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