Googie Fans Have Goo-Goo Eyes for L.A. Coffee Shop
Johnie’s Coffee Shop Restaurant can no longer offer visitors burgers and fries. But it can serve up a taste of an architectural style that’s quickly disappearing.
Sitting at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, Johnie’s is a prime example of Googie, a style of architecture that flourished during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Named after a now demolished Los Angeles coffee shop at Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards, the Googie style is marked by upswept roofs, bright lights, large windows and shapes that evoke the Space Age.
The Googie style fell out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s, when many of the coffee shops, gas stations, motels and shopping centers that exemplified the look were either remodeled or torn down.
It’s unclear whether Johnie’s might share the same fate.
“Johnie’s, and the style it represents, tells us as much about that period in L.A. history as the bungalows of Pasadena told us about the 1900s or the missions told us about 19th century Southern California,” said Alan Hess, author of two books on Googie architecture. “The building embodies all of the changes in L.A.: becoming suburban, auto-oriented, also becoming a city of the future.”
Built in 1955 by Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, Johnie’s began as Romeo’s Times Square. Its creators were known as premier designers of Space Age coffee shops. The pair also designed the landmark Pann’s coffee shop in Ladera Heights and several Bob’s Big Boy restaurants.
Googie focused on combining the primitive and futuristic: neon lights and geometric shapes mixed with stone columns and lush greenery. The idea was to grab the attention of drivers and beckon them in. Googie coffee shops were sleek, smooth and lively. And Romeo’s was no exception.
Romeo’s stood directly across from the May Co. department store on Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile. Glass windows encased the building, allowing passersby to see inside. The kitchen was in plain view so customers could watch their food being cooked. Leather counter seats appeared suspended in air, thanks to a cantilevered design. A mural of Manhattan’s Times Square and New York City occupied the west wall.
Outside, Romeo’s was spelled in massive neon lights. Its striped roof sat on rock columns like a spaceship ready to take off. The rest of the roof dropped toward the back of the restaurant, soared to the sky and ended in a sharp decline, giving the illusion of movement.
“The intent of the restaurant was to catch your eye and to bring you in off the street,” said Victor Newlove, president of Armet Davis Newlove Architects. “It was to say to you, ‘Come on in and eat.’ Other restaurants, you would fall asleep as you go by, but not the restaurants we did. The restaurants we did were snappy.”
Romeo’s was in business a few years. It became Ram’s in the early ‘60s and Johnie’s not long after.
The restaurant is perhaps best known as the setting for the opening of the 1988 cult film “Miracle Mile,” in which a patron learns that a nuclear war is about to begin.
The property was purchased by the Gold family, founders of the 99 Cents Only Stores, in 1994. Johnie’s closed in 2000. The family leases the Johnie’s parking lot to the Wilshire Boulevard 99 Cents Only outlet two doors away.
“The Johnie’s that’s there has been so butchered over the years that it’s kind of like a shadow of its former self,” Newlove said. “It’s sad to go by and see it.”
The Gold family has yet to draw up plans for the building, but they recognize the power of its unique architecture. Eric Schiffer, president of 99 Cents Only Stores and son-in-law of David Gold, the company’s chief executive and founder, said the family recently gave the building a partial makeover. They restored Johnie’s neon lights, repainted its facade and fixed its roof.
Schiffer said well-known restaurants and fast-food chains such as Carl’s Jr. and Krispy Kreme have at times expressed interest in the building, but the plans fell through.
“This needs to be done in a special way,” he said. “We’re open to hearing creative uses. We just don’t have time to go out and market [the building].”
The coffee shop was used in a 1999 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers music video, “Swingin,’ ” and is seen in several movies, including “Volcano,” starring Tommy Lee Jones, and “The Big Lebowski,” starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman.
Tall bushes hide the building’s facade, its windows now partly covered by concrete. In one window hangs a sign that reads “Available for Filming. For more info call (323) 881-991.” The final digit has somehow vanished.
White lights blink along Johnie’s blue and white striped roof. Most of the large letters in “Johnie’s Coffee Shop Restaurant” sport bright neon red lights, while others have burned out.
Despite these blemishes, the coffee shop still looks like something straight out of “The Jetsons.” The interior transports one back to the 1950s. Yellowed receipts for writing orders, a rotating wheel for a waitress to get orders to the cook and a large metal cash register with columns of push buttons for dollars and cents.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Ben Moon, site manager for the coffee shop. “It’s the same place.”
Terrazzo floors lead to orange and white leather booths that sit empty. Brown stones with turquoise fin shapes line the rear walls.
But in Johnie’s 49-year existence, somehow one thing did change: the mural of Times Square was replaced with a painting of dogs in sports jackets having drinks at a bar.
Googie aficionados would like to see the structure transformed into a restaurant emphasizing both food and architecture.
“In addition to being a dynamic piece of architecture, [Johnie’s] could be a great community gathering again,” said Chris Nichols, outreach chairman for the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee. “It sits at a great cultural crossroads between Beverly Hills and [Miracle Mile]. It’s got such great potential. It’s sad to see it wasting away.”