Tag Archives: vegetarian

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

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“Eating healthy”

Restaurants (and their critics) have often shown concern with patrons’ health, but the focus of concern has varied widely in different eras.

In the 18th century the idea that restaurants had a mission to restore health came to this country from France. The legend spread that a Frenchman named Boulanger invented the first restaurant, hanging out a signboard stating “I will restore you.” Whether or not this actually occurred — or whether he was “the first” — it is true that early restaurants in France promised to provide healthful dishes. The mission migrated to America as chefs arrived after the French revolution. When Julien’s opened in Boston the proprietor vowed to supply the infirm, convalescent, and weak with “nourishing” soups and broths, including turtle soups which, he advertised, would purify the blood.

But the early French “restorators” were voices shouting in the wilderness. For most of the next two centuries Americans believed their health depended on eating meat and lots of it. In the latter 19th century and into the 20th, concern shifted to unsanitary conditions in restaurants as health departments were created, ordinances established, and inspectors dispatched.

The vegetarian restaurants of the early 20th century demonstrated a renewed interest in healthy diets. Meat substitutes produced by the Kelloggs of the Battle Creek Sanitarium appeared on their tables, although breakfast cereals, whose popularity was aided by restaurant promotions, were undoubtedly the most successful of all health food products.

The food conservation guidelines of World War I lightened diets, with less meat and more vegetables on restaurant menus, as well as spreading knowledge of nutrition. A few chains, such as J. R. Thompson and Childs, provided vitamin and calorie counts in the 1920s. But the public was not too receptive. Stockholders booted out William Childs after he gained control of the mighty lunchroom corporation and removed meat from its menus, causing sales to plunge drastically.

After a prolonged beef-eating revival following the end of WWII rationing, health-conscious restaurants made a comeback as part of a counterculture critique of industrialized food. The “holy war against adulterated foods and french-fried, frozen, super sugar wastelands,” reported Mary Reinholz in the Los Angeles Times in 1971, had produced at least 25 organic restaurants in southern California, including H.E.L.P., Aware Inn, The Source, and Nucleus Nuance which served “evolution burgers,” “Virgo vege-loaves,” and carob mousse. One Los Angeles counterculture restaurant favorite, carrot cake, crossed over onto mainstream menus.

Natural food eating places, such as St. Louis’s Sunshine Inn, Long Island’s Shamballah Gardens, the Haven in Honolulu, Homeward Bound in Flagstaff, and Mary’s Natural Food Restaurant in Denton TX, to name but a few, soon spread throughout much of the country, laying the groundwork for the restaurant revival of the 1980s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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