Tag Archives: Los Angeles restaurants

Odd restaurant buildings: “ducks”

ducksfredafarmsBerlinCT

Ducks are commercial buildings that look like what they sell, as illustrated by the Freda Farms ice cream stand in Berlin CT. The term was actually inspired by a Long Island store that sold ducks (to eat). It has been generalized to apply to any buildings that looks like some familiar object or animal, etc, whether or not their merchandise is related. These types of buildings are also known as programmatic or mimetic architecture.

duckstamaleThough they reached a peak of popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s, ducks trace back much further in history. An introduction to Jim Heimann’s book California Crazy by David Gebhard links the mimetic architecture of the last century to garden buildings of the 18th century and even earlier. One of the first examples in the United States was the 65-foot elephant of Margate NJ built in1881 to attract attention to a real estate development.

In addition to housing stores and offices, many ducks have featured restaurants over the decades. They have taken the shape of all kinds of animals, kegs, barrels, ships, castles, cups, coffee pots, bowls, hats, chuck wagons, dirigibles, items of food, shoes, and windmills.

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The earliest restaurant duck I have found was a café planned for Cincinnati in the shape of a huge beer cask in 1902. Unlike later examples, though, it was meant to occupy a location in a row of Main Street storefronts. Most later ducks, arriving with the spread of car ownership in the late 1920s and early 1930s, occupied empty lots in developing areas of cities. Not too surprisingly, southern California’s car culture provided a nurturing environment. In addition the climate was favorable to the somewhat makeshift carnival-type structures, while the city’s movie industry supplied inspiration. As Los Angeles grew, giant dogs, toads, ice cream freezers, shoes, and other bizarre apparitions sprang up along the roadside, vying for the business of passing motorists.

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The link between the movie industry and roadside fantasy was straightforward in the case of Harry Oliver, a leading designer who brought magic to sets for movies such as Scarface, The Good Earth, and Mark of the Vampire. Oliver designed windmill-shaped buildings for the Van de Kamp bakeries and drive-ins as well as a storybook building occupied by the Tam o’ Shanter Inn.

If architecture is about the enclosure of space, ducks are architecture only secondarily. In most cases mimetic architecture describes a building that serves more as advertising sign than as an innovative enclosure of space. Once a customer stepped inside a giant pig or coffee pot, all whimsy faded away as the interior revealed itself to be a standard rectangle as shown here in one of the many coffee-pot ducks that could be found across the U.S.

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If ducks say anything about American restaurants, it is that they are only partially about food.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under odd buildings, roadside restaurants

A fantasy drive-in

carl'sviewparkMenu

I am fascinated by restaurants that are bizarrely at odds with their location, climate, and cultural environment. Such as Polynesian restaurants in Arizona.

Drive-ins make sense in car-obsessed Southern California, but a grandiose drive-in such as Carl’s “Colonial” with an Old South theme in Depression-era Los Angeles? With architecture inspired by Southern plantations and white female servers costumed as Southern belles and top-hatted coachmen? With an ornate mahogany doorway leading from the staid dining room into a streamlined moderne barroom? [see below] And a thoroughly modern, thermostatically controlled stainless steel kitchen turning out spaghetti and turkey with New England dressing?

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All societies offer some form of escapism, traditionally wild festivals where revelers are released from everyday roles and inhibitions. But restaurants such as Carl’s offered a different kind of  escapism that shored up inhibitions and insured that roles were strictly adhered to. Far from allowing revelry or role reversal, gracious Southern dining took place in a forbidding room decorated with murals of slaves picking cotton and a portrait of George Washington looming from above the mantle. [shown above; the murals are barely visible]  Only white girls were allowed to dress as Southern belles; ice water and rolls were dispensed by dark-skinned “mammies.”

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Yet in another way Carl’s was totally in sync with its environment. A Los Angeles Times story in 1940 noted, “Los Angeles restaurants serving American food often reflect the architecture of other lands.” Undoubtedly part of the explanation for the scenographic quality of Carl’s – and many other unusual theme restaurants in Southern California – was that they played to tourists’ fantasies. And why not, since a hefty 25% of restaurant revenue was estimated to come from tourists?

carl'sViewparkMarch1938The “Colonial” Carl’s, on the corner of Crenshaw and Vernon, was built by the Los Angeles Investment Company and leased to its operators, Carl B. Anders and A. V. Spencer. The area was under development with about 13 new stores on Crenshaw skirting the residential subdivision of Viewpark. When Carl’s opened in 1938 there were close to 1,000 homes in Viewpark with more underway following the company’s acquisition of acreage that had housed the Olympic Village in 1932. Under restrictive covenants, houses could be sold only to white buyers.

Despite serving up to 4,000 customers a day, many of them groups such as women’s and businessmen’s clubs, Carl’s Colonial in Viewpark went out of business in 1953. After a brief run as Martha’s Restaurant, it was torched in 1954, destroying the building that had cost the fabulous sum of $115,000 when it was constructed.

Carl’s in Viewpark was one of five in the Carl’s chain (not to be confused with Carl’s, Jr.). The first was opened in 1931 on Figueroa and Flower as a simple hamburger stand built to serve people attending the 1932 Olympic Games. It was so successful it was enlarged three times in four years, serving up to 5,000 people daily in 1937. The chain became known for its multi-purpose restaurants that included a drive-in component as well as full-service dining rooms, banquet facilities, outdoor dining patios, and cocktail lounges. Other Carl’s included one on the Plaza in Palm Springs, one on the Pacific Coast Highway that was featured in the movie Mildred Pierce, and one on East Olympic Blvd. at Soto Street.

According to John T. Edge, Southern theme restaurants have recently resurfaced in Los Angeles.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under drive-ins, racism, restaurant decor

Restaurant-ing with Mildred Pierce

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Many Americans are familiar with the story of the fictional Mildred Pierce, the mid-century wife and mother who kicks out her unemployed, philandering husband and becomes the family’s breadwinner so she can support her two daughters, especially her musically talented older daughter Veda.

Mildred Pierce was the main character in James M. Cain’s novel of the same name, the star of a melodramatic 1945 black & white film-noir with Joan Crawford, and the protagonist in a color HBO miniseries with Kate Winslet.

Lacking experience other than housewifery, Mildred turns to restaurants for work. Starting as a waitress, she builds a home-based business as purveyor of pies to restaurants, then opens a restaurant of her own, building it into a small chain in greater Los Angeles.

Although the three renditions of the story differ, they all feature Mildred’s restaurant career. Why did Cain choose this line of work for Mildred? I suspect he wanted something that readers would believe a woman could succeed in. Though I have no direct evidence, I feel sure he based Mildred’s career on that of the much-publicized Alice Foote MacDougall of 1920s fame whose success story was told repeatedly in magazines and syndicated newspaper columns. In the 1927 column “Girls Who Did,” MacDougall, then pushing 60, was headlined as “A Girl Who Never Expected to Enter Business and Who Has Become a Dealer in Wholesale Roasted Coffee and Owner of Four Restaurants.”

But – oh dear – MacDougall’s empire went into receivership in the early Depression, shortly after Mildred Pierce launched her restaurant chain. Of course most movies demand suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers, but let’s just admit that 1931 was not a favorable time to go into business. The 1935 National Handbook of Restaurant Data dismally reported that “75% of the women who open restaurants fail within the year.” Mainly, it said, due to lack of capital and knowledge of business management.

mildredpierceherrestaurarantMaybeCain, who stuffs his novel with copious details about running restaurants, must have been aware of this problem because he had Mildred, er, entertain her husband’s former business partner Wally to insure a favorable start-up. In the book she builds up to a total of three restaurants. The first, located in a house and specializing in chicken and waffles, actually conforms to the path many women of the 1920s and 1930s took starting small restaurants and tea rooms that served home-like dishes in domestic settings. Her second, a luncheonette in Beverly Hills, is somewhat believable despite being in a high rent area. Her third, on the other hand, a swanky beachside resort, is a reach.

Advancing farther on the unlikelyhood scale, the 1945 movie threw caution aside and had Mildred with five restaurants in only four years. Even the fantabulous Alice took 10 years to get to four! What’s more, all but one of Mildred’s had drive-in curb service, even though women rarely owned drive-ins. Plus, many drive-ins closed during the war because of gasoline rationing that limited driving.

Of the five restaurants depicted in the 1945 film, three are identifiable as actual restaurant locations, while the identity of the other two is unclear.

MildredpierceDoloresdrive-inInset#1 – the new Dolores drive-in on Sunset Blvd. & Horn (inset top left; movie still in b&w)
MildredPierceexteriorofRestaurant4#2 – supposed to be Beverly Hills, but location unknown and possibly not an actual restaurant at all (movie still)

mildredpierceExteriorofRestaurant3 – unidentified but appears to be a real drive-in (movie still)

MildredPierceexteriorofrestaurant5#4 – exterior shot filmed at Carl’s Sea Air on the Pacific Coast Highway (movie still on left; Carl’s postcard on right)

mildredpiercecarpenter'sGlendale1938E.Colorado#5 – Carpenter’s restaurant on Glendale & Colorado shown fleetingly (not a movie still)

The slow-moving HBO series follows Cain’s book more closely than the 1945 movie. (As in the book, there is no murder.) There are only three restaurants, all movie creations: 1) the model house from the Pierce Homes development once owned by Mildred’s ex-husband; 2) the Beverly Hills luncheonette; and, 3) a seaside estate which doesn’t look a bit like it’s in California.

In the book and at several points in the 1945 movie Mildred, who we are told comes from the lower-middle class, runs up against the upper class, always getting bruised in the encounters. As a restaurant historian, one of the most interesting lines to me occurs when she meets the snobby mother of her daughter’s boyfriend. Mildred recognizes her but forgets that she had once interviewed to be her housekeeper and was humiliated by the woman. She tries to place her, asking if she has ever been to her restaurant and the woman replies haughtily, “But I don’t go to restaurants, Mrs. Pierce.” It would have been more believable in the East, around 1900, but still an interesting comment on the unexalted status of restaurant-ing.

Cain, who was also a gourmet, an amateur cook, and a magazine food writer on topics such as “Midnight Spaghetti,” “Crepes Suzette,” and “Carving Game Duck,” befriended Alexander Perino when he was headwaiter at The Town House and suggested Perino open his own restaurant which he famously did in 1932. Restaurants also figured in Cain’s books The Postman Always Rings Twice and Galatea, both of which involve the betrayal and murder of husbands.

In Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Mildred ends up broke, restaurantless, alienated from Veda, and living with her ex-husband, both of them ready to pursue a life of heavy drinking.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Filed under drive-ins, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, women

Truth in Menu

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Last week my brother found the following curious notice in his local newspaper offering aggrieved consumers a free pickle, cookie, or soda (valued at $1.40). The offer was the result of the settlement of a class action lawsuit by a woman who failed to get sprouts on her sandwich as a Jimmy John’s menu had promised.

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I could not help but appreciate that the claimant was a resident of California, the state that originated Truth in Menu laws (aka Truth in Dining) that demand under penalty of fines that restaurants provide exactly what is stated on their menus.

Menu advertising is covered under a variety of consumer protection laws but many people have felt that restaurants’ misrepresentations deserved more focused attention. Ralph Nader, from a restaurant family himself, may have been the first to call for a Truth in Menu law, in 1972. The first attempt to enact such a law, in the form of a city ordinance, came in San Francisco in 1974 under the sponsorship of then-president of the Board of Supervisors, Diane Feinstein (US Senator, D-CA).

The impetus behind the San Francisco ordinance was to stop restaurants from serving convenience entrees that had been prepared elsewhere, frozen, and reheated in the restaurant, yet were not identified as such and leaving diners to believe they originated in the restaurants’ kitchens. Also at issue were the restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf that purported to serve locally caught fish yet were known to substitute frozen fish shipped in from other states. Restaurant owners such as Tom DiMaggio, brother of baseball’s Joe DiMaggio and owner of DiMaggio’s Restaurant, argued that they had to fall back on frozen fish at times when fresh caught local fish was not available. DiMaggio admitted to serving frozen prawns from Louisiana. Proponents of the Truth in Menu law, however, claimed that some of the Wharf’s restaurants regularly served nothing but frozen fish.

truthlobstersSan Francisco’s Board of Supervisors chose not to pass the ordinance, but Los Angeles took up the cause and became, probably, the leading enforcer of menu honesty. Other states and localities also adopted such laws but their enforcement has tended to be weak. The 1970s was the high point for restaurant inspections and TiM enforcement. Fines were issued for margarine referred to as butter, Maine lobster not from Maine, real maple syrup that wasn’t, frozen entrees touted as home-made, 8 oz prime steaks that weighed less and were lower grade, chicken and veal dishes made of turkey or pork, and fish that wasn’t what its name implied. As “home-made” became “home-baked,” restaurants learned to play it safe with their claims, as the postcard image above shows. Menu printers did a brisk business.

The use of frozen entrees eventually became an accepted practice in many restaurants as consumers happily accepted dishes prepared in a factory and microwaved in the restaurant’s kitchen. Restaurants are not required to acknowledge that they serve frozen entrees (as the Feinstein ordinance would have required), and many customers would not be horrified if this was revealed, feeling that as long as it tastes good and costs less than food made on-site from scratch, that’s fine with them.

Where do things stand today? Restaurant chains are the most likely targets for lawsuits and have been diligent in avoiding false claims. Elite restaurateurs wither at the very notion that they could use convenience foods or mislabel anything. Yet misrepresentations certainly occur, sometimes even among the staunchest supporters of truthfulness.

There’s the meat glue scandal in which chunks of beef were glued and pressed into shape as filet mignon.

But, if there is a single type of food most likely to be misrepresented on menus it is fish. Not too long ago I ordered grouper in Florida at three different restaurants. Each time it was quite different, indicating that at least twice I was served something else. As recent investigations show, fish misidentification is rampant among restaurants, suppliers, and retailers, always involving the substitution of a less expensive fish for a more expensive one.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Tea at the Mary Louise

MaryLouiseTR1928BestFoodsADV2200W7th

In 1914 the J. W. Robinson department store arrived on West Seventh and Grand, launching a shift in Los Angeles’ shopping district from Broadway. The following year the Brack Shops began leasing specialty shops in an empty loft building nearby. Construction activity boomed as Seventh Street turned into a shopping mecca.

Will and Dolla Harris staked the future of the Mary Louise Tea Room on the prosperity of West Seventh. In 1918 they opened their first tea room on the 12th floor of the Brack Shops. With wide hallways allowing shops to open their doors and let goods spill outside, it resembled a modern-day shopping mall. Shoppers could easily spend the day having their hair done, browsing the latest styles, or enjoying lunch, tea, or a Thursday night chicken dinner at the Mary Louise.

MaryLouiseBarkerBros790Through the 1920s the Mary Louise expanded, opening additional tea rooms on West Seventh — on the mezzanine of the fashionable New York Cloak & Suit House, and on the top floor of the gigantic Barker Brothers home furnishings store [shown here]. In 1922 construction began on what would be the largest of the Mary Louise tea rooms [shown below], a two-story building across from Westlake Park (renamed MacArthur Park in 1942). It opened in 1923 and was soon followed by a Mary Louise in Fullerton, next door to the new Alician Court movie theater owned by Dolla’s brother Charles S. Chapman. The last Mary Louise, whose servers were young Asian-American women dressed in Chinese costumes, opened in 1931 on North Cahuenga in Hollywood.

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Shortly after its debut, the park-side Mary Louise advertised it was “the Center of the City’s Social Life.” Wedding parties and meetings of professional groups were booked regularly. Elaborately decorated on a lavish budget equal to more than half the cost of construction, the capacious building held a large entry hall [shown below] and dining room [shown at top] on the first floor plus an afternoon tea room, a banquet hall, and four smaller dining rooms for private parties on the second. In sync with the fashion of the day, the rooms had themes such as Mah Jong and Italian tea garden.

MaryLouiselobby789As can be seen on postcards from the Mary Louises in Barker Brothers and opposite Westlake Park, the tea rooms were decorated in glamourous movie-set style markedly different than minimalist Eastern tea rooms. Gilded pieces, Oriental rugs, wall tapestries, heavy draperies, and paired ornamental trees abounded.

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The Mary Louise mini-empire was dealt a severe blow just a few months after the Hollywood location opened when Will Harris died suddenly. Three of the tea rooms, including the main one opposite Westlake Park, were quickly sold to the Elite Catering Company owned by the expanding Pig’n Whistle chain. When I acquired the business card shown here opened up, it had Xs penciled over all but the section reading “2 Smart Downtown Tea Rooms,” evidently reflecting the changeover.

Dolla Harris continued to operate the two downtown tea rooms: in Barker Brothers and in the Security Bank Building opposite the Robinson’s store. In 1932, in the depths of the Depression, she was forced to reduce prices for lunch and to attract customers with palmists and numerologists. How long she stayed in business is uncertain but I’ve found evidence that there was still a Mary Louise tea room in Barker Brothers in 1952.

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Filed under proprietors & careers, restaurant decor, tea shops

“Adult” restaurants

Anyone who knows American culture realizes immediately that the term “adult restaurant” would not even remotely imply an eating place that caters to mature or developed culinary tastes. Instead it would mean one deemed inappropriate for children because of some kind of sexually tinged goings on.

Historically the attractions in adult restaurants have not been what’s on the plate but are part of the female servers’ anatomy.

An unfamiliar restaurant concept to me is the “adult fast food restaurant.” This is how a Florida drive-in owner referred to his business in 1976. It didn’t serve adult fast food – what would that be? Crêpes? It served hot dogs, hamburgers, beer, and, oddly, wine. The manager called it “our answer to MacDonald’s,” reflecting the fierce competition drive-ins faced from big chains in the 1970s.

The “adult” aspect: servers at the “Jugs ‘n’ Suds” drive-in were costumed only in hot pants and tassles.

However, Jugs ‘n’ Suds waitresses got very little chance to “wear” their intended costume. The drive-in met with vehement disapproval from citizens and officials of New Port Richey who insisted that the waitresses cover up. One of the restaurant’s promoters admitted that business fell off once apron-like halter tops were adopted, saying “People aren’t as interested in seeing a topless waitress with fringe on.” [pictured] In very short order the drive-in closed. A second one – without carhops — then opened in an old A&W. I don’t think it lasted long. A fantasized  nationwide chain never materialized.

Jugs ‘n’ Suds was unusual in that it was a drive-in. Most topless restaurants have been positioned at the “nightclub” end of the restaurant spectrum. Typically they’ve been dark, bar-like spaces where business men congregate at noon and after work.

California was the birthplace of the topless restaurant with the pioneers opening in 1965 not long after the creation of Rudi Gernrich’s topless bathing suit. Many offered a business man’s lunch special accompanied by models strolling from table to table. In California, at Long Beach’s Kozy Kitten, kittens ambled while patrons downed 98c luncheons of Turkey, Ham, or Beef served with Potato Salad and Beans. (I didn’t say topless restaurants were glamorous.)

The topless restaurant fad, which combined gawking, drinking, AND eating, died out, but using women’s anatomy to attract restaurant patrons did not. Maybe it’s eternal. Even as the last Playboy bunny club closed in the 1988, a new crop of “breastaurants” (as they are mockingly known by critics) appeared, most of them flaunting scantily dressed servers. Following the success of Hooters, a slew of knock-offs opened in Florida, among them the so preciously named Melons, Knockers, and Mugs & Jugs.

Controversy is also eternal. Hooters’ aggressively suggestive advertising campaign has offended many and the chain was forced to remove billboards that hinted servers were prostitutes, an idea that, depressingly, has plagued female servers since the 19th century.

Legal challenges to topless restaurants and breastaurants have mostly not held up. But communities protest them anyway, occasionally successfully. Recently the Quincy MA Licensing Board denied permission to a unit of the Tilted Kilt chain because it was too close to a church that objected.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Theme restaurants: Russian!

Restaurants and coffee houses run by Russian immigrants appeared in the late 19th century. Their proprietors were Jews living on NYC’s lower East Side as well as others in California and Chicago who were pro-revolution enemies of the Czar. But not until after World War I (and the Russian Revolution), when a very different wave of anti-revolution, pro-Czar Russian immigrants arrived, did explicitly and self-consciously Russian-themed restaurants come into being. They flourished in the 1920s and 1930s.

For many readers New York’s Russian Tea Room will immediately spring to mind. It was established on West 57th Street in 1927 by Jakob Zysman, a Polish immigrant who operated a chocolate factory at the little tea room where ballerinas hung out. The business soon moved across the street where it changed hands and was expanded into a full-fledged restaurant. Over its long history it had many owners, notably including Faith Stewart-Gordon who ran it from 1967 until the end of 1995. After extensive renovations by restaurant impresario Warner LeRoy, it reopened in the fall of 1999. LeRoy died in 2001 and the RTR closed the following year.

But it should be noted that, unlike other Russian restaurants of the interwar period, the RTR was not started by a White Russian nor did it have a specifically Russian emigré clientele for most of its tenure. Reportedly, at one point the Russians who haunted the barroom were discouraged from patronizing the place because of their propensity to linger while they eulogized the olden days. The RTR was mainly famous as a flamboyant celebrity restaurant.

In the 1920s NYC gained a population of White Russians numbering about 6,000, most of them well-educated former members of the intelligentsia or the Imperial Russian Army. Numerous Russian eating places soon cropped up, with names such as The Russian Inn, The Eagle (E 57th), Katinka (W 49th), The Russian Swan, Kavkaz (Bdwy & 53rd), Casino Russe (W 56th), The Russian Sadko (W 57th), The Maisonette Russe (W 52nd), and The Russian Bear (W 57th). On the lower East Side were The Russian Kretchma and the (original) Russian Bear. Striking modernistic wall murals by emigré artists such as Boris Artzybashev, balalaika music, and entertainment by Cossack performers often contributed to the atmosphere of these eating places. As far as I can tell they served both as gathering spots for Russians and as tourist attractions.

Los Angeles also had a White Russian settlement of up to 2,000, with an Orthodox church, art shops, tea rooms, and restaurants. Lured by Hollywood, some Russians from this period acted as extras in movies and a few became studio consultants with expertise on the former glories of the fallen Russian aristocracy. When Theodore Lodijensky, proprietor of NYC’s Russian Eagle, moved westward he consulted on Sternberg’s “Last Command” (1928) — and he opened a West Coast version of The Eagle.

When the RTR began there were also other Russian tea rooms in NYC and around the US, some going by that exact name, some with names such as The Samovar. An importer of artistic wares named Polakoff, a Czarist who used a royal crest in his advertising, ran a Russian Tea Room filled with Russian arts and crafts on Chicago’s South Michigan Blvd. A specialty there was the Petrograd Supreme, a tall sandwich which the eater approached from the appetizer layer on top, working down to the dessert layer at bottom. In the 1930s Valentina Alekseevna Vernon ran a Russian Tea Room in San Francisco. A woman of strong opinions, she found Americans as resistant to some Russian dishes as she was to theirs.“I wouldn’t touch either an ice cream soda or a fruit salad,” she proudly proclaimed. Also in San Francisco was the Moscow Café which opened in 1932 and featured flaming Beef Stroganoff and Cossacks balancing flaming swords. A few Russian restaurants could also be found in Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven CT, and Miami in the 1930s.

The dishes introduced by White Russian restaurants included not only Beef Stroganoff, but also Blini with Caviar and Nesselrode Pudding. Although their menus might list Borscht, Darra Goldstein points out in The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink that this humble Ukrainian beet soup was brought by Russian Jews who had immigrated earlier.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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