Restaurants that echo with history are getting harder and harder to find in Los Angeles. Change is inevitable, but it also creates a longing for permanence. Finding a hidden gem often presents a dilemma of whether to share it with those who will also care, or to keep it secreted away from potential oversaturation. But shining a light on things that matter can in the end help preserve them. The 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant, located in a remote and tucked-away place at the Van Nuys Airport, needs to be preserved and celebrated.
Opened in 1973 by David Tallichet, a World War II Army Air Corps veteran, as a means to share his love of all things aviation-related, the restaurant was modeled on a rustic Normandy farmhouse. Tallichet chose a spot on the sidelines of the airport's long, straight runway and named it after the 94th Aero Squadron, a much revered U.S. Army Air Service unit during the first World War.
A sense of vintage magic abounds. Ivy wraps around white-washed and exposed brick, and a World War I propeller plane sits flirtatiously on the front lawn near vintage war Jeeps, a cart full of baled hay, some cannons and an honest-to-goodness World War II ambulance. Upon further inspection, gaping holes can be seen on the roof of the far end of the restaurant. You wonder what accident may have occurred here, until you find that this is merely the open-air patio roof, intentionally created to resemble a bombed-out Normandy bunker.
The food channels patriotism and a sentimentality for the red, white and blue. Specializing in prime rib, fish and chips, burgers, soups and salads, the restaurant does not deliver many surprises, but the dishes are done well. A Sunday champagne brunch buffet is a relaxing and casual way to get acquainted with the restaurant while taking in its atmosphere.
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The reason many people fall in love with 94th Aero Squadron is the entertainment, which involves watching airplanes take off and land just beyond a chain-link fence separating the red-bricked patio area from the nearby runway. It is an enchanting vantage point to see the planes come racing through and brings an aura of excitement and romance. Van Nuys Airport was built just before World War I, in a field growing banana squash, and has evolved into the longest and busiest general aviation runway in the world, with more than 700 airplanes coming and going every day. It was used as a location to Casablanca and was the place that Norma Jean Baker, before she became Marilyn Monroe, was "discovered" doing a photo shoot and subsequently offered her first screen test. Amelia Earhart used this runway, as did the much celebrated pilot Clay Lacy, who still eats here frequently. Clay coined the term "jet set" after regularly flying Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack on a Learjet from this airport, equipped with a very necessary cocktail pouring service. There is a room dedicated to Clay and his lengthy aviation history.
According to Karen "Martini" Marmont, who books rockabilly, swing and roots bands that play at 94th Aero Squadron on weekend evenings, "This runway is on every pilot's bucket list."
Marmont says that all of the war memorabilia lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling is authentic and donated by vets themselves, including uniforms, gas masks, airplane propellers, framed photographs and even torpedoes. A long communal table in the bar area was hand-carved from the wood of a World War II airplane by pilots just after the war ended and ultimately found its way to 94th Aero Squadron. It now bears a sign that says "Reserved: Pilots Only" and is occupied by everyone from 20-year-old helicopter pilots to 90-year-old war veterans. Model planes hang from the rafters above the table and are actual replicas of planes flown by regulars who have left the skies for the great beyond.
16320 Raymer St., Van Nuys; (818) 994-7437, 94thVanNuys.com.