiving day it ended.

Thanksgiving day.

Well, yeah...

- [Zen] It was a special time in LA,

and it just worked out perfectly geographically, culturally.

And I think people just had a really good time,

and people went there to really have fun.

So I think a lot of people have amazing memories.

♪ I want you to

♪ Come on

♪ Come on

♪ Come on

♪ Come on

♪ And take it

♪ Take another little piece of my heart now baby ♪

♪ Break it

♪ Break another little bit of my heart ♪

- [Atmoic Nancy] You know, as I was watching

the building going down, I still have memories,

and good memories of the people that used to come in.

The people made this place

and their enthusiasm was what made me do what I

did to keep it going, to keep that whole movement going.

(crowd cheering)

In my own little weird or whatever way,

I did it this way.

Like Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious.

I did it my way. (punk music)

You know?

- I like the pork here.

That was my...

And then, we would play frisbee football in the parking lot

till the sun came up.

- Well, I worked in the kitchen with my father.

I made all those noodles people ate.

- I loved the fried rice.

I loved the chicken teriyaki.

- To me, that chicken teriyaki sauce,

I could still taste it in my mouth.

People would come into the restaurant,

I'd see someone that I know and go,

hey, ah, ah, ah.

Ahoy, come on in!

Welcome to the Atomic Café!


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