It's unfortunate that we sometimes lose our most beloved and most frequented neighborhood restaurants. Why does a well-established eatery, with years of operating experience and a loyal customer base behind it, simply close? Sometimes gentrification in a neighborhood makes the rent skyrocket to a price the owner can longer afford. Owners sometimes wish to retire and there's no family to pass the business on to. What may be harder to answer is why some of these long-standing (some historic) Los Angeles restaurants sit empty and vacant for months, sometimes years. It's a rare thing to find in a city that's not particularly known for preserving the past. Here are five of their stories.
Check out the slideshow: Great Shuttered Restaurants of Los Angeles
Near LAX, next to a Circle K gas station, stands a faded version of what had been one of the longest operating steakhouses in Los Angeles: the Buggy Whip. Opening in the early 1950s and closing around September of 2013, the Buggy Whip – or the Whip, as the regulars called it – was known for its warm and personal dining experience. In 1977, Mr. Paul purchased the steakhouse.
Mr. Paul is a restaurateur who had owned other popular Los Angeles-area restaurants: The Old Virginia and Chez Paul, both in South Pasadena. To this day, he remains proud that customers dining at the Whip felt like family, being acknowledged by employees and knowing staff by name. The Whip was also known for its Green Goddess salad dressing. Travelers would often stop on their way to LAX to pick up a bottle before getting on the plane. For over 28 years, diners were treated to the musical stylings of piano man Peter Wagner, who, according to Mr. Paul, was “an asset to the operation.” Under Mr. Paul's ownership, the Whip racked up quite a few awards including multiple “Best of L.A.” honors in Los Angeles Magazine: the Best Steak Dinner in L.A. in 2003 and the Best Piano Bar in town in 2008.
Mr. Paul sold the Whip in 2012, and from that point on, business declined. Even with its celebrity clientele and long residency, the Buggy Whip surprisingly doesn't have the same name recognition as restaurants like the Brown Derby or Chasen's. Mr. Paul said the restaurant was a little secret spot, almost like a clubhouse, and the regulars liked it that way. Wagner said of the Buggy Whip's closing: People “can't believe it closed, and [they] would like to see it open again and brought back to its heyday.”
One casualty of neighborhood gentrification and doubling rent was El Conquistador, a 40-year-old Mexican restaurant on Sunset Blvd. in the heart of Silver Lake.
El Conquistador opened on Dec. 7, 1973, by Jesus Pinto, who owned the restaurant along with Salvador Barajas – who passed away about 10 years ago – until its closing. Albert Curiel, another co-owner of El Conquistador, said, “the potent and killer margaritas were the main attraction. That and, of course, the garish, colorful and festive decorations.” Many of the El Conquistador staff had grown up while working there. They welcomed new generations of their families all while being employed at the restaurant.
As for the closure of this Silver Lake institution, Curiel said that the building had been sold, causing the rent to double – and reinventing the restaurant was not something he or Pinto wanted to do. “The restaurant had its time. We were at the top of our game and felt it was the perfect time to leave,” Curiel remembered. “It was our customers and their support that made El Conquistador extra special, and we will always remember and be thankful for that.”
The restaurant closed on Dec. 22, 2013. The future is still uncertain for El Conquistador. There have been rumors as to what it will become, most likely another restaurant, but nothing has been confirmed.
Tiki restaurants and bars have been popular in American culture since the 1930s. Los Angeles has a few of these shrines to Polynesian punch and the magnificent Mai-Tai. In the '50s and '60s, Tiki culture found its way into the mainstream in a big way and influenced music, movies, food, and even theme parks.
One of the most popular Tiki restaurants in the Los Angeles area was Bahooka, which was opened in West Covina by two siblings in 1967 (this location closed in 1980). In 1976, the owners opened a second, larger Bahooka in Rosemead, and it remained there until closing in March of 2013.
Darlene Fliegel, a second-generation owner, described visiting Bahooka – a Panamanian word for “hut” – as making you feel as though you were “marooned on an island or on a mini vacation without actually going anywhere.” Bahooka, which was known for its ribs and Tiki cocktails, was a sort of Polynesian Hard Rock Café, where every nook and cranny was filled with, amongst other things, fish tanks, surfboards, license plates and Tiki statues.
Customers donated many of the items filling the restaurant's walls. Bahooka's mascot, Rufus, a 38-year-old Pacu fish was the pride and joy of the place. He even shared screen time with Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when Bahooka was used as a film location.
Fliegel said the family closed the 37-year-old-restaurant because they were ready to retire, and the next generation of family wanted to do other things. Today, the interior walls of the building are bare except for a lot of bamboo and the hand-painted messages that customers wrote in appreciation of their favorite restaurant. Jorge Mastache, a 12-year employee of Bahooka, who maintained the restaurant's large inventory of aquatic life, said that renovations on the interior of the building would be commencing in the coming weeks. When completed, the once lively Tiki bar will be a Chinese restaurant.
Recently, there had been some questions as to whether or not Rufus would remain at the restaurant or find a new home. A fundraising campaign was started to help cover the costs of purchasing and moving the 38-year-old Pacu, but the new owners of what was Bahooka have realized how important he is – and have decided to keep him.
A shuttered but stunning palace of Chinese cuisine sits abandoned across the street from the Sheraton and Hilton hotels in Universal City. This tomb of a once-thriving establishment rests – maybe appropriately – next to Universal's “Frankenstein” parking structure.
Fung Lum Restaurant opened in 1982 and closed 16 years later. The building has been sitting empty since shutting its doors in 1998. These days, the structure may be occupied for the occasional film shoot.
In 1950 in Hong Kong, Mr. Shing Kee Pang built his first restaurant: Fung Lum – meaning “maple grove.” The original restaurant was so successful that Pang started other locations in Asia and a few in California, including the location at Universal City.
Due to Universal's huge “evolution plan,” what remains of Fung Lum could be demolished in the near future. Currently, a 500-room hotel is apparently slated for Fung Lum's location. A contractor at the site said that in its heyday, the Cantonese-style restaurant was once the place to be; he said that the roof alone, made of porcelain tiles and statuettes, cost one million dollars.
Parnell Pang, a third-generation Fung Lum family member said, “The restaurant was especially unique in its classical Chinese palace décor, fine-dining service, and distinctive Cantonese cuisine. The Universal City Fung Lum was an iconic building overlooking Universal Studios and was widely popular with tourists and locals.” In the early 1990s, Universal CityWalk opened, offering many dining options. Universal City's Fung Lum Restaurant closed after 16 years due to Shing Kee Pang's declining health.
The Pang family also ran Fung Lum restaurants in Campbell, CA, Malaysia and Taiwan, all of which are no longer operating. However, Shing Kee Pang's legacy lives on today as a family-run business including the original Hong Kong location and two Fung Lum food court-style restaurants at San Francisco International Airport. Many of the items on the SFO airport menu use original Fung Lum recipes. The Pang family also operates a sister restaurant in Palo Alto called Yucca De Lac. [
Los Angeles has its fair share of Chicago-style hot dog joints aiming to satisfy the hunger of Windy City transplants. QT Chicago Dogs in Sherman Oaks, Taste Chicago in Burbank, and Portillo's in Buena Park are just a few operating today.
Beneath the 405 freeway in Sherman Oaks there is one Chicago joint that has been sitting empty since closing in 2006: Rubin's Red Hot. A Chicago Red Hot is the name for a Chicago-style hot dog – an all beef frank on a poppy seed bun with tomato wedges, chopped onions, sport peppers, bright green sweet relish, celery salt, pickle spear and yellow mustard (no ketchup).
In 1988, Norman A. Rubin, a Chicago native and former Vice President of Real Estate at MCA (Universal) opened Rubin's Red Hot. Parts of the restaurant's façade are made from original steel sections of the Chicago elevated train trestle. Rubin personally supervised the transportation of the 17-foot tall supports to L.A. after the first purchased section was accidentally melted down. The steel sections of Chicago's El train, which currently stand at Rubin's, helped transport people to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.
Though Rubin's changed tenants a few times, the Rubin family kept ownership of the property. In the mid-2000s, the 405 freeway, right next to Rubin's, was under heavy construction. The freeway widening and the limited parking due to the construction did not help attract a customer base for the hot dog stand. Rubin's Red Hot eventually closed in 2006, and the building has been sitting empty ever since.
Rubin passed away in 2010, but his son, Sam Rubin, has plans for the property. “We will be redeveloping the building for a food operator, including the adjacent vacant dirt parcel to the west, by adding an outdoor dining patio with more customer parking.” Rubin's probably won't be another hot dog stand, but don't expect those El train sections to be going anywhere.
Check out the slideshow: Great Shuttered Restaurants of Los Angeles
Jared Cowan is a photographer and documentary camera operator based in Sherman Oaks. While he doesn't work in restaurants, his family has a long history of owning Jewish delicatessens, particularly in New York City and Philadelphia. Check out his photography at jaredcowanphotography.com. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.