By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
La Grande Orange Café and its adjoining operations, The Luggage Room Pizzeria and Otis Bar, have long been reliable neighborhood fixtures.
Located in the historic former train station and its erstwhile luggage room, the restaurants front the Del Mar Metro stop and face placid Central Park. La Grande Orange Café opened in 2008, followed by the pizzeria in 2010. Both venues exude an atmosphere of neighborhood familiarity earned over time, with consistently good food and service.
Based in Arizona, La Grande Orange Café is owned and operated by a seasoned and canny restaurateur, Bob Lynn of LGO Hospitality.
The Luggage Room Pizzeria recently opened Luggage Room Take Away. Lynn offered a window into his unusual business model, the latest industry innovations and his love of Pasadena.
Lynn lives with his wife, noted visual artist Sara Abbott, in Santa Monica, where she maintains a productive and busy studio. LGO operates The Misfit there, as well as the temporarily shuttered Ingo’s Tasty Diner. That said, “Pasadena to us is like home. We’re there all the time,” Lynn said.
Each of the restaurants in Lynn’s portfolio is original, distinct and tailored to the community and neighborhood of its location.
“I’m not sure how much America really trusts chains these days,” Lynn said. “I think overall, what people are looking for — especially when you move out of the quick-service segment — is to feel the vibration of the operators. Not something as a business model that is getting rolled out in a ubiquitous way,” Lynn noted.
“That’s why we’re doing it the hard way. That’s why we have all these different restaurant concepts. Because we really go into a community like Pasadena, and we’re all committed. We want to play right to that market and take it personally (and), we’re not looked at as an outsider.”
Built in 1934, the historic location of La Grande Orange Café and the pizzeria in the former Santa Fe Railway passenger terminal also figures into Lynn’s model.
“A number of our projects — the three biggest in Los Angeles — they are all in historic buildings,” he said, citing The Misfit’s location in a 1929 art deco clock tower and the recently acquired property, where Ingo’s operated, with a 1946 “steamline moderne” façade.
“We’ve been thrilled to get the opportunity to (operate) in that old train station. We love adaptative reuse. We love bringing new energy to important buildings. It’s fun,” Lynn noted.
When La Grande Orange opened in 2008, Pasadena’s mayor at the time, Bill Bogaard, and his wife, Claire, founding member and president of Pasadena Heritage, attended an early soft opening.
“We were brand new,” Lynn said. “It was literally the second or third night of practice runs. Claire Bogaard came over to me and said, ‘Bob, you’ve done a beautiful job so far. Please don’t screw this up, because it’s one of Pasadena’s most important buildings.’”
The new takeout outlet for the pizzeria, Luggage Room Take Away, is located across the plaza in the former home of Sushi Kimagure Ike. The chef retired due to the pandemic and opened the space for the pizzeria’s expansion.
“The Luggage Room Pizzeria is one wood-burning oven, and we literally could not do pizzas to go,” Lynn said. “We were over capacity. The Luggage Room Take Away space has given us the opportunity to add another pizza oven and offer our pizza to go, which is huge.”
The expanded capacity has also allowed more seating outdoors on the small plaza between the venues. “It’s allowed us to add tables on both sides of the pass through, if you’re heading to the light rail,” Lynn said.
“It’s created this really great, almost Berlin-like beer garden. We have the coolest two-top picnic tables. They are so wildly popular.”
The pizzeria’s takeout outlet is not the only new innovation on-site. The restaurants have adopted the kiosk-based ordering system that has become an increasingly popular option for restaurants, coming out of the pandemic.
“We find the kiosks are particularly beneficial to families with kids in strollers, to people who are on their way to a movie, to office workers during the week who want separate checks,” Lynn said.
“It does all of that automatically. By having the kiosk model, a family that comes in with a couple kids can go right to the kiosk and literally get their meal started, to where the food is hitting the table as they’re sitting down. We’re finding that 90% of the guests prefer the kiosks, before going to a table. What’s better than fast? Faster.”
Traditional table service is also still an option for die-hards.
The aforementioned wood-fired oven is the key to The Luggage Room Pizza.
“We have our fermented pizza (dough) that is inspired by The Cheeseboard Pizza in Berkeley,” Lynn said. “I’ve always loved the crust they use, with that highly fermented dough.”
The vaunted Berkeley pizzeria located across from fabled Chez Panisse still draws lines around the block for its crafted pies. It’s a telling touchstone for the pizzas on The Luggage Room’s menu.
The Shattuck Avenue pizza ($17) refers to the Berkeley street that the Cheeseboard and Chez Panisse share. It’s topped with creamy burrata, roasted garlic and piquillo peppers on the house red sauce. There are 10 other pies on offer, starting with the classic margherita ($16) with sun-dried tomatoes and basil. More exotic formulas include the vegan Dalai Lama ($17) with cashew cheese, pesto, kale and Brussels sprouts; and the gladiator ($18) with housemade Italian sausage and molinari pepperoni. Three salads are available ($15/$16), as are deviled eggs ($8) and bacon-wrapped dates with goat cheese ($11).
All dietary proclivities are considered.
“We have the best gluten-free pizza you’ve ever had,” Lynn said. “We were seriously one of the first restaurants to have gluten-free pizza. We’ve had gluten-free pizza for over 17 years. It’s so good. Nonceliacs, nongluten-free eaters, order it all the time.
“There’s something for everybody. It’s very high quality. We try to deliver really good value, the best we can, and it’s a place you can use all the time.”
Lynn considers it a privilege to operate a restaurant in the historic building.
“We feel real responsibility to do as good a job as we can: to celebrate diversity, invite the community in and to be a place that’s an extension of the spirit of what that building was originally built to do, and that was to serve the community. We love Pasadena. It’s fabulous.”