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Restaurant buildings have eclectic, not-so-hidden pasts

The story goes that restaurateur Herbert Somborn created the original Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard after a friend issued this challenge: “If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”

OK, but what about a gas station or a church -- or a mortuary?

No problem. In Southern California, movie sets change every day, and so do buildings: Numerous eateries have unusual real-life pasts. After the Holly Street Bar and Grill moved into the onetime home of the Turner & Stevens Mortuary in 1986, arriving diners might be heard to crack something along the lines of, “The last time I was in here was for Uncle John’s funeral.”

In such cases, former owner Lexanne Nassif joked, “We’d say [to the deceased’s kin], ‘OK, OK, keep it down.’ ”

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An early Times review of the restaurant said, “Pasadenans like to startle their friends by revealing that the building was once a mortuary. If it’s any comfort, the dining room was the garage.”

But that was two decades ago. Holly Street was recently reincarnated as the Eden Garden Bar & Grill, and owner Tania Moriarty said the subject doesn’t come up much anymore. But, she added, if someone asks whether it’s true about the brick building’s mortuary period, “sure, we tell them.”

In Orange’s Old Towne section, PJ’s Abbey restaurant, with its steeple, wooden siding and stained glass windows, resembles the religious sanctuary it once was: the First Baptist Church of Orange (est. 1893). In the waiting room these days, customers wishing to pray that they’ll get a table soon can sit in some of the old pews.

After the church turned into a restaurant in 1996, the atmosphere inside remained quiet, general manager Joe Curtis said. But now “it gets pretty hot in here,” he added, referring to the addition of a jazz band that starts wailing every Sunday at 11 a.m.

The place was also livened up three years ago by the installation of a bar. It’s stationed behind the former pulpit, perhaps for imbibers who don’t want to imagine a minister is watching them. The Abbey is “becoming known for our Belgian beers,” Curtis said proudly.

A few blocks away, the 9-year-old Filling Station Cafe has an antique Richfield pump in the lobby. It says gasoline is 12 cents a gallon and draws customers whose favorite joke is “Fill ‘er up.” Manager John Hughes says some of the diners remember when the 96-year-old building housed Baker’s Service Station.

“I talked to one guy who pumped gas here in the 1940s while he was in high school,” Hughes said. “One time he left the [gas] hose in the car and the car drove away. He remembered Mr. Baker running after the driver and coming back with the hose.”

Engine Co. No. 28 on Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles is another restaurant whose origins are not difficult to divine, especially because the old firehouse still displays its nameplate.

The interior has been changed, of course, although a brass pole remains in the main dining area. The pole is off limits to customers

El Toro Cantina’s building on Wilshire Boulevard in the Los Angeles Miracle Mile area also offers a clue to its beginnings: a camera facade, complete with lens and shutter-speed indicator.

The landmark building was originally the Darkroom, a supply shop for photographers built in 1938. This was a whimsical period when merchants thought they could attract the attention of passing motorists with buildings shaped like the products they were selling. Motorists drove more leisurely back then.

Today, curious passersby who gaze into the lens see a bit of live entertainment: it holds an aquarium filled with fish.

Less obvious is the story behind Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills. Most who meet in the restaurant’s private dining room are unaware that it is a former bank vault, a spokesman said. Of course, the room has changed quite a bit since the building was occupied by Gibraltar Savings Bank. Note: The vault’s steel door has been removed.

The origins of other restaurant structures in L.A., especially those dating back to the 19th century, are more elusive.

The current home of Philippe’s sandwich shop is in a onetime red-light district on North Alameda Street, indicating it may have once been a brothel.

Another clue is the numerous doorways and dining rooms on its second floor.

A second L.A. eatery thought to be in similarly notorious digs was Little Pedro’s on East 1st Street. Little Pedro’s is gone now and the premises are occupied by a nightclub that does not shy away from the area’s racy heritage. Its name: Bordello.

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steveharvey9@gmail.com


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