The Eat Sheet: New Doc Screening at SXSW Centers on Hippie Cult’s Star-Studded Vegetarian Restaurant

The Source, a famous early-’70s New Age dining den on the Sunset Strip where rowdy bar Cabo Cantina now stands, lured everyone from Warren Beatty to Goldie Hawn.
The Source

Before Father Yod became the Rolls Royce-driving, psychedelic rock band-fronting, flowing-robed leader of the most fashionable urban commune in the country, the husband of 14 was merely Jim Baker, serial L.A. restaurateur.

According to Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, the co-directors of The Source — a new documentary that debuted at SXSW on March 11 about Baker’s journey (and will have one final showing at the film festival on Friday) — the Cincinnati-born former Marine and devoted follower of Sikh sect head Yogi Bhajan first ran The Aware Inn in the 1950s, a successful steakhouse that pioneered the use of grass-fed beef. One of his first customers was Greta Garbo. “He promptly had an affair with her,” says Wille.

By the mid-’60s he’d opened The Old World, a more casual offshoot focused on healthful, whole-grain-powered takes on comfort food. “It was similar to Elf,” says Demopolous of today’s Echo Park hipster haven.

In 1969, Baker dropped acid, parted ways with his business partners and went solo with The Source, which opened on April 1. Situated at the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Sweetzer Ave. — currently home to the loutish Cabo Cantina (Wille: “How ironic—it’s quite a commentary on how that stretch has changed over the years”) — the restaurant’s signature veggie burger was made with lentils, its ice cream with raw milk.

During its heyday, industry fans were legion: Regulars included Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Steve McQueen, Julie Christie, Don Johnson, Carl Reiner and Goldie Hawn. Cicely Tyson threw an after-party at The Source after winning one of her ’70s-era Emmys. Another patron, director Paul Mazursky, is said to have supposedly volunteered to film one of Baker’s many weddings. Then, unsurprisingly, there were all of the Laurel Canyon folk scene folks dropping by, from Joni Mitchell to Crosby, Stills and Nash.

“Everyone came, right up to the people who ran the studios,” says Demopoulos. “Café Gratitude” — the oh-so-enlightened Larchmont Blvd. vegan hotspot near the Paramount lot — “is the best contemporary comparison, with that spiritual component to it. It’s got that similar vibe; it’s almost kind of uncanny.” (As it happens, Café Gratitude’s Northern California branches were the subjects of controversy a few years ago over its practice of coercing employees to take Landmark Forum classes, which are based on Werner Erhard’s New Age est teachings.)

The restaurant itself featured walls covered with the group’s occult symbology; pictures of Baker, who had taken to calling himself Father Yod; album art from his Ya Ho Wa 13 music group; as well as pieces from noted Dutch design collective The Fool, known for its work with the Beatles during its psychedelic period. However, the most memorable aesthetic moment may have been the brick fireplace, defined by its cascading rainbow fountain of melted candle wax.

Outside, patrons sat under yellow-and-white umbrellas in directors’ chairs. In Annie Hall, it’s on this patio where Diane Keaton’s title character breaks up with Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer.

As The Source grew, so did his “Family,” a cult of hippies — some of them drawn from his patron base — that followed his particular stew of Eastern-mysticism teachings. By day, they alternatively worked at the restaurant and taught classes at a temple in the rear of the property. By night, they lived collectively in a house in the hills.

“Members from the time say [the restaurant] was the goose that laid the golden egg,” says Wille of how the business supported the Family. “There are articles that we’ve found that say that it was one of the most profitable vegetarian restaurants in the country.”

By 1974, however, Baker and his group sold their interest in the restaurant, in part to escape the increasing attention and suspicion that had been generated as their fame grew in the shadow of L.A.’s Manson Family murder trial. They transplanted themselves to Hawaii, where Baker died in a hang-gliding accident the following year.

The group soon disbanded, but its New Age spirituality, stylish fashion sensibility and generally strict adherence to myriad land-of-fruits-and-nuts California clichés made the Family ripe for parody. In 1976 “Saturday Night Live” took the bait with a skewering skit starring Gilda Radner, Elliott Gould, Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman operating a restaurant under the spoofing moniker Natural Causes.

The restaurant itself lived on under other ownership until the 1990s. “I used to see Fabio there all the time growing up,” says Demopoulos.

Yet even as the Source Family ages into history as an of-its-time curiosity, its restaurant, from its food to its management policies, was in many ways ahead of its time. “Even just with the tips, [Baker] was very progressive,” says Wille. “He’d split them equally between everyone: chefs, busboys, waitresses. It was all very egalitarian.” One might even describe it as communal in spirit.

What do you think?

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