In anticipation of Chef Geary's talk, before diving into the main dish, we asked L.A. food writer Elina Shatkin to give us an appetizer course in an exclusive interview with author/chef George Geary.
Back in the day, if you wanted to see a celebrity in Los Angeles and couldn't finagle your way onto a studio lot, your best bet was to dine at one of the restaurants they frequented — if you could get in.
"Today, we don't even care who a maître d' is but it used to be that you needed to know who that person was to get a table," George Geary says. In-demand restaurants like Ma Maison, Perino's and Spago had private numbers known only by those who were in-the-know. "The maître d' had clout and if you called the private line, they answered your phone call first."
Details like this helped Geary bring life to L.A.'s Legendary Restaurants: Celebrating the Famous Places Where Hollywood Ate, Drank, and Played. The book features photos, anecdotes, recipes and trivia from 43 restaurants. Did you know Hamburger Hamlet was the first Westside restaurant to "break the color barrier?" Or that Tony Curtis and Sammy Davis Jr. once manned its grills so the two owners could drive to Vegas and get married?
Some, like Chasen’s, Perino's, Tiny Naylor's and the Cocoanut Grove are gone but still missed. A few have been thoroughly forgotten. Ben Frank's or the Zebra Room, anyone? Others, like Tam O'Shanter, Musso and Frank, and Taix are still going. Not all the restaurants were star-driven. Hollywood ice cream shop C.C. Brown's was a favorite for its hot fudge sauce, which was served in a small pitcher alongside the main scoop. Locals still love Chez Jay, the divey bar that plays itself in the Amazon series Goliath.
Geary, who grew up in Torrance, didn't frequent L.A.'s poshest joints. "We weren't that rich," he laughs. Since graduating from culinary school, he has been a food stylist, a cookbook author, a gustatory tour guide and the pastry chef at Disneyland. In the 1980s, he made many of the cheesecakes Dorothy, Sophia, Rose and Blanche dug into on Golden Girls.
Three years in the making, L.A.'s Legendary Restaurants required Geary to unearth vintage recipes. He pored over library archives, old newspaper articles, out-of-print cookbooks and moldering recipe cards.
"People would ask me, did you put Chasen's chili in? Because they'd heard the story of Elizabeth Taylor. I didn't put it in because I found about eight versions of it and I thought, which one's right? I wasn't there. I didn't taste it."
Once he had decided which recipes to include, Geary had to modify them to please modern palates. No MSG, no celery salt. "One recipe [from the Brown Derby] is called paprika chicken," Geary says. "You pour three cups of heavy cream into a saucepan and boil the chicken in it. It's the creamiest chicken you've ever had, but I couldn't imagine eating this nightly."
Many of these glamorous spots weren't known for their culinary prowess. The Palladium, which hosts rock concerts, opened in 1940 as a swanky dinner-and-dancing venue where Lawrence Welk hosted radio broadcasts. Its vast dance floor, meant to accommodate 7,500 people, was lined with tables meant to seat another 1,000. Figuring it'd be more profitable if patrons stayed all night, the venue offered a basic menu: salad or soup to start, a main dish, maybe baked ham with cherry sauce or turkey, along with a vegetable of the day and a dessert, "a cup of orange sherbet or something very cafeteria," according to Geary.
A little further east, in a rougher part of Hollywood, nightclub Florentine Gardens opened in 1938 as a dinner theater. The racy shows starred bawdy comedians and partially nude dancers. "I was going through health department licensing documents and saw they lost their license a couple times back in the day," Geary says. The menu here was equally unimpressive, "literally two or three items and that's about it." It was the atmosphere, not the food, that made these restaurants legendary.
|Hurd Hatfield and Angela Lansbury at Schwab's in 1945|
The book includes plenty of celebrity eye candy. Angela Lansbury sipping a soda at Schwab's; Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Hope at Perino's; Barbara Stanwyck at Ciro's; Warren Beatty at 72 Market Street Oyster Bar & Grill. It also includes promotional cards, matchbooks and, in the case of Ma Maison, the original menu artwork drawn by David Hockney.
Geary's personal favorites include the Cocoanut Grove inside the Ambassador Hotel in Koreatown. The 1,000-seat club was the pinnacle of chic L.A. nightlife in the 1950s and '60s. "Upon their arrival, guests were led down a majestic staircase into a large ballroom decorated with mechanical monkeys swinging from full-size palm trees, purchased after their use in Rudolph Valentino's 1921 movie The Sheik,'" Geary writes in the book. The hotel served as a second home for famous types such as Charlie Chaplin, Howard Hughes and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who reportedly trashed one of the bungalows. Today, the site of the hotel, which closed in 1989, is home to a high school.
Locals can catch a glimpse of the Art Deco heyday of another Geary favorite, the Bullocks Wilshire Tea Room. Now part of Southwestern Law School and not open to the public, the former department store hosts an annual Open House for one weekend each summer. Festivities include self-guided tours and a tea where they serve Cantonese chicken salad and coconut cream pie. According to Geary, tickets to the tea sell out quickly and you're most likely to secure one by joining Friends of Bullocks Wilshire. If that's too involved, Geary also includes those two recipes in his book.
Geary hopes "L.A.'s Legendary Restaurants" will help preservation efforts for these still standing buildings but preserving Los Angeles landmarks is a hit-or-miss proposition. When the book went to print, Formosa Cafe was still operating despite a ruinous renovation. In January 2017, it abruptly closed.
Clifton's, the forest-themed, cafeteria-style restaurant that reopened in downtown after a nearly five-year, $10 million renovation, offers another case study in preservation. "I understand where they're going with Clifton's," Geary says. "That's one place I went a lot before it closed. The food was good but not the best. Now the food is better. But when you're expecting green Jell-O for $1.25 and they're doing French cakes instead, people are turned off. They want what was familiar to them. But I think they did a beautiful job with it."
When it comes to the book, one Geary's biggest challenges was knowing when to quit. "We were in the rare book room of the library in downtown L.A., finding all these things and finding more restaurants," he says. "We might have to do a second volume."
Elina Shatkin is a journalist and filmmaker. She was once a restaurant critic. She loves carne asada, dark chocolate and bourbon. She was eating beets long before they were cool.