The paint that covers Patrick's Roadhouse borders on the unappetizing -- think soggy yellow-green algae in a tidal pool. But Bill Fischler knew what he was doing when he chose the color in the early 1970s for his new eatery.
The eye-assaulting hue helped turn an otherwise lackluster building into one of the most recognizable landmarks on Pacific Coast Highway, and, with Fischler as alchemist, green became golden.
Long before he was elected governor, the young bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger was such a regular that Fischler commissioned for him a massive iron chair. It remains in Schwarzenegger's habitual spot because nobody but Ah-nuld can move the darn thing. He still pops in now and then for a plateful of bauernfruestueck (German farmer's breakfast), scrambled eggs with the works, renamed by chef Silvio Moreira in his honor as the Governator Special.
Through the years, other celebs including Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Goldie Hawn, Sean Penn and Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg have downed omelets, pies, burgers and melts while sitting on the same smooth wooden benches that, starting in 1890 -- long before PCH existed -- held waiting train passengers. Bill Clinton once showed up with his entourage because he had heard the burgers were good.
Adorning the menu is an image of a young Teri Garr from the early 1970s, when she was striving to put herself on the Hollywood map, giving her best impression of a weary waitress. The menu hasn't changed much, except for the prices (1974 regular burger: $1.35; 2007 regular burger: $5.50, a 300% increase.
Inside, the place is as always a kitschy cross between an old-style English tavern and an eccentric's antique store, with dark wood trim and a black-and-white linoleum floor. One observer has called it "Spago gone bad." Fischler, who died 10 years ago, collected World War II memorabilia, paintings of British royalty, presidential portraits, steer horns and even a deep-sea dive suit, complete with weighted boots.
Just inside the door, a fake snake is draped like a boa over a ceiling fan. A saddle straddles a short banister. An ascot that Clark Gable wore in "Gone With the Wind" is preserved under glass with a framed drawing of the actor as Rhett Butler famously clenching Vivien Leigh, his Scarlett.
"No Bloody Swearing," one bronze plaque reads. Says another: "On this site in 1897, nothing happened."
"The ambience is unlike anything else around," said Jim Wiatt, chairman and chief executive of the William Morris Agency, a regular. "It's not so much about whether the food is good, which it is, but it's just a good place to go. It's kind of a thing you just do."
The same might be said of how Bill Fischler, who had served in World War II as a bombardier on B-17s, got into the restaurant business: He just did.
Fischler was a prosperous retailing executive with a big house in Beverly Hills, nice cars and ample money until he and his wife decided to divorce. As his son Anthony recalls, Fischler told his wife she could have everything else as long as he got custody of their four children.
One warm afternoon in 1973, Fischler took his children to the beach and explained that "we were basically broke but that God would take care of us," Anthony recalled. Fischler then hustled the brood across PCH to a greasy spoon called Roy's, on Entrada Drive at the foot of Santa Monica Canyon.
Ever direct, Fischler told the owner that his hamburger was the worst he had ever tasted. The comment elicited an unexpected response from Roy, a middle-aged fellow with greasy hair and a potbelly, who started pulling off his dirty apron and hissed: "If you don't like it, why don't you buy the place and cook your own damn burger."
The next day, Fischler was flipping burgers. He wasn't a novice in the food business, having run a counter-top restaurant in South-West Africa, now Namibia, after World War II.
A frustrated actor, Fischler named the establishment Patrick's Place, after his son Patrick, who went on to become a successful character actor on TV. Fischler eventually settled on the name Patrick's Roadhouse. From then on, even many longtime customers would clap the elder Fischler on the back and call him Patrick, mistakenly assuming that the eatery's name was eponymous.
Fischler was a tough taskmaster, Anthony recalled, and parents in affluent Pacific Palisades and Malibu took advantage. "Parents in the neighborhood whose kids were out of control sent them here to work," Anthony said as he sipped iced tea in the front booth. "It was boot camp."
So persuasive was Fischler's presence even after his death that a cook once quit, claiming he had seen the boss' ghost sitting in the back of the restaurant.
Anthony said his father saved some of his choicest behavior for customers. Anyone who dared to complain about the food ran the risk of being held up to public ridicule as Fischler would grab the other customers' attention and excoriate the offender.
Still, patrons enjoyed the man whom Time magazine years ago dubbed the "hash slinger to the stars."
Ricky Butler, on break from New York University, remembers Bill Fischler running around, a bundle of energy who knew patrons by name. "I've been coming here since I was 8, and I'm now 21," Butler said as he devoured his usual ham and cheese omelet. "It's a mainstay of my life."
Under Silvio Moreira, a Portuguese immigrant and longtime employee who took over the operation a few years ago, the food has gotten fresher and better, many customers say.
The Food Network recently featured the restaurant in a segment on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives," and the spotlight resulted in a much-desired uptick in business.
Lately, the restaurant has had to counteract the impression that it is closed for remodeling. The chain-link fence and construction signs along PCH actually belong to the gas station in front, which is being rebuilt to include a mini-mart. The restaurant is now open only for breakfast and lunch. But after work on the gas station is completed, Moreira said, he plans to gear up to open in the evenings and possibly hold a regular Portuguese night. He is also seeking a liquor license.
"Slowly, we are moving the restaurant along," Moreira said. "It's evolving, and I'm having a great time."