The first pair of customers came 26 minutes early, and their arrival Monday morning drew smiles of relief from the staff at Encounter, the iconic LAX restaurant that had been closed for repairs for eight months.
"Before we could open up our doors, we were getting customers," said operations manager Kenneth Merritt. "It's good to be back in business."
That was the sentiment of Steven O'Bryant of Azusa and his 16-year-old son Kyle, the first two in the door. O'Bryant had planned to drive to San Diego for the day, but when he heard an early morning radio report that the intergalactic-styled restaurant would reopen for lunch at 11 a.m., he and Kyle headed for Los Angeles International Airport. O'Bryant, 47, had last eaten there when he was 10.
"I didn't recognize it until I came in here," he said, pointing out the blobby, multicolored decor that might have been inspired by a lava lamp. "These might even be the same tables."
Encounter is housed in the Theme Building, which was completed in 1961 and designated a historic-cultural monument by the Los Angeles City Council and the Cultural Heritage Commission in 1992. The restaurant is operated by Delaware North Cos. Travel Hospitality Services. The observation deck has been closed since 9/11 for security reasons, but is expected to reopen once the exterior renovation is complete, said Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for the airport agency.
Featured in many movies and tourist snapshots, the kitschy landmark was closed in March after a 1,000-pound piece of stucco fell from one of its spider-like arches. No one was injured, but inspectors assessed the damage, and officials decided it was safer to close the building while crews retrofitted the structure.
Over time, water had seeped into the stucco covering the arches and corroded the facility's steel substructure, said Harrison Whitney, an architect on the team that designed the $2.2-million Theme Building in 1958. "It was just Mother Nature attacking the building," he said.
Whitney is also a consultant on the renovation with the architectural firm Gin Wong Associates. Engineers removed the stucco and substructure, primed the steel skeleton with protective paint and are replacing the substructure with either galvanized or stainless steel, he said. The interior was also refurbished along the original design.
"Unfortunately, the crumbling of the infrastructure of the restaurant is a symbol of the aged and threatened structures at the airport," said Alan Rothenberg, president of the Board of Airport Commissioners. "Hopefully, we can deal with all the other problems as quickly as we can deal with this one."
Officials estimate the building will be completely renovated with new stucco by next fall.
With the doors once again open, journalists took photos while patrons gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows, many still obstructed by scaffolding.
"If you like airplanes, this is the best spot, probably in the country," said Phillip VerLee, 44. "And you can eat, too."
VerLee, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Encounter was the only restaurant programmed into his cellphone so that he could check whether it's open when he's in town. He sat a few tables from the O'Bryants, a beer and a plate of mushroom ravioli before him.
"I don't normally have a beer with lunch," he said. "But it's a celebratory beer for the reopening."
Suzanne Tracy Meir, 49, an attorney, also stopped by for the opening. She had eaten at Encounter a handful of times but especially remembered dining with her parents when they visited from Texas about a year ago. "They loved it," she said. "It feels so L.A. Kind of like 'The Jetsons.' "
Meir enjoyed watching the planes with her 5-year-old son, aptly named Jet. As she ate her Cobb salad, Jet could hardly tear his eyes from the windows.
"Mom, look at that one far away!" Jet yelled, crawling in his seat and pointing at a plane coming in for a landing.
"The plane?" his amused mother asked.
"It's a jet plane! Look! It's a jet!" he continued, as the small plane came down the runway. "See? It's a jet. It's a jet!"