Saturday, October 31, 2009

Historical LA Restaurant Thoughts Inspired by Jonathan Gold and William Grimes at Aloud

The other day I attended the Aloud Central Libary Foundation discussion by Jonathan Gold and William Grimes (picture to the left) comparing the culinary restaurant history of Los Angeles and New York City as moderated by Evan Kleiman from KCRW Good Food and Angeli Caffe. I have often reflected that the food and restaurant scene today in Los Angeles is so different than what I knew growing up in LA on the westside during the 1950's and 1960's.

I grew up in a middle class family in the original Truesdale tract near Mar Vista playground. For a family of six, going out to dinner was a special occasion, and thus the restaurants I recall are very limited. If you wanted Chinese, and it was only Cantonese in those days, it meant a trip to downtown for Chinatown or the Produce Market area where you would find our old favorite Man Fook Low on San Pedro Street. I remember the owner giving us lychee fruit for a holiday treat. We did go sometimes to Chinatown which seemed so exotic, and I can't remember which Bamboo Lane restaurant.

If we wanted a fancy meal, and usually this meant getting together with relatives, then our destination was Lawry's Prime Rib at their original La Cienega location. This was roast beef heaven watching the silver carts making their way around the room. I remember my cousin as a youngster, who became a very successful restaurant owner, wanting the adult portion, and not the child's plate, and making a big fuss. Even in those days, the portions were enormous. I think eating at Lawry's influenced him. He got the adult portion, but I can't remember whether he ate the whole thing.

In the summer time, we spent several weeks on Balboa Island, which was out in the middle of nowhere of Orange County in those days. Thus, it was a big deal when the owners of Lawry's opened Five Crowns in Corona del Mar. It became an institution, and this was probably the highest form of gourmet cooking that I experienced growing up. Newport Beach had other memories for me, as in 1969 I did go on to work for Far West Services owners of Rubens, Coco's, and other restaurants as a bus boy at the old Ruben E. Lee on Newport Bay. I think this floating ship finally came to end an several years ago, after plans failed to turn it into a museum. I learned more about what it takes to run a restaurant while clearing tables and washing dishes.

Anyway, with my last paycheck from the summer of 1969, I took my parents to Scandia on the Sunset Strip and I was surprised that Jonathan Gold did not mention Scandia as an institution of fine dining from post WW2 this along with Perino's and Chasen's in his comments as an LA foodie institution of its time. I did return to Scandia in the early 1980's for a very special proposal meal with Karen. This was white table cloth dining for its time until the new wave of dining buried it in the late 1980's.

There was much discussion about ethnic food at the Aloud event, and going back to West Los Angeles in 1960, you really had to go out of your way for Mexican and Japanese food. I recall going to Casa Escobar on Pico in the early sixties having great tacos at the unheard high price of 75 cents. In the mid sixties, we discovered Tito's Taco's with their 25 cent tacos, and this one of kind outpost is still going strong. With regard to Japanese, it was either Little Tokyo in downtown LA, or one could head over to Crenshaw to find sushi. Here I was at 7 years of age with my mother eating sushi in 1960. The sushi chefs were stunned. I have read books on the sushi history of LA, and I think that people have forgotten that sushi may have made its first appearance on Crenshaw Blvd. and not Little Tokyo. Another interesting restaurant at the Crenshaw mall, was the Pearly King (or Queen) doing real English style Fish and Chips. This was fun finger food.

Where the Westside Pavilion expansion now stands, there was an original fast food hamburger place called Scott's at Pico and and Westwood next to the Picwood Movie Theatre. Way before McDonalds found its way to West LA, this was the big treat when we would do Saturday school outings before another Magic Flute at the old Philharmonic at Pershing Square. As a family, if we wanted restaurant hamburgers, then we would head out to Woody's on Sepulveda near Jefferson. I suspect we went there once a month. I would actually sprinkle the peanuts on my burger.

For the truly exotic dinner, there was Kelbo's, a tiki bar on Pico serving Polynesian style food. Again, this was a fun place for a family dinner. The original burned down, and the next one after that featured a fire engine display. Just the other day, I made it to the new Trader Vic's at LA Live, and it brought back these Kelbo memories.

As a child in 1950's, it made a big impression on me when my father took me to Tommy's, the Original Pantry, and Philippes. All are still going strong and retaining their mystique. Near the corner of Barrington and National, we had our own little delicatesen for lox and bagels. We usually did take-out, and they had the range of Jewish deli coldcuts. Don't rember the name, but it lasted well into the late 1960's. Going to the big LA deli's, was a long drive even in those days. And Junior's did not exist yet. And before it became known as Trader Joe's, we had Pronto Market on National near Overland, still in its original location back in the early 60s. Yes, I grew up on Trader Joe's food.

Finally, I need to add that my father, was a restaurant pioneer ahead of his time. Back in the days of the White Front discount department store on Central Avenue at 76th (in South LA) around 1959, he built and opened the WF restaurant directly across the street, which if you saw it, you would have recognized it as a forerunner of Sizzler. His idea was to hire the best chefs, and cook quality steaks at low prices, in a cafeteria line environment. I do have an architectural drawing of this restaurant, which I will scan and post later. This restaurant lasted for a few years, and to this day, there are still very few sit down restaurants in this part of LA. Warren Hollier was general construction contractor for the WF restaurant and went onto become head of Public Works under Mayor Tom Bradley.


j gold said...

My notes, you will not be surprised to hear, did include Scandia, which was one of the most influential restaurants of the '60s and '70s - and where, not incidentally, I took practically every girl I dated in high school and college for late night smorrebrod, veal Oskar being out of my price range at the time. I neglected to mention it, but rest assured, it was only forgetfulness.

Thanks for coming to the talk.

lv2eat said...

Thank you for the interesting storied. Was Langer's mentioned in at ALoud in anyway?