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At this Burbank deli, they came for the pastrami but stayed for the cartoons

The walls of Moore's Delicatessen feature artwork by members of Hollywood's animation community.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Go past the front counter, the beer taps and the chalkboard menu. Then step inside the back room.

That’s where you’d find the Animator’s Room at Moore’s Delicatessen, where each white wall was covered in cartoons by well-known and respected animators, illustrators, storyboarders and artists. For nearly a decade, members of Hollywood’s animation community — from Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros. and more — flocked to the beloved Burbank eatery to leave their mark on the walls.

“I noticed that they were always doodling on the napkins,” Robert Moore, the deli’s owner, recently told The Times. “So I asked them — I bought them some Sharpies, and I said, ‘You guys draw on the wall, and then sign it and date it.’ And so that’s how it started.”

Before the deli shuttered on Aug. 31, yet another California small business to go under during the pandemic, its walls featured big names such as Stephen Hillenburg, the late creator of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” who drew the character Patrick Star with a Krabby Patty on his mind.

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A two-minute walk away from Cartoon Network Studios, Moore’s Deli was just about to turn 10 before it closed due to lack of business. “It’s horrible to close down a dream that you had for 10 years,” Moore said. “But I think it’s just a sign of the times — to move on and start something new.”

After Moore was forced to close the deli — he was throwing away menus as he spoke to The Times last week — he wasn’t sure what to do with the art on his walls. He thought about cutting out individual pieces and holding an auction, but his landlord certainly wouldn’t be on board.

“It’s like a Banksy situation,” said storyboard artist Kent Osborne, referring to the British street artist’s installations, which are sometimes sold by removing the wall they were painted on.

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A drawing of Patrick Star, from the cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants," drawn by SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg.
A drawing of Patrick Star, from “SpongeBob SquarePants,” drawn by SpongeBob creator Stephen Hillenburg.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Osborne and Moore go way back. In 2010, when Osborne was working on “Adventure Time,” the popular Cartoon Network series, he and his colleagues were looking for a place to watch the show’s premiere. A local pub fell through and Moore suggested a watch party at the deli.

“It was his idea, and I was kind of like the liaison. I told everybody,” Osborne said. “It was his idea to have everybody draw on the walls. He said, ‘I have a big thing of markers, and everyone’s going to draw on the walls.’ It just seemed really crazy, because it was these nice, pristine white walls.”

They wouldn’t be blank for long.

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Robert Ryan Cory, a former character designer on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” stepped up and inked the first drawing: SpongeBob holding a spatula. Cory, who had recently switched jobs to Cartoon Network, also included a joking caption: “Nickelodeon sucks,” he wrote.

"Kung Fu Panda's" Po, SpongeBob SquarePants, and "Phineas and Ferb's" Ferb, among others, grace the walls.
“SpongeBob SquarePants” character designer Robert Ryan Cory drew the deli’s first piece: SpongeBob holding a spatula.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The line was in jest, but when Cartoon Network executives saw it, they wanted it painted over. “You gotta get that taken care of,” they told Moore. He did: Now SpongeBob grips his spatula sans caption.

That spirit of friendly rivalry was a common currency throughout the Burbank animation community. Osborne, for instance, has worked at Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. The deli was where he went to bump into friends at other studios.

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Sean Szeles, a writer on Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show,” sketched the show’s blue jay Mordecai character. The creator of Cartoon Network’s “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack,” Thurop Van Orman, who also voiced the title character, immortalized Flapjack, a one-toothed boy.

A T. rex and pterodactyl duo drawn on the wall drool over the deli's signature City Hall pastrami sandwich.
The creators of “Kung Fu Panda” drew a T. rex and pterodactyl drooling over Moore’s Deli’s signature City Hall pastrami sandwich.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

From the creators of the “Kung Fu Panda” movie came a T. rex and a pterodactyl drooling over one of the deli’s signature City Hall sandwiches.

“Pen Ward [of ‘Adventure Time’] drew Lumpy Space Princess, and suddenly it was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is a really cool gallery,’” Osborne said. “It was fun to go in over the years and see new additions.”

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Every regular seemed to treasure his or her own piece of deli lore. For Osborne, that meant giving the restaurant a cameo in his 2015 film “Uncle Kent 2,” which premiered at the South by Southwest festival. (Moore let the crew film a scene in the front room.)

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“The absolute best thing about this place is that in the men’s room, above the urinal is a photograph of a waterfall,” Osborne joked of the deli in one of the two Yelp reviews he’s ever written.

“Thanks a lot,” his friend Moore told him.

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For Ian Jones-Quartey, creator of the animated series “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes,” his own deli legend was an inside joke about Cartoon Network’s show “Mad.” At one point during a watch party, Moore’s clientele “booed” the show. A couple of months later, “Mad” clapped back in an episode called “Avenger Time.”

“I see the crews of other cartoons sitting in a deli complaining about ‘Mad,’ like a bunch of sissies,” says a character called the Watcher, looking into the future.

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Not all of the restaurant’s appeal was reserved for animators, though. Fans would come to watch parties too — and add to the walls on occasion. And anyone, of course, could come to see the art.

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“A lot of times, walls like that will be in a studio, so they’ll be a little restrained,” Jones-Quartey said. “Or you won’t get to see different people’s characters all together, and I think that’s what was special about it.”

For Jorge R. Gutierrez, creator of “El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera,” seeing drawings from folks across the animation community felt like “visiting old friends.” He’ll never forget the moment his 2-year-old son, Luka, pulled down his dad’s pants as he etched the superhero El Tigre character onto the deli’s wall.

"Spongebob Squarepants'" pet snail Gary, Disney's Minnie Mouse and "Avatar: The Last Airbender's" Momo and Aang on the wall.
“SpongeBob SquarePants’” pet snail Gary, Disney’s Minnie Mouse and “Avatar: The Last Airbender’s” Momo and Aang at Moore’s Deli.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“I feel like it was like our version of when you go into a small diner … and they have the celebrity pictures on the wall of the people who came in,” Jones-Quartey said.

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But business fell by 80% when the pandemic took hold, Moore said, and his landlord still wanted full rent. Although the landlord offered to defer payments, the restaurant’s lease was up a couple of months ago. It’s been “a mountain of debt,” Moore said.

And yet he felt blessed to be there.

Before the deli, Moore oversaw the food at Dodger Stadium, where concessions are run by the Levy restaurant and hospitality company.

“I was so miserable working for the corporate machine of Levy restaurants; I had to do something of my own,” he said.

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When his deli opened in October 2010, Moore was following his dream — and in his grandparents’ footsteps. They had opened their own delicatessen on San Francisco’s Union Street in 1946.

The deli’s run was “all fun,” Moore said, and he has no regrets. But, of course, he was sad to see it come to an end.

“That’s all folks,” he wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page to announce its closure. “Thank you for 10 wonderful years.”

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“I thought, what’s the best way to do it?” Moore said. “And I thought about Porky Pig. He said, ‘That’s all, folks.’ I think that was very appropriate to bid adieu to everybody in Burbank.”


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