The bartender ain’t exactly Bogart. And the bombed-out French-village farmhouse ain’t Rick’s Café Americain in the sultry city of Casablanca. Still, when you squint your eyes a little, the 94th Aero Squadron, at the edge of the Van Nuys Airport runway, feels like some kind of war-torn World War II safe haven — a place to have a drink and forget the ugly world out there, if only for a moment. And while there’s not a hipster bar scene, happy hours do get rowdy with WWII-era fly boys and the women who love them.
It’s a cheap ticket back in time, away from moppy-headed boys who take themselves too seriously and girls who care way too much about how they look. It’s the perfect place to meet up with an ex — nostalgic, but not overly sentimental or romantic. My ex-boyfriend and I find ourselves catching up in the bar, and later at a runway-side table in the outdoor garden. We debate about what would have been appropriate to order back when the actual 94th Aero Squadron was in its prime in World War I (the Air Force unit became the 94th Fighter Squadron during World War II and is still going strong), but the French vibe makes a glass of wine feel so right. The bar, with its rustic wooden beams and military paraphernalia hung here and there, can feel a little too theme restaurant — it is, after all, a theme restaurant with four other Squadrons at airports across the country. But more than even the giant holes punched through the building’s roof and façade where “bombs” have blown it up, more than the tanks in the front yard, it’s the constant drone of small prop planes that make the place feel dangerously 1940s.
The bar appetizers remind us too much of TGI Friday’s — fried calamari, spinach-cheese dip — so we skip them and decide to really go with the whole allied-war thing. I order osso buco; he orders a prime rib. I doubt either of these things would have been available at a bombed-out farmhouse, but the experience is really all about suspending disbelief.
Something about the place makes you speak in the clipped manner of Bogart. “Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” The planes, the French music lilting over the sound system, make it seem that at any moment the bar is going to break into “La Marseillaise” in defiance of the imaginary Germans.
Maybe Casablanca comes so strongly to mind because the only scene in the film not shot in a studio was filmed right here at the Van Nuys Airport. We make our way outside to sit and watch the sunset over the landing strips. Then, as if directed by Michael Curtiz himself, a man in a suit with shiny, slicked-back hair slithers over, wringing his hands nervously, pretending to fix the place settings at the table next to us. Eventually, he turns to us and, in a voice unmistakably like Peter Lorre’s, says, “Umm, so sorry to bother you, but we are closed.”
We walk out through the empty restaurant to our cars and go our separate ways. No confusion, no weird interpretive ending — I got on the plane a long time ago. But it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.