November 26, 2018

Photo Essay: Retro Digestion in LA's Most Futuristic Restaurant Designs (Updated for 2019)

[Last updated 1/9/20 9:29 PM PT—Updated status on Corky's, which has closed.]

When I think about some of my favorite buildings in the LA area—particularly favorite places to eat—it should come as no surprise that many of them have something in common.

They were designed by the same architecture firm.

One of the most prominent practitioners of "Coffee Shop Modern" architecture was Armet and Davis—a firm that continues to design new restaurants out of its Santa Monica office, though now they're more of the "fast casual" and "quick service" variety like Wendy's and Burger King.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the firm's headquarters as part of a Googie-themed bus tour of the LA area hosted by Chris Nichols...

...and that's when it all started coming together for me.

Through their concept sketches and watercolors, the past and the present converged...

...both the places I'll never get to see because they were demolished before my time (like John Lautner's Sunset Strip eatery "Googie's," from which the style draws its name) and the places I may live to mourn.

Armet and Davis created Johnie's Coffee Shop—known as Romeo's Times Square for just a year or so before flipping become Ram's Coffee Shop.

One of the few remaining mid-century "coffee shops" of LA, Johnie's (or so it's been known since 1966) was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument in 2013.

That landmark designation, of course, won't necessarily save Johnie's from demolition. And it very recently has been threatened by the construction of the Metro Purple Line along Wilshire Boulevard.

For the moment, it's still defaced with campaign propaganda in support of 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. I'd love to see it reopen one day.

Norm's on La Cienega has experienced its fair share of threats to its preservation, though it appears to be safe for now. And it's always packed.

Motorists are still drawn to the 1957 Googie design by Armet and Davis. Its pennant-style neon sign is a quintessential beacon in the neighborhood—and under its geometric roofline huge window walls allow drivers to peek inside as much as the diners can watch the cars go by.

Many of the interior details are still intact, including flagstone-accented walls and mosaic tile with the initial “n” for Norm’s. Founder Norm Roybark, a used car salesman, dictated that this and several others of his restaurants be built to resemble automobile showrooms.

One of my stalwart breakfast and lunch places while I'm in the Valley is Corky's in Sherman Oaks. [Update: Corky's closed in December 2019 and efforts are underway to landmark the building.]

With an upward-sweeping roof designed by Armet and Davis in 1958, it originally opened as Stanley Burke's Coffee Shop (or, just simply "Stan's"—an outpost of a chain primarily based in Northern California)...

...became Corky's in the 1960s...

...and then the Lamplighter Family Restaurant until being rechristened Corky's in 2011.

Hinting at the hotspot's history of 24-hour nightlife along the Van Nuys Boulevard strip, the interior is darker than most coffee shops (with colorful screens added in a 1980s renovation)...

...but long-gone are the likes of Billy Joel, who worked there as a "piano man" for a few weeks.

A biography of Joel quotes him as saying he was replaced by "a girl with a big set of bongos" right before Christmas—which he thought "really sucked."

Also in 1958, Armet and Davis created another coffee shop called Pann's, this one with a tilted instead of convex roof. But the primary architect behind this Googie masterpiece wasn't Louis Armet or Eldon Davis—but the Chinese-American designer they employed, Helen Fong.

Renowned for her futuristic designs, Fong was one of the first women to join the AIA. She worked with Armet and Davis until the late 1970s, when she retired.

Her name has largely disappeared from the credits of these Googie landmarks—which, in addition to Pann's, also included Norm's, Johnie's (as above), and the former Holiday Bowl in the Crenshaw District.

Now partially preserved as a Starbucks, the Googie-style coffee shop of the bowling alley has traded its orange and white facade for the green and white of corporate coffeemaking.

The bowling alley itself closed in the year 2000 and was demolished in 2003.

It evokes the Space Age circa 1957...

...its zig-zagged roof pointing straight at the cosmos out there.

Inside, under that jagged ceiling, multi-culti dishes spanning several ethnic groups are no longer being served, now replaced by Ventis and whipped topping.

Holiday Bowl had been opened by a group of Japanese-American entrepreneurs and later owned by Chinese and Koreans—and the food selections offered once reflected that diversity. Fong's Japanese folk woodwork is no more, but the "saucer"- and "bubble"-style lamps remain.

Nearby is the former Wich Stand coffee shop that opened in 1957, closed in 1988, and was rebranded as the Simply Wholesome health food store and restaurant in 1995. It's the only one of two Wich Stands that remain, this one better known as the one "on the hill."

Even without the old sign, this Eldon Davis-designed coffee shop is instantly recognizable by its 35-foot-tall spire. But it's no longer a drive-in, nor does it serve any cocktails—much less in what was once known as the "Broom Room."

Of course one of the most exciting preservation victories as of late is a rescued Armet and Davis-designed coffee shop from 1959. The original business there, the Penguin Coffee Shop, closed its doors in 1991; the most recent business was a dentistry and orthodontics practice.

Restored and reopened to the public are the classic pitched roof, once-drywalled flagstone, and picture windows—all thanks to the Mel's Drive-In chain (which also operates out of an Armet and Davis classic from 1953, the former Kerry's Coffee Shop, in Sherman Oaks).

The latest Googie fabulousness to have new life breathed into it is the former Crown Chili Burger (which it was for at least 10 years)...

...which closed earlier this year and reopened as Ruby's Shake Shop—a burger stand version of the retro diner chain that first started in Newport Beach.

The accordioned roofline sports a fresh coat of paint, and this neglected Armet and Davis design from 1965 is finally getting some attention.

The tiny commercial structure is only 380 square feet, but it sure stands out on the corner of Lankershim and Otsego in North Hollywood—even amidst all the new construction popping up across the intersection.

And the new "Shake Shop" is a nice revival of the stand's former life as an ice cream parlor—at least, as it appeared in a 1975 episode of The Rockford Files.

Related Posts:
The Coffee Shop That Welcomes You To LA (And Sends You Off With A Smile)
This 1950s Coffee Shop Is Back, Baby! (Or, The Penguin Lives!)
Photo Essay: A Hollywood Diner Campaigns for a Hollywood Candidate

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