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Cafe Yields to Evolution--Venice Style

Times Staff Writer

It was business as usual over the weekend at the Lafayette Cafe, one of the few remaining bits on the Venice boardwalk of a more substantive, colorful past.

But not for long. The cafe is a victim of Venice’s honky-tonk carnival present.

The Lafayette--first opened 25 years ago on the ground floor of a landmark apartment building that has been the residence of celebrities ranging from comedian Charlie Chaplin to rock star Jim Morrison--has only a week left to survive.

It will close Sunday--the day after the 51st birthday of its owner, Arturo Garcia--the victim and symbol of a now-familiar melding of economic and social pressures.

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The Lafayette, one of the few low-priced eateries in Venice catering to a predominantly local clientele, could not afford the near tripling of its rent proposed by George Lenney, owner of the Waldorf Apartments, the building at Ocean Front Walk and Westminster Court that has housed the Lafayette since it first opened in about 1960.

Sitting at a table at the back of the Lafayette dining room, Garcia, a soft-spoken man with more than 30 years’ experience in the restaurant business, said he isn’t the kind of person inclined to protest. He said he has rejected more activist suggestions by longtime Lafayette customers, including one attorney who proposed ways to keep the place open for at least the rest of the year by fighting the rent hike in court.

“You cannot blame him,” Garcia said of his landlord. “There is probably no way a coffee shop like ours, with our prices (hamburgers are $1.60, roast beef sandwiches $2.40 and, at breakfast time, three eggs are served for the price of two) is going to make it in Venice today.

“We understand the situation (economics for landlord and restaurant owner alike) is getting very bad. If he can get more money for the place, fine.

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“This is like a home for most of the local people. But, what can you do? It’s progress, or evolution, or whatever you want to call it.”

What Garcia and his brother, Fernando, 68, a former chef at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel who helps run the Lafayette, are going to do is take a long rest, they say, before deciding what enterprise to launch next. It will probably not be a restaurant, both brothers agreed.

In all, the Lafayette’s demise may be testimony to changing times, evolving tastes and altered economics. Although Ocean Front Walk is paved with asphalt and contains not a stick of wood in its surface, it is popularly known as the boardwalk. In recent years, especially in the Lafayette’s immediate vicinity, it has evolved into a string of vending stalls for sunglasses and T-shirts, broken only by occasional counter-service refreshment stands.

The Garcias, their landlord (Lenney bought the building in the 1960s, still lives in it part time and is widely perceived as a conscientious, concerned property owner) and longtime Venice locals don’t like things that way. But, as Nancy McCulloch, a local resident who has been stopping for coffee and food at the Lafayette for 22 years, put it: “All of the old places get wiped out. Local artists used to sell here, but not anymore. Venice has its own evolution. What’s happening to us (local people) right now is that we’re getting wiped out.

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“Eventually, what’s moving in (the tourist-oriented vendor stalls and fast-food outlets) will themselves be wiped out. But right now, it’s the people. Where will Venice go next? I don’t know.”

In ways, some locals say, the Lafayette’s passing is indicative of uncertainty about the direction in which Venice is going. For years, real estate experts and social observers have perceived Venice as ripe for gentrification, probably with most of the poor driven from the area but without the total sacrifice of the bohemian atmosphere that has pervaded the place since shortly after it was founded in 1905 by a bizarre developer named Abbot Kinney.

This new Venice would have had many economic similarities to nearby Marina del Rey but a character uniquely its own. The Lafayette would have fit into this Venice, local people including McCulloch say, but that Venice isn’t the one that came to be.

Instead, much of Venice turned into a cheap street scene with shops catering to trinket purchases by tourists on the boardwalk and restaurants fighting over an upscale clientele that has never materialized in sufficient numbers to permit most such establishments to prosper. Away from the boardwalk, nearby Main Street developed a sort of fern bar identity.

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Violence has remained an endemic problem in the neighborhood and even the Garcia brothers, who are generally viewed fondly in the neighborhood, have had to break up their share of fights and attempted knifings--some of them inside the Lafayette itself, Arturo Garcia said.

Local residents find themselves still waiting for the Venice they hoped might evolve. But, as one young author who lives upstairs above the Lafayette put it, “it just hasn’t happened the way we thought it would.”

“We all don’t like it at all,” McCulloch said of the passing of the Lafayette, which she and others cite as a commentary on the evolution of Venice. “This place is typically Venice. Everyone is heartsick over it. This is where you come to eat. And this is where all the people go.”

McCulloch remembers the Lafayette when it first opened, as a bar with a small restaurant operation attached, in the early 1960s. The Garcias bought the establishment in 1969, taking it over from a man everyone remembers only as Ted. It was officially known as the Lafayette Coffee Shop in those days, but, two years ago, the sign blew down in a storm and the Garcias capitulated to the name by which the place had always been informally known, Lafayette Cafe.

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The Lafayette was never a big moneymaker, but the Garcia brothers insist they didn’t really care about that. They built a clientele that perceives the Lafayette as home. During the week, breakfast and lunch are served, Fernando Garcia said, mostly to neighborhood customers. On weekends--particularly during the summer tourist season--visitors and locals mix with a comparative lack of friction.

Lenney said a lease has been negotiated, but not signed, with a clothing store--area residents suspect the establishment will cater to the T-shirt and surfing short trade--that will move into the 2,000-square-foot space occupied by the Lafayette. Lenney said he proposed an increase in Garcia’s rent from about $2,300 a month to nearly $6,500 in part because he faces expenses he says will total $600,000 to bring the building as a whole into compliance with earthquake safety standards.

The rent hike translates into a monthly rate of about $3.50 a square foot. Real estate agents questioned by The Times said the price represented the high end of the range for such space and that it did not take into account the highly seasonal nature of many Venice businesses, which traditionally thrive in the summer but suffer during the rest of the year.

Both Lenney and Arturo Garcia agree that Garcia was offered the option of remaining at the new rent, but that the marginally profitable Lafayette (Garcia said the coffee shop lost about $16,000 last year but is slightly in the black so far in 1985) could not generate enough revenue to afford the rent hike. Both men tried to negotiate a sale of the Lafayette to another restaurant operator, but none saw the establishment as economically viable at the new rent rate.

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Garcia said he was approached by several people who proposed extensive alterations that would have transformed the Lafayette into a comparatively high-priced restaurant catering to an upscale, dinner crowd. The Lafayette is currently open during the daytime only, shutting its doors at 4 p.m. and the Garcia brothers agreed a lack of parking in the area and the difficulties they would face obtaining a liquor license made success unlikely in such a new venture.

“There is a bunch of crazy people out there,” Arturo Garcia observed, gesturing toward the boardwalk. “Who’s gonna come to dinner?”

And so the Lafayette will close. Signs in the windows offer its kitchen equipment for sale and the brothers have posted neatly typed notices thanking their customers for years of loyal patronage.

The 12 people who work at the Lafayette will become unemployed. Some have been fixtures at the place for almost as long as McCulloch has been eating there.

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One of them is Rita Hathorn, a 16-year Lafayette veteran.

“I think I was 32 when I came here,” she said as she waited at the grill to pick up a breakfast order. “I’ll just try to find another job. It seems like they’re just squeezing my boss out.

“I’m kind of scared to start looking after that long. But I guess I’ll be all right, ‘cause 16 years in one place ought to be a great reference.”


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