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As Times Change for Valley Eateries, Things Stay the Same

The Valley restaurant scene may be getting pricier and trendier, but there’s still room for the more traditional establishments and there’s a few that are still as popular as they were a half-century ago. Restaurants like the Smoke House in Burbank and the Valley Inn in Sherman Oaks have updated their offerings without changing too much of the atmosphere that made their restaurants famous. Others, like the last original Bob’s Big Boy, have even achieved historical recognition. The Smoke House opened in 1946 and in 1950 it moved to its current location near Warner Bros. studios into a space that Danny Kaye had given up on as a site for a new night club. The building has changed little in its nearly 60 years, and its customers range from those who have been loyal for decades to ones of a much younger generation. Lee Steiner, the restaurant’s current owner, purchased in 1983, only to sell 10 years later and repurchase it in 2003 after his former buyer declared bankruptcy. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovating the restaurant, putting in new bathrooms, and carpeting, among other amenities. The secret to keeping the business a success, he said, has been simple: lunch. “If you decide to go out at night, you might go 10 miles to a great place,” said Steiner. “When we go to our favorite sushi place, we’ll pass 15 or 20 sushi places on the way, but we like the one we go to. For a lunch hour, you’ve got a good hour in which you have to eat, and you look for some place dynamite that’s close by.” The Smoke House has been the hangout for such legendary figures as Humphrey Bogart, and with the Warner Bros. studios still down the street, actor George Clooney became a regular customer while he was working on NBC’s hit drama “ER.” Hollywood’s elders never forgot the Smoke House. In 2003, Bob Hope celebrated his 100th and last birthday at the restaurant, Steiner said. Some of the most reliable customers, Steiner said, are funeral crowds. “We’re across from one the largest cemeteries in the country (Forest Lawn),” said Steiner. “We probably do about 10 funeral services a week. It works out well, they bury the guy by 12:30 or one o’clock and then come in. It’s perfect for us, lunch is over and it’s too early for the dinner crowd.” Historic designation On nearby Riverside Drive in Burbank, a 70-foot sign marks the location of the last original Bob’s Big Boy restaurant, another classic of modern architecture that was nearly demolished about 10 years ago. In 1993, the restaurant was designated as a State Point of Historical Interest partly because of the efforts of the L.A. Conservancy. Its owner reintroduced “car hop” service for Saturday and Sunday nights and restored the restaurant to its original 1950s look and feel, adding an exterior patio, rehabilitating the outdoor sign and remodeling the dining room. The improvements have only made the restaurant more popular. “A lot of people have grown up with Bob’s Big Boy,” said assistant manager Frank Rodriguez said. “People have moved out of town or out of the state and come to visit relatives in town and stop at the restaurant. High school reunions, especially the older crowds like to meet up here.” The iconic restaurant is also a regular stop for international tour groups, and has been used as a film location for movies like the Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro classic, “Heat.” Damon’s Steak House in Glendale has kept its original 1940s look as well. The bar plays Polynesian music and has small tables and stools, and the restaurant features more Polynesian d & #233;cor and red leather booths. Sondra Frohlich, executive director of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce, has held meetings for years at the Valley Inn, another landmark steak house that opened in 1947. When its current owners, who are from Russia, thought about redecorating, Frohlich said she urged them to think about what the restaurant meant to Valley residents. “The pictures that are in there are from American youth,” said Frohlich. “The room we would sit in has beautiful Burma shades, and up above the center of the room are a couple of signs that I remember from my childhood in the country. The restaurant, she said, feels like it is run by family. The staff “bends over backwards” to remember customers, save them booths and provide a memorable experience.

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