Today on the Josh Flagg Blogg, you are in for a special treat. This post is going to be a little bit different than what I normally write, because I’ve enlisted the help of my good friend, and LA historian, Alison Martino to join me in sharing our top savory foodie spots in LA. This blog is the byproduct of sharing a lot of booths (and a few too many martinis) together all over Los Angeles, and it is a treat, literally! From classic and upscale, to vintage--and even a few which are currently vacant lots--we are going to roll out the red carpet and give you the royal treatment on our top recommendations for good grub in the City of Angels.
This blog is really special to me because we both have family memories that are tied to each one of these amazing Los Angeles dining staples. Additionally, Alison is touted as one of the top historians on LA culture, so believe me when I say that this blog is worth every bite!
We’ve decided to split this into two courses--the first dish spotlights those vintage memories from days past of restaurants that are no longer open. While the second course is reserved for the restaurants still in business. We enlisted one of the best surgeons in LA and an Artificial Intelligence specialist to combine our brains so that we could write in one singular voice--just kidding! (Some of Josh’s family stories were just too good to not leave in the first person.) We passed notes back and forth, while kicking each other under the table at some of the best restaurants in LA, while reminiscing about our childhoods spent at some of the ones who have served their last meal.
I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as we enjoyed writing it! (I gained about five pounds just “researching.”) Don’t forget to check out Alison’s work over at alisonmartino.com as well!
-Josh and Alison
First Course --Vintage Closed Restaurants
"There's Ma Maison, La Scala and Scandia. And of the newer ones, I hear that Le Dome is quite nice.” – Dialogue from American Gigolo, 1980.
Some of our earliest memories are at Scandia. It was one of our families’ favorite destinations. Those regal red leather chairs in the nearby bright, glass-walled dining room seemed to float over a lit-up Los Angeles. We would drive into Scandia’s huge driveway where you knew Warren Beatty or Natalie Wood would soon emerge from a sleek black car and gracefully waltz into this mid-century modern marvel. Near the entrance was a moody, wooden bar--where you can just picture a line of crooners waiting to grab a drink, and steal some hearts. The Scandia chefs served perfect Swedish meatballs in silver platters and beer mugs with names of notable Scandia ‘Club of the Vikings’ guests such as Errol Flynn were displayed. Frank Sinatra even had an office and his own shower on the second floor!
Scandia was very elegant with paneled woods, copper and brass fixtures, royal blue and white china and crystal vases. The principal decorations were coats of arms. Food specialties here included "Lammesaddel", "Viking Sword", "Hamlets Dagger" (fresh lobster pieces non-greasy fried with exquisite tartar sauce), and Danish pastries. Scandia Restaurant had an award-winning wine cellar which boasted over 30,000 bottles of wine in the '80s. Even Josh and Alison couldn’t make a dent in their collection, if it were still around today. From 1950 through 1980, this restaurant received Holiday Magazine awards. Scandia also received many other accolades for the cuisine that whetted customer’s palettes and made them come back again and again.
Sadly, Scandia served their last meal on May 4th, 1989. The restaurant tried to reopen a few times as other residencies, but it never took off in quite the same way. Although the Hanson family sold it off during the 1980s, Josh and Alison had always dreamed of a comeback for Scandia since the building had been sitting intact for years at the corner of Doheny and Sunset Blvd. However, one gloomy day in 2014, the structure which had been standing since 1947, was demolished and replaced with a massive Marriott Hotel. May the rooms be forever haunted by the ghosts of Hollywood’s legends.
Josh fondly recalls the ambience of sitting in the Bistro Gardens---here’s what he remembers:
The Bistro Gardens
I remember sitting in the floral booths in the restaurant which is now Spago. I sat there with my grandparents in the beautiful restaurant called Bistro Gardens, which was the predecessor to Spago. I loved seeing all of the Rolls Royce’s lined up in the front of the restaurant.
I remember my grandmother telling me the first time she went there was in her husband’s car, which was a LeBaron Chrysler. The valet didn’t pay her much attention, and no one was particularly friendly to her, which infuriated her a little bit. So the next time she went back, she made sure to drive her Rolls-Royce and they parked right up front. My grandmother said something to the valet to the effect of go screw yourself. She explained very calmly to the man that should treat your customers the same whether they drive a Rolls-Royce or a Chrysler.
This story is kind of funny because my grandpa was such an eccentric character, and yet he loved driving that LeBaron Chrysler. He practically forced my grandmother to drive the Rolls-Royce, which had the vanity license plate PUIU I--which meant “little chicken” in Romanian. I thought it was cool that his wife drove a nicer car than he did. But then again, we all thought he was a bizarre individual. I can remember so many stories about him, I could probably write a book about them.
The Bistro Gardens was the spot in Beverly Hills until one day, Mr. Nicholas thought it would be cute to make an anti-semitic remark, and by the following Monday the restaurant was shut down.
Chasen’s was the quintessential, old Hollywood spot! This Beverly Boulevard hangout of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, and Groucho Marx may have been lost for good on the inside, but you might recognize the exterior. It’s now a Bristol Farms. If you moved to Los Angeles after 1995, you may not know about Chasen’s—although the restaurant had the stuff Hollywood legends are made of.
Located at 9039 Beverly Boulevard, near Beverly Hills, Chasen’s opened in December 1936. Shortly thereafter, it became a mainstay for Hollywood celebrities. Jimmy Stewart trusted Chasen’s as the spot to hold his outrageous bachelor party. Howard Hughes could be found making long-distance calls on the house phone (and washing his hands frantically in the bathroom with his own bar of soap that he carried around). The scariest man in Hollywood back in the day, Alfred Hitchcock, routinely spooked guests by falling asleep at his table and looking like a corpse. After Johnny Carson won his third Emmy in as many years, he took all of the show's insiders for a celebratory dinner at Chasen’s. Donna Summer wrote her hit “She Works Hard For the Money” on toilet paper in the bathroom. And if all of that wasn’t enough for you--legend has it that the non-alcoholic "Shirley Temple" cocktail was invented for the child star while dining with her parents at Chasen’s.
The restaurant, which was run by Maude and Dave Chasen (until his death in 1973) focused on hearty American cuisine and became as famous for its colossal seafood platters, hobo steak, a buffet that offered beluga caviar, and delicious cheese toast appetizers-- as its clientele. When Elizabeth Taylor was filming Cleopatra in Rome she craved their chili so much that she reportedly had her studio pay big bucks to have it shipped to Italy twice a month.
For years, the by-now world famous chili recipe remained a closely guarded secret. The owner, Dave Chasen, was rumored to come to the restaurant every Sunday to privately cook up a batch for the week. We were fortunate enough to experience the sophisticated atmosphere and sip on Shirley Temples during random trips to the restaurant with our parents and grandparents, and we were all a little heartbroken when it closed to make way for a Bristol Farms in 1995. Josh and Alison always felt a slight reverence to be standing in the exact spots where they had seen photos of Humphrey Bogart and W.C Fields. No time was better for celebrity spotting, than when Chasen’s closed. A cast list of celebrities came out for the closing, including Ethel Kennedy. Alison even remembers spotting Jack Lemmon in the lobby wearing a tuxedo. At the end of the night she grabbed a menu and had longtime manager Ronnie Clint sign it. It continues to be one of her most prized possessions. Josh also has one hanging in his kitchen. (Just who copied who, remains to be seen!)
We both remember when they closed because we made sure to arrive early on closing night, and we also both went to their massive auction, days later. What was unique about this restaurant is that they sold off everything to the public, because it was such a beloved landmark.
Inside the Bristol Farms, they have six original booths in the back. Alison convinced the manager to sell Chasen’s Chili in 2014, but it eventually became too expensive to sell. It was fun while it lasted, though.
Josh, on the other hand, experienced a little serendipity when during a property showing he realized the owner was a member of the Chasen’s family! He quickly reached out to give his thanks and was given plates, silverware--and even recipes from the original restaurant!
He and his husband, Bobby, can now have Chasen’s themed dinner parties whenever they like.
Photo courtesy of MPTV Images
Le Dome was a fantastic venue for--you guessed it--spotting celebrities, and enjoying amazing, unique dishes.
Elton John started this establishment in 1977, and just like Rocket Man--it took off quickly and was a huge success.
Some of our fondest memories as kids and young adults were having the chocolate soufflé and steak tartare here. The steak tartare was so good, that we can’t even think of any other restaurants that came close--and that’s saying a lot!
Josh’s fondest memory was going up to Elizabeth Montgomery and asking for her autograph. She was very gracious and said “yes.” Unfortunately, two days later she died. Josh can confidently say that he was probably the last person to ever ask for her autograph. However, he points out that he didn’t really want to ask her for an autograph--a picture would have done nicely. However, back then there were no iPhone cameras and no one carried bulky cameras with them to dinner.
As for Alison, she didn’t get any autographs at Le Dome--although Elton John’s, “John Hancock” would have been nice--she did get the chance to dine with Don Rickles and his family the day before Le Dome closed. Don ordered Stone Crabs, because it truly was one of the only upscale places in L.A. to order them. They were brought in from Joe’s Stone Crabs in Florida, and you knew that no matter what, if they were freshly in stock they’d be sold out before 9pm. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, Alison can still remember how they tasted.
If you thought the story about Josh’s grandma and Le Dolce Vita was good above, wait until you read what Josh’s childhood memory serves up about their run-in with Betty White! Read Josh’s anecdote below.
While I was never old enough to experience The Luau, myself, I have constant reminders of it as I go through old boxes of pictures of my family taken at the restaurant. Back in the day, photographers would come around and take a photo and put it in a little card with a photo and logo of the restaurant, which is great today because you can experience the moment even if you weren’t there!
Some of my favorite memories as a child were going with my mom’s parents, Margie and Herman Platt, to Trader Vic’s. The elegant restaurant was designed like a Polynesian oasis, included the Ship Room, which was our favorite. The lamb and the scorpion bowls, the pupu platters, can never be replicated.
They tried to come back for a brief period at the hotel, but it never took off just as Chasens 2 never took off. My fondest memory was going with my grandmother Margie up to Betty White. Mind you, my grandmother was the ultimate queen Grondalm of Beverly Hills and reminded me of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. For perspective, this was a woman who picked up the telephone in the morning and would say, “Good morning, darling, isn’t it just divine outside?”
Not even knowing who was on the other line! It could be a plumber, a telemarketer, or someone in Seattle--and she’d still answer that way. So back to the story...she went up to Betty White, while holding my hand and said “Darling, I just had to say hello to you since we are sisters!”
Betty White looked at her like she was a crazy woman. My grandmother said, “you know everybody tells me that we look almost identical so I thought I would just say hello, sister!” And then we walked off.
As I turned around to look back at Betty--she gave me a look that empathized with me having to put up with a crazy woman--but that was just my grandmother. She thought everybody knew her and 90% of the time they did in Beverly Hills.
Nothing pained us more than saying goodbye to the Hamburger Hamlet. It was such a special place. A place where you bumped into celebrities and industry moguls in a casual environment, dining in dark lighting and giant oversized red leather chairs (are you noticing a trend here?) But there was nothing casual about the clientele. Where else could you see Dean Martin sipping a martini at the bar, Lucille Ball hair spraying her red locks in the ladies room, Bette Davis chain smoking in the Tap Room, or Frank Sinatra taking a meeting? It was great eavesdropping--that’s for sure. At times, the Hamlet felt like an extended room of our homes. Both of us were raised only a few blocks away.
Alison’s first sighting of Lucille Ball, (and there were many of them), was seeing her walk past her family’s table. As an eight year-old girl, she immediately jumped up and followed her into the restroom. The I Love Lucy icon was casually sitting in the stall complaining about her pantyhose! Not knowing what to make of her outside of her famous sitcom, Alison ran out and finished her dinner. She also remembers being seated next to the legendary Bette Davis as an eighteen year-old--and immediately retreating to the restroom again to use the payphone to call and tell her mother. Bette must’ve gone through three packs of cigarettes that afternoon. Four years later at 22, she witnessed Frank Sinatra and his publicist, Lee Solters discussing one of Frank’s upcoming appearances. You see, eavesdropping at the Hamlet was also one of its perks. It was casual like that. And the stars felt comfortable, too.
Aside from the star-gazing, Josh enjoyed reading the copy on the legendary menu. Catch phrases such as, “eat the sides I pray you,” and zucchini zircles, made the Hamlet an unforgettable place for a child. The fried zucchini plate was referred to as “zircles,” the hash browns filled with lavish sour cream were “Those Potatoes,” and the signature “Marilyn Burger” was named after owner Marilyn Lewis (not Marilyn Monroe which many thought it was). But the most popular dish was their lobster bisque, which was loved around the world.
The Hamlet was opened by Harry and Marilyn Lewis, who had their own unique LA history. Harry was a contract player for Warner Bros in the 40s, and is best remembered for the movie Key Largo, which he starred in with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Lauren Bacall, and Claire Trevor (who won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film). The film came out in 1948, but by 1949 the House Committee on Un-American Activities went after the movie business. Fewer films were released during that time, and the era of the studio system with contract players ended. In other words, Lewis could no longer earn a regular weekly paycheck doing what he loved, so he made another plan. And lucky for all of us native Los Angelenos, that plan was Hamburger Hamlet.
Second Course---Classic LA Restaurants That Are Still Cookin’
La Scala Beverly Hills
La Scala celebrated its 63rd anniversary recently and there’s a reason that it has been around for over six decades: the food is fantastic! This old-school legendary institution is not only popular with celebs, but with neighborhood locals and tourists, as well. Josh and Alison have been ordering La Scala’s most famous invention, the chopped salad, since we were kids.
La Scala is a classic Italian eatery located in the heart of Beverly Hills. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations for lunch, because frankly they don’t need to. It’s packed six days a week and everyone wants to sit in one of those big, red leather booths. Pictures of showbiz celebrities from its entire 60-year history hang on the front wall. Suzanne Pleshette, Natalie Wood, Warren Betty, Robert Wagner, Judy Garland and Barbara Rush are some of the celebs that hang over the front entrance. You could say it is worthy of every one of its accolades.
Owner, Jean Leon, was born in Spain and migrated to the United States in 1951. He began his career at Villa Capri in Hollywood at 17, and opened La Scala in 1956. Leon’s daughter, Gigi, now manages La Scala, and wonderfully maintains the ambience of the original. According to popular folklore, Jean Leon was the last to see Marilyn Monroe alive. Legend has it that he brought her dinner on the night of her tragic passing.
Our family traditions were Spaghetti Bolognese and Eggplant Marinara and without fail a chopped salad in the afternoon. Just like the changing wait staff, over the years, La Scala had many incarnations. The original restaurant, La Scala Boutique, was on Santa Monica Blvd. In the second iteration, everything was similar except the ceilings were mirrored and had glazed pottery from San Gimignano. There is still a beautiful piece above the bar at the new location (which when we were younger, was another great restaurant called Walter’s.)
La Scala’s Brentwood location has made several appearances on famous television shows including the recent hit American Crime Story:The People Vs OJ Simpson. It’s been mentioned on the Real HouseWives of Beverly Hills, Keeping Up With the Kardashian’s and The Osbournes. It never lost its cozy and comfortable tradition, and it has never lost its special place in our hearts.
Tony Franciosa, Zsa Zsa Gabor and friends. standing with owner Jean León at the original La Scala
Some of the legendary caricatures on the walls of La Scala…
When people ask us to suggest a classic Hollywood joint, there’s only one place that comes to mind: Dan Tana’s. This dark and cozy Italian landmark is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. For those of you who haven’t been (how could anyone in LA not have been to Dan Tana’s!) the decor is Italian kitsch at its best: red walls, checkered tablecloths, dark lighting, and chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling.
Located next to the world-famous Troubadour, Dan Tana’s clientele has always been a mix of Hollywood A-listers, sports figures, musicians, and neighborhood locals, and ourselves (they still serve our favorite chicken parmesan on the planet). While waiting for your table (reservations are a must), stand off to the side and say hello to one of the restaurant’s longest employed staff members, bartender, Michael Gotovac. For 50 years, patrons have confessed their deepest secrets to the lovably cantankerous Croatian.
The staff hover between all business and jaded wiseasses, but in our experience they have never been rude. There is a robust scene and stiff drinks at the eight-seat bar, as a friend once said, "I’ve never had a bad meal at Dan Tana's because I am always bombed on two martinis by the time I get to my table." It’s definitely a party atmosphere and the people watching is awesome, but not even that is as good as their chicken parmesan. Another reason we love Dan Tana’s so much is that they serve late. You can actually order a meal at 1:30 am which is unheard of for fine dining in Los Angeles.
Dan Tana’s is world famous and has been featured on the Travel Channel and the Food Network and signature dishes are named after it’s celebrity clientele. One time we sat next to Al Pacino eating a steak named after Dabney Coleman, (one of their most loyal customers) with the late Harry Dean Stanton. Josh and Alison are working on receiving a dish in their honor one day. Hey, they can dream!
Old Hollywood is always alive at Dan Tana’s, so if you’ve never been (or even if you have) pick your next free evening, grab a date, and get yourselves two plates of their world-famous chicken parm--you won’t regret it!
Trivia:Dan Tana’s character in VEGA$ starring Robert Urich was named after the owner, (just spelled with a double n) and THE EAGLES wrote the lyrics to "Lyin' Eyes" on a napkin at table 5
La Dolce Vita
If you're looking for an old-school authentic restaurant with red leather booths, dark lighting and dependable Italian cuisine, look no further then La Dolce Vita. This joint is “Rat Pack” approved. If Facebook was around back when Sammy, Frank and the rest of the gang were alive they would have been “Checking In” at this LA staple a lot.
La Dolce Vita feels like walking into a members only club. Sipping a manhattan at the swanky bar makes you feel like an extra in Mad Men or a 1950's gangster movie. And if you're really lucky, they may even seat you in the Frank Sinatra Booth. Other honorary booths include, George Raft, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and just recently, Don Rickles.
The exposed brick is one our favorite features and the vibe of old Hollywood history just oozes from it! You almost expect to see Don Corleone to walk in with Al Pacino.
Josh and Alison recently dined in the latest honorary booth dedicated to Don Rickles. They started with the arancini (fried risotto balls), and the famous La Dolce Vita chopped salad. For their pasta course, we had a spectacular clam linguine that rivals the best Italian in NYC. For the main course, they had veal marsala which was tender and cooked perfectly. They ended with tiramisu (of course) and left full and happy.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post, please leave a comment with your favorite story below--and don’t forget to follow my latest zany exploits on the Josh Flagg Vlogg!
JOSH PHOTO @joshflagg
ALISON PHOTO @alisonmartino