Historically, L.A. restaurants have shared the same fate as their famous celebrity patrons in that they are the hot spots du jour then fade away, not to be heard from again. But a handful of eateries from bygone eras have made a lasting impact on the Southern California landscape that reflects a progressive evolution in the region’s architecture. The University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara has dug into its extensive collection to chronicle a select few restaurants that defined the lifestyle changes in L.A. in the early and mid 20th century with its exhibition “Sardi’s to Orange Julius ?.” On view are 50 images representing eight projects from concept to completion, including presentation sketches, model photos and memorabilia such as menu design and upholstery samples. The show features the designs of five architects: J.R. Davidson, Maynard Lyndon, Kem Weber, Edward A. Killingsworth and Rudolph M. Schindler.
“There was a rising sense of opportunity in California in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and many architects wanted to help envision what our region could become,” said Kathryn Kanjo, museum director.
Drive-ins rose to prominence during this period as architects were being tapped and commissioned by restaurateurs to redesign their buildings with more curb appeal. They used dramatic space-age signage, sleek lines, unique facade treatments and shiny chrome. “At the time there was a stigma designing for commercial enterprise -- drive-ins weren’t considered ‘real’ architecture, as it was utilitarian for the masses,” said Alan Hess, architecture critic and author of “Googie Redux.” “It wasn’t a beautiful custom home.”
Hess mentions the influence of L.A. architect Wayne McAlister, whose work isn’t on display but whose contributions to the drive-in culture were significant with his design of the Simon’s Drive-In restaurants in L.A. and the classic Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank that remains standing today.
Lyndon’s sketches of the first Orange Julius franchise can be viewed at the exhibit. The chain originated as a roadside stand on South Broadway in 1926 but needed a more distinctive, familiar look as it began to open more stores in the early ‘60s, so Lyndon designed a streamlined modern space with standardized steel modules to hold 12-foot glass windows.
There was also careful consideration of the interior of restaurants. Eddie Brandstatter, proprietor of Sardi’s on Hollywood Boulevard, commissioned Schindler to remodel the interior of his place. He gutted the three-story building, transforming it into one level, sculpting the space by terracing the floor, giving volume to a massive area and creating an inviting space for people to party. Schindler added customized features such as revolving hatracks and distinctive materials such as polished chrome, gold leaf and sanded glass.
Although some architecturally interesting restaurants have been erected in recent years, the designs of the early to mid-20th century eateries were considered pioneering.
Luckily, a few key buildings remain, such as Ben Frank’s Coffee Shop (now a Mel’s Drive-In on Sunset Boulevard), Pann’s Restaurant & Coffee Shop on La Tijera Boulevard and a Norms restaurant on La Cienega.
The exhibit runs through Sept. 27.