Los Angeles is said to be the birthplace of "theme" restaurants. At the turn of the century, the Venice pier boasted a restaurant built like a ship, docked at the pier. The famous Brown Derby was shaped like a giant hat. In the '20s and '30s Clifford Clinton owned a chain of cafeterias, each with its own fantastic environment - Clifton's Brookdale Cafeteria on Broadway still boasts a High Sierra Mountains theme. The first tiki-bar, Don the Beachcomber, debuted in L.A. The idea is to transform the dining experience, giving patrons a brief but thrilling imaginary journey to a far-away place.
But it wasn't until recently that I discovered a restaurant designed around a World War I theme - and discovered its history.
The 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant is located on a dead-end street in Van Nuys, just adjacent to the runway at Van Nuys Airport. When you drive through the streets of industrial buildings surrounding it, you first encounter a vintage Army ambulance, painted olive-drab, with a red cross, at the entrance of the tree-shaded parking lot.
The building itself looks like an ivy-covered French farmhouse, complete with a turret and steeply pitched roofs (and a palm tree. A little out of place!). There's a hay wagon in front, and rose gardens - but in addition to the ambulance, a rusty anti-aircraft gun in the dooryard hints that there's more to the picture.
An old jeep and a barricade of sandbags draw your eye to the south end of the building, where the roof and walls are blasted open by huge shell-holes and craters! It's like a scene from "A Farewell to Arms."
The pleasant dining room is decorated with all kinds of posters, photos, and artifacts about World War I and flying. There are photos of flying aces, spare propellers, and even a hunk of a wing hanging from the ceiling. There's a rack of rucksacks and helmets and gas masks on the wall. Propaganda posters and flying squadron insignia make for some interesting reading while you're waiting to use the ladies' room.
The dining room has a wall of windows that look over the airport runway, and while we ate we watched planes taking off and landing. Van Nuys airport is also where fire-fighting equipment used during our recent wildfires are stored - we took a closer look at the massive helicopters and bright yellow supersoaker aircraft from the restaurant's lower patio.
The food is basic fare - burgers and pasta, steak and chicken - nothing stands out but it's good solid fare. I had a nice enough chicken salad, and [The Man I Love] had a decent cheeseburger. They have a Happy Hour, and I think it would be pleasant to sip a drink and nibble bar munchies while watching planes take off and land. The muzak on the day we were there featured '50s and '60s oldies - I wasn't sure whether that was because somebody preferred it, or whether the music programmer had a poor understanding of history. "Lili Marlene" and "Over There" would be more appropriate, instead of the Four Seasons or "Purple People Eater."
After we ate, we walked around and looked at the private dining rooms and event spaces on the property. The bombed ruins of the building turned out to be an outdoor event space with very creative decor. When's the last time you attended a party that could literally be called a Bomb???
The 94th Aero Squadron restaurant was the idea of the late David Tallichet - a former World War II B-17 pilot. In 1958 he opened a restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport, fitted with earphones to overhear the communications from the tower. He founded a chain of restaurants near airports - all with the same theme. Then he branched out, moving beyond decor inspired by bombed-out French farmhouses to Creole crab shacks and Polynesian Island ports. It proved to be a smart business strategy, because his properties were on publicly owned land near ports and airports - land which didn't increase in value as quickly as other property, keeping the rents stable. He ended up with 62 restaurants in 17 states. Tallichet was also an avid war historian, and collected and restored old military warplanes. Mr. Tallichet passed away in 2007.
As a theatre professional, I always like a good stage set. This one is lots of fun. It's camp and it's fun. And it's always fascinating to watch airplanes. So if there's one of these places in your city, check it out.
Thanks to Cheri - who reminded me of this place.