If These Menus Could Talk: The History of L.A. Power Dining Revealed
Candice Bergen, Jackie Collins and others talk Dino's, Trader Vic's, Chasen's and other iconic eateries that defined the city's culinary hot spots.
This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The first time chef Roy Choi visited the Los Angeles Public Library’s 9,000-item vintage menu collection, he felt like Christopher Reeve‘s character in the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time, a playwright who travels back decades.
“I started to feel the history, but not from an intellectual standpoint — from a visceral one,” writes Choi. That visit led to a collaboration with USC professor Josh Kun on “To Live and Dine in L.A.,” a Central Library exhibit that runs until Nov. 13.
Every menu tells a story, from the original name of what’s believed to be the first-ever cheeseburger, invented at The Rite Spot in Pasadena (the “Aristocratic Hamburger Sandwich”), to the fact that Wolfgang Puck drew the original menu cover for Spago. As curator Staci Steinberger notes in the book version of To Live and Dine in LA , a menu is “design as entertainment.”
In 1958, Dean Martin lent his nickname and likeness to the Sunset Strip nightclub Alpine Lodge for a percentage of sales. Martin feuded with his partners but they got to keep the name until the spot folded in the late ‘60s.
Cocoanut Grove (1960)
The nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel was so popular that after it opened in 1921, it soon expanded into a 1,000-person ballroom. Before it closed in 1989, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. had performed there, and Vivian Leigh received her Oscar there for Gone With the Wind. Creamed soups! Fancy chopped chicken livers! Fruit Jell-O! This 55-year-old menu doesn’t look like one you would find at a hot club today.
Trader Vic’s (1986)
L.A. was a hotbed of the Tiki craze of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with Trader Vic’s in the Beverly Hilton, Don the Beachcomber, Bali Room and Luau all concocting elaborate fantasies to sell their fruit punches and spare ribs. Trader Vic’s (really a one-legged San Franciscan named Victor Bergeron who borrowed the Tiki concept from Don the Beachcomber) claimed to have invented the Mai Tai, Scorpion Bowl and Doctor Funk of Tahiti drinks.
Candice Bergen — Sunday Nights at Trader Vic’s and Underage Drinking at The Luau
“Saturday nights our parents would go off to their parties and we did whatever we did. Sundays our families all ate together at Trader Vic’s. It was very show-bizzy and there were lots of families. When my brother Kris turned 21, we had a surprise birthday party. We had about 20 friends come in gorilla costumes. We were sitting around this huge table, lit by tiki torches, and we were all in gorilla outfits, even my grandmother, who was in her late 80s. My brother’s friend, who was in a wheelchair, was dressed as a hunter. My brother was a really good sport because he thought he was going to be at a dinner with my mother, me and his grandmother. It was just deadly. We were all there with our gorilla outfits and coconut drinks.”
We would go to the Luau because we knew we could get served there. If you took some care to look older than your age… you were served, no questions asked. The Luau was very boisterous and you could get served at the age of 14, you could get served a Scorpion, which was such a strong drink, that when I ordered it when I was like 15, I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my chair at the end of meal. The Luau also had a lagoon in the dining room you could ask for a seat next to the lagoon. There were sort of miniature bamboo ships and they would be floating around the lagoon and then you would order a smoke cloud, which was a coconut shell that was set in a bed of dried ice. So it came to your table, it was like a pond that had caught fire, it was just a trail of smoke through the entire dining room until it landed on your table and then you couldn’t see the person across from you. That was the big theatrical moment, was to order a smoke cloud at the Luau. And the Luau had a sort of goldfish pond on the sidewalk at the entrance of the Luau and I remember friends of mine who were sort of the year in high school. I went to a girl’s school, but people from Beverly Hills high school put detergent in the fountain at the Luau and soap suds were so high that they started rolling down Rodeo Drive. I mean the workers in the Luau and underage kids and overage women. It was just fertile grounds for everything.
Bergen, 69, published her second memoir, ‘A Fine Romance,’ in April.
This Beverly Hills tiki joint known for its lax drinking rules also concocted some of the most elaborate fantasies to sell the faux-Polynesia experience. The Luau bragged it had sent “Doctor Foo Fong” to the South Seas to gather the “man-eating clamshells,” monkey-pod tree tabletops, hand-woven coconut palm wall hangings and Tiki (“the god of drink”) statues that decorated the dining room.
Fred Harvey (1943)
The comfortable railroad station chain restaurants (think Olive Garden, not McDonalds) immortalized in the Judy Garland movie The Harvey Girls were a mid-century mainstay. Like many restaurants, it supported the war effort during World War II, in this case by featuring the flags of all the allied countries on the menu cover.
The Brown Derby (1945 & 1952)
The original opened on Wilshire across from the Cocoanut Grove in 1926 before moving a few blocks up to the corner of Alexandria. In the ’30s and ’40s other branches opened in Beverly Hills, Los Feliz and Hollywod, which is where legend has it the Cobb Salad was invented by owner Robert Cobb in the ’30s (seen above left with Rita Hayworth and Paul Whiteman in 1949). During World War II many menus, like the one above, exhorted customers to support the war effort by buying bonds.
Romanoff’s reeked of old-world charm. The Beverly Hills eatery on South Rodeo Drive, which was open from 1941-1962, was presided over by owner Michael Romanoff, always impeccably dressed, carrying a walking stick, speaking in a posh British accent and claiming to be a Russian prince. It was all known to be a charade, in truth he was a former pants presser from Brooklyn; but no one cared. So many stars — Humphrey Bogart and Charlie Chaplin were investors — flocked to his restaurant, where an office building now stands, that he turned the first page of the menu into a lighthearted gossip column he called Romanoff’s Round-Up.
Unlike today’s locavore-focused menus, King’s’ bragged about shipping in food (Eastern lobsters, Kansas City steaks) while also playing up its connection to the city’s most influential patrons: Hollywood stars.
The legendary Hollywood restaurant at 9039 Beverly Blvd., opened in 1936 by comedian Dave Chasen with a $3,500 loan from New Yorker editor Harold Ross, was originally called Chasen’s Southern Pit Barbecue, serving chili and ribs. It soon evolved into a more upscale eatery but kept the chili as an off-menu special. (Elizabeth Taylor liked it so much she had it flown to her in Rome during the filming of Cleopatra.) Stars often rented the back room for private events, including a 1988 anniversary party for Frank Sinatra and wife Barbara attended by daughter Tina and family friend Kirk Douglas, pictured above.
Robert Wagner — Weeknights at Chasen’s
“Chasen’s was the spot. Actors eat out a lot because you don’t know what time you’re going to get through. So during the week you go to have dinner and go home and learn the lines. Maude and Dave Chasen were terrific people. They made the greatest martini around. Pepe Ruiz, the bartender, was noted for that. He burned a little orange around or a little lemon sometimes, and lit it. Jimmy and Tommy and Ronny — all the captains were just part of our lives. I loved the Hobo steak. He had that pyramid of ice which he put seafood into, shrimp and clams and lobsters. Sinatra used to take the back room for parties, all sorts of occasions — wedding anniversaries, birthdays. It was like a home away from home.”
Wagner, 85, is the author of a 2014 memoir, ‘You Must Remember This’
The first sushi restaurant in L.A. to attract Westerners was Kawafuku, which opened in Little Tokyo near downtown in 1966, followed in 1970 by Hollywood’s Osho, which attracted many stars and kicked off the city’s sushi boom. But even in 1980, as this menu from Amagi (formerly at Sunset and Gower) demonstrates, restaurateurs were still educating diners about the “sandwich of Japan.”
Le Dome (1980) & Spago (1981)
An ‘80s trend was hand-drawn menus — like this one from Le Dome, the famous nouveau French eatery on Sunset that signaled an emphasis on fresh local ingredients. The Spago menu also emphasized freshness in a menu hand-drawn by founder Wolfgang Puck.
Jackie Collins — Lunch Club at Le Dome
“What was good about Le Dome is that it was like Craig’s is today: a club. You’d see people you knew and liked. It was comfortable. I’m a member of a lunch group that meets the last Friday of every month and we’d have it at Le Dome. I like plain American food and you could get a great hamburger or fish without all the trimmings — things that appealed to you without seven sauces you didn’t want. We’d even go there for lunch on Christmas Day. Eddie [Kerkhofs] was a wonderful host and he’d prepare a fabulous turkey. I remember having lunch there once with Jerry Weintraub — now there was a true showman and they’re fading away to these guys in suits who just want to make sequels. Jerry wanted to make Hollywood Wives as a movie but my agent had already delivered it to Aaron Spelling to be a miniseries.”
Collins published a new novel, ‘The Santangelos,’ June 16.