The city of Vernon is under pressure to change, but a push is on to keep at least one thing in this 5-square-mile industrial city the same.
That’s La Villa Basque, a 1960s-era landmark used as a location to film the television show “Mad Men.” Even as state lawmakers seek to dissolve the city around it, Los Angeles-area preservationists are campaigning to convince the restaurant’s new operators not to remodel and modernize it.
The operators are giving La Villa Basque a new name, “Vivere,” and a sign in front boasts “New Chef, New Menu, New Vibe.”
But leaders of the Los Angeles Conservancy say the restaurant’s Googie-style coffee shop, its elegant dining room and plush Rat Pack martini lounge should not lose the “authentic character” that makes the place a throwback to another era.
La Villa Basque was built in 1960 by former Vernon Mayor and City Councilman Leonis Malburg, grandson of Vernon’s founder, in a nod to his family’s Basque heritage. At the time, it was the only restaurant in the city.
The restaurant was designed to serve everyone from lunching businessmen to truck drivers to wedding parties, and preservationists extol its hybrid character: It is part coffee shop, part lounge, part fine dining establishment and part banquet hall — each with a separate entrance.
That was in better times. After serving more than a half-century on Vernon’s City Council, owner Malburg resigned under fire in 2009. Last year, he was ordered to pay $500,000 in fines and reimbursements to the city after being found guilty of voter fraud and conspiracy because he pretended to live in Vernon while residing in Hancock Park. As part of his sentence, Malburg, 81, was banned from ever holding public office again.
The voter fraud scandal was a preview of the current controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Vernon’s electorate and its rarely held elections. Many of the city’s 95 residents have connections to city leaders, and pending state legislation would dissolve Vernon’s municipal government and make the tax-rich city part of unincorporated Los Angeles County. The Los Angeles City Council voted to support the dissolution earlier this month.
Doron Dahan, the owner of a Vernon wholesale decor company who has taken over operation of the restaurant and is overseeing upgrades, said Malburg was planning to close the restaurant in February, gut it and turn it into warehouse space.
He insists he has performed the ultimate act of preservation at La Villa Basque: He’s saved it from shutting down. “We’re trying to bring it up to date so it can cover its expenses,” Dahan said.
“We’re business guys, we’re not in restoration. But we’re going to try to leave as much of it as we can like it is. We’re keeping the place alive,” he said.
“Most restaurants do an upgrade every seven years,” said Joe Eagan, one of its managers. “We’re just doing stuff that needs to be done.”
Malburg has an office in the three-story Leonis Malburg Building on Leonis Boulevard next to the restaurant. He was said to be ill and not available for comment.
The Los Angeles Conservancy’s interest in La Villa Basque is centered on what its leaders call the restaurant’s “unique and original” atmosphere.
The group staged its annual volunteer appreciation party there last year as 120 conservancy supporters admired the restaurant’s textured stone-aggregate exterior walls and faux flagstone “flagcrete” exterior accents.
The restaurant’s “exuberant signage is unmistakably ‘60s,” according to the conservancy.
The interior features polished terrazzo floors in the coffee shop, where wooden and Masonite accent panels frame a Formica-topped countertop. An October 1961 calendar is posted behind the serving area and magazines such as the November 1960 True — with a “What’s New in 1961 Cars” cover story — are scattered about.
Polished metal chandeliers with upright lighting fixtures hang over white tablecloths in the adjacent dining room. Beyond a foyer built around a massive hood-covered mosaic fireplace (which has been turned into a small pond) is the darkened lounge.
“Mad Men” filmed a scene for an episode titled “The Suitcase” at the leather-padded bar. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and executive producer, said his actors and crew appreciated that the restaurant’s 1960s look was intact.
“It is a fact that destroying it or ‘updating’ it is the worst thing to do both for shooting purposes and the commercial life of the restaurant,” Weiner said.
On the wall behind the bar is a framed copy of Life magazine featuring Frank Sinatra in the cover photo.
“If Frank was to walk in here right now he’d feel right at home with the Rat Pack,” Eagan said.
But the lounge’s plush leather banquettes have become worn and ripped and “you could poke your finger right through” the surface of the soffit that hangs over the bar, he said.
“The chandeliers there in the dining room sometimes sway when big trucks go by. And you really can’t replicate these old booths.”
Many of those currently patronizing the restaurant say they come for the food, not the atmosphere, however.
“There’s something nostalgic about it,” diner Joyce Carl said. “But you aren’t going to come here for the decor.”
Vernon historian John Kruissink described the restaurant as a “really iconic place, historically, in Vernon.” But he said there were doubts it could remain profitable now.
Eagan said he envisions the makeover attracting a new clientele from among artists and designers who work for Vernon-based businesses.
A “preservation alert” issued by the conservancy warned that “work is proceeding very quickly” on the remodeling.
Workers have already ripped out a pair of banquet rooms and begun construction of a larger single space. They are calling that their new “event center.”
Conservancy Executive Director Linda Dishman is urging their group’s supporters to patronize La Villa Basque and help lobby restaurant operators to maintain its mid-century atmosphere.
“That place is such a jewel in a place that doesn’t have many jewels,” she said.