Our love affair with the seafood cocktail goes back a long time. In fact, it was the very first L.A. food craze.
It started one July night in 1894, when a man named Al Levy wheeled a fancy red pushcart to the corner of 1st and Main streets. From a sleepy cow town in the 1870s, Los Angeles had lately blossomed into a metropolis of 75,000 with all the trimmings; that corner boasted an opera house. First and Main was also the hangout of the city’s rootless young men, who loitered away their evenings in the dusty streets, gabbing, chewing tobacco and eating at tamale carts.
The sign on Levy’s pushcart advertised California oyster cocktails. Harvested nearly to extinction in the 19th century and then forced out of many habitats by the larger Manila clam in the 20th, the native California oyster is too small and slow-growing to be much of a commercial crop today. But natives, abundant in those days, are still raised in small numbers in Olympia, Wash. (and known as Olympias). Many oyster lovers prefer their sweetness and briny, coppery tang.
Oysters had long been an American passion by 1894, but oyster cocktails were something new. The loiterers at 1st and Main went wild for them -- they weren’t even fazed by the 10-cent price tag, though a tamale was only a nickel.
What’s more, over the next few weeks opera patrons started leaving their seats to come down and sample this novel delicacy shoulder to shoulder with the street-corner louts.
Soon restaurants in L.A. and Pasadena were advertising that they were serving oyster cocktails too, and there were jokey tales of people ordering “cocktails” only to be told they couldn’t be served liquor because it was Sunday, ha ha.
For tourists, having an oyster cocktail became one of the things to do in Los Angeles, and they spread the craze around the country.
Within a few months, the man who started it all had lost his money on an oyster cocktail bottling scheme, but he bounced right back -- he rented some space in a plumber’s shop at 3rd and Main streets, put up two planks as counters and brought in 14 chairs. He started serving typical 19th century oyster-house dishes such as oyster loaf, oyster stew, fried oysters and fried fish along with his famous cocktails.
And a few months after that, the plumber was out and Al Levy had taken over all three storefronts in the building and turned them into a fashionable seafood restaurant. By 1897, he was one of the leading restaurateurs in the city.
Levy would remain a favorite of Hollywood and high society right up till his death in 1941. He never forgot his old red oyster cart, either. For more than 30 years it was displayed in glory on the roof of his restaurant.
From waiter to owner
Who was Al Levy? He was an eager, gregarious man, 5 feet tall, who liked sports, pinochle, cars and string ties. He was an enthusiastic joiner of fraternal organizations such as the Elks (during a Shriners convention, he took out a newspaper ad suggesting to his fellow nobles, “tip your fez at Levy’s Cafe”), and he catered events for all of them and many charities as well.
Raised in Ireland, he came to America around 1877 and knocked around awhile before settling for a few years in San Francisco, where he learned the seafood business. In 1890 he decided to throw in his lot with the mushrooming young city to the south.
He was a waiter in Los Angeles for four years. And then he got laid off. With a new family to support, he had to come up with an income fast, and the oyster cocktail cart was his inspired decision.
Oyster cocktails were only the start of his career, though, and as his menu expanded to include steaks and roasts and lobsters, so did his civic role. By 1901 he was such a fixture of L.A. society that he served on the board of the city’s newly formed baseball team (regrettably named the Los Angeles Looloos).
Business kept expanding. In 1905 Levy tore down his building and built a far grander three-story edition of Al Levy’s Cafe. The second floor alone featured three large dining rooms, decorated in English, French and German styles, and 57 private rooms. The pushcart on the roof now had a cupola to shelter it from the elements.
This was no lunch counter -- Al Levy’s Cafe was big enough to seat 1% of the city’s population at the time. The Times called it “one of the West’s swellest cafes.” A former director of the Chicago Symphony directed the house orchestra. When Republican reformer Hiram Johnson launched his gubernatorial campaign in 1910, it was at Al Levy’s Cafe.
From the beginning, Levy had courted the entertainment business, and he encouraged celebrities to sign the napkins or tablecloth after a meal; he must have ended up with some sort of museum of autographed linen. His restaurant was the first major movie business hangout.
How Hollywood was it? Charlie Chaplin married Al Levy’s checkroom girl. (Mildred Harris literally was a girl -- she was just 16 when she and Chaplin tied the knot in 1917. After they divorced, she went on to have an affair with the Prince of Wales.)
Levy had a few rough years toward the end of the teens. In 1916 he built a luxury restaurant in what was then the tiny farm town of Watts, so motorists could stop off to dine in grand style on their way to Long Beach. It evidently flopped. When Prohibition arrived in 1919, the country’s dining habits changed, dealing a blow to old-fashioned dining establishments such as Levy’s with their elaborate multicourse meals.
Levy was actually hauled into court in 1920 for selling four cases of sherry. A news story about the trial referred to him as a “formerly well-known restaurateur,” so he’d probably lost his downtown cafe by that time.
In 1921 he showed up in charge of the dining rooms on the luxury liners Harvard and Yale, which plied the coast of California more or less as floating ballrooms, and he was being referred to as a caterer.
But the next year he started two restaurants side by side on Hollywood Boulevard, made a success of them and then sold them off in 1924. He took the money and immediately started a new downtown restaurant, Al Levy’s Grill, on Spring Street.
Five years later, with his downtown chophouse well established, he was back in Hollywood with Al Levy’s Tavern, which a contemporary described as “a Hollywood version of an English inn.” It also featured a separate kitchen for kosher food. It was one of the three leading celebrity hangouts around the fabled corner of Vine Street and Hollywood Boulevard, along with Sardi’s and the Brown Derby.
With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Levy announced he would once again use wine in cooking at both his restaurants. Newspapers later reported that squabs simmered in wine, what we’d now call his signature dish, became famous from coast to coast.
Sometime around 1930, the red pushcart came down from its perch on the roof of Levy’s former restaurant at 3rd and Main. During the 1920s, The Times had published periodic items explaining to the city’s many newcomers what a pushcart was doing up there. (Many assumed it was an old tamale cart.)
By this time Levy was in his 70s, but the only sign he showed of slowing down was taking a partner, Mike Lyman, later to be a well-known restaurateur himself. “Dad” Levy, as he had long been called, was still greeting the celebrities and still active in fraternal organizations. In 1939 the Shriners honored him for his 46 years as a member.
In 1941 Al Levy was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery with a Jewish service at the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather. That year there were 30 times as many people living in Los Angeles as when he’d arrived half a century before. The oyster cocktail king had fed four generations of them.