The more things change, the more they stay the same — it's a trite saying, but it seems to be the case at the Proud Bird Food Bazaar and Events Center near LAX. After being closed for renovation for more than a year, the massive Proud Bird has been transformed from a dark, crowded, wood-paneled relic into a slick airplane hangar–esque dining experience, complete with a replica P-40 Flying Tiger airplane suspended from the ceiling. No matter how much the ballroom, bar and patios have been reimagined, the main focus remains. And that focus is airplanes, and the men and women who were the first to fly the friendly skies.
The Proud Bird was the brainchild of Specialty Restaurants Corporation founder David Tallichet (1922-2007). Known for his inventive theme restaurants, in 1958 Tallichet burst onto the SoCal dining scene with the opening of his first restaurant, the Reef, in Long Beach. Tallichet often could be found dreaming up new ideas, which he wrote down on his ever-present yellow legal pads. In the late 1960s, Tallichet was inspired to create a unique dining experience in honor of one of the great loves of his life: aviation. His son, John, who now runs the family business, told us in an email:
"David served in World War II as a pilot, flying over 20 combat missions during his service. He had a passion for aviation and honored his time spent in the military by opening restaurants like the Proud Bird, 100th Bomb Group in Cleveland, Ohio, and 94th Aero Squadron in Van Nuys, California, all of which feature aviation artifacts and aircraft. The name of the restaurant is inspired by Continental Airlines’ tagline, 'The Proud Bird With the Golden Tail.'"
Tallichet made a deal with LAX to build on airport property off Aviation Boulevard, which sits parallel to runways 25R and 25. He couldn’t have picked a better location to open an aviation-themed restaurant. “The Proud Bird opened in 1967 and became a popular gathering spot for aviation executives, LAX employees, plane spotters and just about everyone else involved in the aviation industry,” John recalls. “It had a very successful bar on the second floor (which is now a banquet room — the Doolittle Room). Guests could enjoy a drink and listen to the control tower through tableside headphones.”
For decades, Southern California was the center of the aviation industry. The Proud Bird quickly became a second home to many of the men and women who had shaped the history of early aviation. According to John Tallichet, regulars included John W. Myers (a prominent civilian test pilot in World War II, who helped develop the Black Widow, the first American fighter plane designed specifically for night combat), Joe Clark (founder and CEO of Aviation Partners) and Lt. Roger “Bill” Terry (one of the Tuskegee Airmen).
Over the years, patrons were surrounded by an ever-growing collection of authentic and meticulously re-created fiberglass replicas of legendary 20th-century aircraft, including the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Bell X-1. The walls were crowded with photographs and displays celebrating the history of aviation legends such as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Proud Bird also became an important gathering spot for the African-American community of Los Angeles. It was “a place where African-American Angelenos have gathered for decades to celebrate and dance and eat,” Susan Straight writes in her essay “Bird Proud." At Sunday brunches, the cavernous dining room was crowded with families who came every week and were on a first-name basis with beloved waiter Tony Gizzo. Every year the Proud Bird hosted a special MLK brunch. Weddings, anniversaries and birthdays were celebrated in the banquet halls. "This place is like church to me," regular Traci Childress told the Daily Breeze in 2013. "I don't go to church. But this is like church."
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It was this community that helped save the Proud Bird in 2015, after a two-year battle between Specialty Restaurants Corporation and LAX over rental rates and required wages almost caused the restaurant to close. “There's nothing like the Proud Bird," Theodore Lumpkin, a Tuskegee Airman, told the L.A. Times in 2013. "It makes a connection with the community in so many ways, spreading the word about the Tuskegee Airmen.” In 2015, with the help of community activists Clint Simmons, Connie Thomas and Reverend Stanley Prince, the Proud Bird was able to negotiate a new 20-year lease with LAX. “We tried for a long time to work out a new lease, and it didn’t look like we were going to come to an agreement,” John says. “It was truly the overwhelming support and persistence from the community that allowed us to work out the new lease, and we will be forever grateful.”
Since the Proud Bird closed for renovations, regulars have not forgotten about their beloved meeting place. According to Brad Burkett, district manager of Specialty Restaurants Corporation, occasionally church groups will come to pray in the parking lot, now a construction site. Nissen Davis, the Bird’s aviation historian, says a local pastor recently called him saying that he had 100 church leaders calling him, asking when the Proud Bird was going to reopen.
They will not have to wait much longer. When the Bird opens this summer, longtime patrons will find a radically changed menu. Gone will be steak and seafood. “The Food Bazaar is a self-service experience where guests will receive a boarding pass upon entering, which allows them to visit our culinary kitchens at their leisure,” John explains. The Bazaar will feature Asian, Latin and Italian-American items. Legendary BBQ joint Bludso’s will serve its smoked meats and sides, while Fork-in Aussie Pie Kitchen will supply breakfast. Outside, a beer garden called Miner’s Field (the original name of LAX) will feature games and booze, underneath recently renovated model planes.
But for all its “modern” updates, at the Proud Bird, the past is never far away. “What sets us apart from other places is the combined dining and museum aspect of the space,” John says. Nissen Davis will give weekly tours highlighting the history of the Bird’s airplane collection. New and reimagined displays will explore the history of a variety of aviation pioneers, including the Tuskegee Airmen, early female pilots like Bessie Coleman and war hero General James Doolittle. Even Space-X is included. Diners will also once again be able to listen in on air-traffic control, and track those giant birds in the sky, landing at LAX like clockwork, flying by the Proud Bird in the glinting California sun.