It's Schwab's, Though Not So Original

For years we have witnessed the Westsidefication of Ventura Boulevard. Exhibits A through Z are the restaurants. Toscana, Cha Cha Cha, Versailles and Amazon are but a few that were cloned from originals south of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Still, it was surprising to stumble upon a new joint that calls itself The Original Schwab's Grill. Now this seemed a cheeky claim. The original Schwab's, as movie buffs know, was the Hollywood landmark with a clientele that included the likes of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and the Marx Brothers. In its heyday, Charlie Chaplin might step behind the fountain to make his own milkshakes, Gloria Swanson would shop for cosmetics and pretty girls would sit at the counter, hoping to be discovered, just like Lana Turner.

Schwab's was a star itself in the film "Sunset Boulevard." Having been rebuffed by Sheldrake, the studio chief, screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) delivered this line to the audience: "After that, I drove down to headquarters. That's the way a lot of us think about Schwab's. Kind of a combination office, coffee klatch and waiting room. Waiting, waiting for the gravy train."

That Schwab's, the one that everyone considers the honest-to-goodness original, evolved into a tourist trap and closed its doors in 1983. But there is no statute of limitations on legends. So any place that tries to pass itself off as "The Original Schwab's" has some explaining to do.

The Latman brothers, Rick and Nat, are ready. The Schwab's at Sunset and Crescent Heights, Rick points out, was a pharmacy that had a lunch counter. Their Schwab's, which opened in Encino two weeks ago, is only a purveyor of food, not food and drugs.

A technical point. But who gave the Latmans the right to call their place Schwab's?

Their grandfather, Leon Schwab, did.

When Leon and his surviving brothers decided to shut down the 51-year-old family business in 1983, just about everything was auctioned off. The rights to the Schwab name, however, stayed in the family. And though the Latman boys readily acknowledge that not every member of the Schwab clan necessarily approves of their venture, grandfather has given his blessings.

"They're doing pretty good," says Leon Schwab, 83. "They think it's a big thing."

They certainly hope it's a big thing, though it would be hard to match the success of the four Schwab brothers. The sons of Polish immigrants, Jack, Leon, Bernard and Martin Schwab owned six pharmacies at the peak of their success. Leon's grandsons are now following in their footsteps, teaming up to form a new incarnation of the family business. Rick, a 28-year-old investment banker, has handled the financial end of the venture, while Nat, a veteran of the restaurant business, oversees operations.

The way Rick tells the story, each Schwab brother played a specific role in their collective success, but it was their grandfather who might be considered the master strategist, selecting the location close to the old RKO, Republic and Columbia movie studios. He also gave Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky a second-floor office. Skolsky reciprocated with a monthly magazine feature called "From a Stool at Schwab's." He once declared that "at Schwab's they operate on the notion that Joe Doakes is just as important to Joe Doakes as Lana Turner is to Lana Turner."

Leon may have passed down the gene for chutzpah to his grandsons. If all goes according to plan, The Original Schwab's Grill will clone more eateries called The Original Schwab's Grills.

This may not say much for the concept of originality, but then The Original Schwab's Grill does not exactly offer an original concept. What they offer is a twist on a common theme. It's another retro diner that evokes the 1940s and 1950s with its decor, movie posters and a menu that features several items you may have found at Schwab's on Sunset, such as the French dip (excuse me--"Joe's Famous French Dip"). The twist comes with such '90s fare as the Pure Vegetable Burger and the tres L.A. dish that is Jody Maroni's Original Sausage. (There's that word again.)

Does the world really need another retro diner? "The answer is no," says Rick Latman. For Schwab's Grill to succeed, he says, it will have to make it as "a family diner" that offers good food, reasonable prices and excellent service. The hope, he says, is to capture at least a fraction of that magic.

The famous name is a head start. The other night, it made me pull over. I couldn't help but think of the legend of Lana Turner's discovery. (Leon Schwab, incidentally, swears the story is true, despite reports to the contrary.) Stepping inside, I couldn't help but think that somebody like Sherry Lansing would take one look and decide to put me in the movies.

But the place was empty. The lunch trade may be brisk. But on that night, at that moment, I was the only customer.

So here I am, stuck with the same gig. Maybe a fresh approach, a new name, something original, would help. Perhaps: "From a Stool at The Original Schwab's Grill."

Or maybe not.

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

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