And for the Magic Castle’s next trick: Food that’s worth talking about
It’s not easy to score an invitation to the Magic Castle. Opened in 1963 in a baroque chateâuesque mansion, Hollywood’s legendary private clubhouse and headquarters for the Academy of Magical Arts is a glorious relic of entertainment eras past and still considered one of the preeminent magic destinations in the world.
Members go through an extensive application process; the only way for guests to gain access is by snagging a formal invitation from one of them. A night at the Castle is a nearly guaranteed good time, except for one thing: the required dinner before the show, where the food over the years has been laughably overpriced and mediocre. (“This place does magic tricks on your wallet. It can make your money magically ... disappear!” complained one guest on Yelp in 2005. “Delicious? Nope.”)
“I used to go up and park my car there, walk down to Musso & Frank’s for dinner, then walk back,” said Beverly Glen-based magician James Lewis, 66, a member for 44 years. “Even [former Magic Castle president] Jim Steinmeyer wrote in the member newsletter that he used to stop at In-N-Out on the way home,” Lewis recalled.
But now, the Castle is pulling a new rabbit out of its hat.
In April, the Castle hired a new chef, Jason Fullilove, who previously cooked at Culver City restaurant Barbara Jean (now closed) and Malibu Pier Restaurant & Bar. He’s attempting to spiff up the menu with dishes such as tagliatelle with lump crab and uni, za’atar spiced chicken with sweet potato latkes, and Meyer lemon and coconut doughnuts.
“I want people to talk about the food as much as the magic,” he said. “I want to slowly modernize the menu, and make it more competitive with what’s available in the rest of Los Angeles.” That means gradually introducing new dishes and finding ways to update bestsellers like prime rib and beef Wellington.
“I’m aware that some of those standbys are important to the place, and members will lose their minds if I take them away. But I can work within a box,” Fullilove said.
Fullilove’s hire is the latest stop in the long and sometimes winding road of the Castle’s food and drink program. Since its inception, the menu has leaned toward a classic steakhouse style. Members recall steak sandwiches, banquet-style roasts and cinnamon-laced dinner rolls. Other notable offerings included an “award-winning” chili (it is unclear which award it received) and something called the Festal Board, a sort of proto-salad bar that savvy members approached with caution: “It was not necessarily well-managed during the day,” said mentalist Max Maven, 68, of the Hollywood Hills, a member who has been coming to the Castle since 1978. “Those of us who knew avoided certain items, like shrimp.”
But magic has always been the main attraction at the Magic Castle. “It’s fair to say that in the early days, the club did not have very high goals with the restaurant,” Maven said. “It was meant to be serviceable food.” As the Castle aged, the quality of the food continued to not be a top priority. By the mid-2000s, food was being subcontracted to an outside caterer.
Things began to change in 2012 with the arrival of general manager Joe Furlow. When Furlow came on, the Castle was in financial decline after the death of Bill Larsen, who founded the club with his wife, Irene, and brother Milt, and suffering physically after a devastating 2011 fire.
“The club had lost its identity, and management didn’t have its finger on the pulse of where we needed to be,” Furlow said. Under the direction of then-president Neil Patrick Harris, Furlow’s task was to improve the Magic Castle experience on every level.
Within his first 90 days, Furlow replaced 13 out of 15 managers, fired the chef and started searching for a replacement. “The food was inedible as far as I was concerned,” he said. “Everything was wrong.”
Complicating matters further are a small kitchen, dated equipment (including a refrigerator salvaged from a naval ship in Long Beach in the 1950s) and timing constraints around the magic acts.
Over the years Furlow brought in new back-of-the-house talent, including the club’s first-ever full-time sommelier, Ian Pritchard, who started last year.
Furlow’s efforts appear to have paid off: When he joined in 2012, the Castle earned $8.7 million in total revenue, $4.8 million of which came from food and beverage; last year, total revenue was up to $20.2 million, $13.2 million of which was tied to dining. Members can eat (or just drink) at the bar or in the dining room; guests are required to have a dinner reservation and must order an entree.
With Fullilove, Furlow has found a chef who also wants to make improvements outside of the kitchen. On his to-do list for coming months: revitalizing the Castle’s now-dormant herb and vegetable garden and revamping the $250-a-person private chef’s table in the Houdini Seance Room.
Longtime visitors to the Castle say they like what they see.
“The menu has not radically changed, but it has changed,” Maven said, “and I think that’s a good thing.”
He was intrigued by the vadouvan fried chicken bites with kimchi and Sriracha mayo at the bar (“I don’t think I’ve ever had that combination of flavors, but I like that it was making a statement”) and impressed by the doughnuts that a tablemate ordered, wisely, in advance (they later sold out). “I’m glad that things aren’t stagnant,” he said.
On the first night of the new menu rollout a few weeks ago, the atmosphere in the kitchen was calm: Waiters piped soft butter through a pastry bag into neatly pointed curlicues; line cooks snapped photos of proper plating technique for a new grilled flatbread dish; the sous chef tasted a bite of glistening prime rib.
At 5 p.m., the doors to the Castle opened, and members and their guests, adhering to the club’s strict formal dress code, began filtering into the first-floor bar. They sipped drinks and tried in vain to stump Invisible Irma, the club’s self-playing piano. An hour later, about half of the people trundled upstairs for the first dinner seating.
Things move quickly from here: Everyone slotted for the 6 p.m. seating must be hustled through a drink, appetizer, entree and ideally dessert with enough time to be seated for their 8 p.m. ticketed magic show in the Palace Theater down the hall.
Then the tables are reset, the floor freshly swept and the act repeats itself twice, at 8 and 10 p.m. The seating timeline is strict: On a busy weekend night, the kitchen must get nearly 450 entrees out the door like clockwork; any delays risk ruining a carefully calibrated schedule.
Already, some early customer favorites have emerged: the uni pasta, roasted salmon with summer vegetables, and made-to-order doughnuts among them.
“It’s sort of like changing tires on a moving train,” Fullilove said. “But it’s working.”
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