Famous in its day: the Aware Inn

Whether or not it was the first organic restaurant of the post-WWII era, it is clear that Los Angeles’ Aware Inn significantly predated the late ’60s beginnings of the natural food movement in restaurants. When Jim and Elaine Baker (pictured below in 1955) opened it in 1957 they were dedicated to providing meals using fruits, vegetables, and meats produced without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and hormones.

Jim Baker, a decorated WWII marine who trained soldiers in jujitsu during the war, came to southern California in 1951 to audition for Tarzan movies. When his film career failed to materialize, he joined the Nature Boys, a small cult of body-building health devotees who ate organic foods. Over the next two decades, he transferred his knowledge of organic food and cooking to a number of Los Angeles restaurants that he and Elaine started, including two Aware Inns, The Old World, and The Source.

Soon after its opening, the original Aware Inn, at 8828 Sunset Boulevard on the Strip (shown above ca. 1981), became a magnet for Hollywood stars concerned with their health and beauty. Although the menu at the Aware Inn was organic it was pretty standard in other regards. True, it included fresh-squeezed carrot juice and brown rice, but the menu was also filled with organic versions of popular dishes such as burgers, beef stroganoff, and veal Marsala. Baker insisted in 1959 that he was no extremist. He aimed to serve “well rounded meals, but without the fats, carbohydrates and adulterants that you get in most restaurant food.” However in 1969, after his divorce from Elaine, he established The Source, a vegetarian restaurant where raw foods were served almost exclusively.

The Inn’s most famous dish was a hamburger interestingly named “The Swinger” which combined ground beef with cheese and chopped vegetables (see Recipe page). What inspired the name is uncertain but Jim was notably attractive to women. He reciprocated. It was at an apartment above the Aware Inn where in 1963 an irate husband came for revenge. A black belt in judo, Jim disabled his attacker, then used his foe’s gun to kill him (marking the second time he had killed a man in a dispute). His amorous career was just beginning – at the time of his hang-gliding death in 1975 Jim lived in Hawaii with 13 young women.

Following the divorce, Elaine carried on at the Aware Inn on Sunset (the second Aware Inn, in Sherman Oaks, had been sold to Al Kaiser in 1961). She kept the restaurant’s organic foods emphasis but cultivated the flavor of a European café rather than following Jim’s path at The Source which would lead him to develop a cult following and start a commune. A 1969 restaurant review praised the Aware Inn for dishes that were “consistently good and sometimes superb.” In addition to the Swinger, some of the restaurant’s signature items were chicken molé, roast brisket and kasha, and, for dessert, créme de Cassis over blueberry ice cream.

By 1970 the Aware Inn was one of a growing number of health food restaurants thriving in Los Angeles, but at the end of the decade it was getting poor reviews and went up for sale. In 1981 it was rechristened La Petite Maison. Later it became Rama Garden, a Thai restaurant.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

20 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

20 responses to “Famous in its day: the Aware Inn

  1. Susan Thompson

    No one has mentioned the fabulous Chocolate Cream Supreme! You can call it a cheesecake if you like, but it was amazing. The recipe for it and Eggplant Olympus were published in the Food section of the L.A. Times and I made them several times. They seem to have disappeared and I would love to have them again. I have wonderful memories of sitting upstairs with friends and looking out over the brilliance of an LA night. I’ve been a vegetarian all my life and it was the first time I “ate out” with a meal that wasn’t pizza or spaghetti. The also served the wonderful Lehr’s, the delicious German grape juices that were heaven to a non-drinker!

  2. I also worked, as a waiter, at the Aware Inn. 1962-1967. I worked the upstairs “Room With A View.” It overlooked sparkling South L.A. I served Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Natalie Wood, Phyllis Diller and many others. Elaine trained me. I’ll never forget what she said. “You are a servant and the people you serve are kings and queens. Serve them well and they will tip you handsomely.” She also taught me how to carry a bottle of wine, “Gently, as if it were a baby.” They had a son, Thomas, who couldn’t speak. Some people blamed natural childbirth. I had to constantly run up and down those stars so I wore my apron like a mini-skirt. The other waiters wore theirs below the knee. One night I was standing on a step-stool to fetch a bottle of wine which were kept in a wine rack up near the wooden ceiling. Elaine said, “Vince. Your skirt is too short.” I did not notice it mentioned that, early each morning, Jim Baker made the ice cream with honey. At 5 PM Jim would show up and taste everything on the stoves. There was another waiter named Joe Jenks who had great parties. The Bakers always attended. The Bakers encouraged us to taste all food on the menu, so we could describe it perfectly to their guests. They were the best people to work for and they served the best food possible. It was a loving, caring environment. We earned a small fortune. In 1964 I opened a club on Pico and Crescent Heights. The Mint. I worked both jobs.

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  4. Pingback: The Source Family – HOLY SHIT! | D For Vendetta

  5. Anonymous

    I used to work at a restaurant that Elaine Baker started in the mid 70s called McNaturals. It was located on the Sunset Strip between the Old World and the Aware Inn accross from Tower Records. It served a health food menu modeled after fast food chains.

  6. Aware Inn surely is interesting! Great article, by the way :)

  7. Anonymous

    Does anyone remember the eggplant olimpis? and also the host Elmer?

  8. MARTY

    The Aware Inn was one of the most interesting and cool restaurants of it’s day. (I enjoyed many dinners there and parties upstairs; Once Elaine sat me with Jim’s sometime workout buddy Jack LaLaine who was in a suit and tie; Jack crushed my pack of cigarettes and threw them across the restaurant and when I came out on Sunset Blvd, to get into my car, I watched Jack sprinting up the street, no car needed)
    Jim Baker was charged with murder and on the way to a justifiable homicide acquittal but the Santa Monica judge over strenuous objections, allowed his earlier encounter and killing (in self-defense) to be brought before the jury. He won his freedom from murder charges and the conviction of voluntary manslaughter, after I prepared and argued a Writ of Habeas Corpus in San Bernadino. He did not want to go back to court for the re-trial and he happily agreed to a nolo plea to Voluntary manslaughter time served and was immediately released. Elaine was the happiest woman on the planet that day.
    There was so much more to do with the Old World Restaurant being designed by Elaine Baker and Jim’s great Swinger Burger, then his Brotherhood of the Source and becoming a religious leader.
    I often think of Elaine and her children and the great guys that worked at the Aware Inn, some opening their own restaurants like Marty Tunick and Jose Alvarez. Those were the days….

  9. Robert Weitz

    Wow! Incredible story. I used to eat there all of the time when I was a teen. Amazing food and way ahead of their time

  10. caren with a k

    Cheese and walnut loaf — yum!

  11. I’ll have the swinger, please.

  12. Does anyone have any review on the SOURCE FROM THE DAY?
    ISIS
    can you email me?
    charlene_yhvh@hotmail.com

  13. love love love the article
    it is so hard to find anything on THE AWARE INN AND EVEN JIM BAKERS OTHER RESTAURANT THE OLD WORLD.

    would love to connect
    isis aquarian
    source family historian
    facebook: isis aquarian

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