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Before there was Hard Rock ...

Times Staff Writer

Your waiter, clad in prison gray, leads you to a table in a cell. The whole restaurant is designed to look like a jail, complete with bars on the windows and a “guard” on the roof. The cashier is dressed as a warden.

Cute, we’d think. Maybe we’d get into the spirit and say, “Hey, trusty, want your tip in cigarettes, har-de-har?” We’re used to this kind of kooky scene. We think nothing of going to an imitation outback Australian roadhouse for a steak, or a quasi-tropical bar for burgers and tacos.

But in 1925, when the Jail opened in Silver Lake, it was part of a startling new development. Instead of trying to suggest fancy home dining rooms, as restaurants always had, they started creating elaborate fantasy environments. There had been gestures toward this sort of thing elsewhere, notably Bernstein’s Fish Grotto in San Francisco (1912) with its entrance modeled on Columbus’ ship the Nina, but they’d always been isolated oddities.

L.A. picked up the ball and ran wild with it.

For a long time, visitors to town considered these “theme restaurants” our most characteristic eateries. Actually a minority among Los Angeles restaurants, they succeeded in capturing the imagination and the spotlight, just as they were intended to do.

For decades, there was no name for this sort of restaurant -- we’ve been calling them theme restaurants only since the 1970s. (And while there was a restaurant in town named the Theme Restaurant -- after its location, the Theme Building in the middle of Los Angeles International Airport -- it wasn’t a theme restaurant itself and didn’t give rise to the term. Encounter Restaurant has been there since 1997.) “Theme restaurant” was probably suggested by the post-Disneyland “theme parks,” which feature the same sort of detailed fantasy settings.

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These are different than “programmatic architecture” -- restaurants designed to look like a derby hat, for instance, or a hot dog. The Brown Derby may have resembled a hat on the outside, but inside it was just an ordinary swank restaurant. Programmatic architecture is about catching your eye from the street; theme is a dream environment that surrounds you when you’re inside.

When theme restaurants first appeared, they appealed to the giddy mood of a volatile young city. Between 1920 and 1930, Los Angeles’ population exploded from 576,673 to 1,238,048. A lot of the uprooted newcomers were expecting movie-like excitement in their new home, and restaurants could easily find moonlighting set designers to provide it. For that matter, film people liked to eat in these exotic settings themselves, and they set the fashions around here.

Another reason for the spate of theme restaurants was that L.A.'s food tastes were overwhelmingly Midwestern in the 1920s, with a bit of Southern cooking in the mix, so all restaurant menus tended to be pretty much the same. When every place in town was serving steak, fried chicken and grilled cheese sandwiches, a colorful theme could help a restaurant stand out. The Jail’s menu, for instance, was chicken, biscuits and corn pone.

One of the first theme restaurants was Ye Bull Pen Inn on Hope Street downtown, which had a dining room divided into stalls and -- shocking in 1920 -- walls of rough, unfinished wood. (And guess what was on Ye Bull Pen’s menu ... steak.)

The next year, the Green Mill was built in Culver City as a place for travelers to break that long trip by country road between downtown, which was still the residential center of Los Angeles, and Venice Beach. It was designed in the form of a green windmill with a windmill motif inside. In 1922, it burned down and was rebuilt as a “cafe of oriental design” featuring a mammoth windmill of East Indian style “which will turn majestically, lifting water from one lagoon to others.”

Needless to say, an East Indian windmill needed domes, spires, arches and “sweeping mosque roof lines.” What did the exotic Green Windmill serve? Southern fried chicken.

In 1922, a newspaper story described a coffeehouse designed, like the Jail, to look like a prison. Here people scratched their names on the walls, as if they were convicts whiling away the hours. A downtown seafood restaurant, it said, was designed to look like a ship. It was one of several ship-theme restaurants that have graced town at various times. The Ship Cafe on Venice Pier was a particularly fashionable restaurant in the later 1920s.

Tiki restaurants started showing up in the 1920s, culminating in the influential Don the Beachcomber’s (1934), which dispensed Cantonese food and rum cocktails in a romantic bamboo-lined room suggesting the South Seas. For some reason, though, the Tropical Inn that opened at the corner of Washington and Culver boulevards in 1926 featured Moorish architecture and its tropical menu was squab, hot biscuits and fried chicken.

That same year, the Movie Studio Cafe opened in a former movie studio, right across Lankershim Boulevard from Universal Studio. Film sets surrounded the stage and celebrity photos papered the walls; the night before it opened, there was a “preview showing” for the press.

In 1927, a restaurant named the Cliff Dwellers appeared on the bluff above Beverly Boulevard at the corner of Virgil Avenue. It was lavishly decorated with Mexican and Southwestern pueblo art and fabrics, and the ubiquitous fried chicken was served “without tools” -- meaning without knife or fork.

The theme craze died down during the Depression. In the Fred Astaire age, diners seemed to be looking for sleek elegance rather than wacky exoticism. It was an age of chrome railings and red leather.

After World War II, those theme restaurants serving surf and turf or Continental cuisine had a sort of revival, but without the eccentricity of the ‘20s. Mostly they had sober historical themes -- the Middle Ages, Colonial times, the Victorian age. During the 1970s, upscale diners became foodies and went questing for authentic French cuisine. Theme places fell out of fashion again.

But they didn’t disappear.

L.A.'s oldest theme restaurant is the still-vigorous Tam O’Shanter in Atwater Village. It has a Disney-esque, artfully ramshackle roof that looked hundreds of years old even when the place was built in 1922. (It’s probably no accident that Walt Disney was a regular customer for years.)

The roof actually predates the baronial Scottish theme of the interior. For their architect, owners Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp hired Harris Oliver, who’d designed an ultrapicturesque Hollywood landmark named the Willatt Movie Studio in a similar fantasy-antique style. Oliver had already designed the blue Dutch mills that symbolized their chain of Van de Kamp bakeries.

They asked Oliver to make their new restaurant look “like something from Old Normandy.” (Norman decor was oddly fashionable in the 1920s; the last gasp of the fad was probably the Fantasyland castle at Disneyland.) When the quaint place failed as Chantecler, they renamed it after a character in a poem by Robert Burns, dressed the waitresses in plaid and, as the Tam O’Shanter, it was a success.

In keeping with the theme restaurant pattern, the Tam O’Shanter’s original menu was “country-style” frankfurters, pumpkin pie, hot potato salad, waffles and the everlasting fowl.

Today, the Tam O’Shanter menu goes for a Scottish/English motif -- toad in the hole, Scottish rarebit and prime rib -- slightly diluted with popular indiscretions like Caesar salad and Cajun popcorn.

The genie has been out of the bottle for the better part of a century, and in fact it’s been stretching its limbs lately. New restaurant chains above the fast-food level usually have a theme of some kind -- Outback Steakhouse, Kahunaville, Ed Debevic’s, Buca di Beppo. There are theme restaurants all around the world these days.

And while the themes may be new, one thing hasn’t changed at all. These places are colorful, but serve exotic or cutting-edge food about as often as ... well, the Jail did in 1925.


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