Even though he is currently a restaurateur of a moderately Melrose Avenue bent, Bob Richman can't help seeing the world through cars.
For decades, he sold imported cars in Highland Park. He sold English cars and French cars. He had less luck with the Swedish ones.
The Volvo wasn't right for working-class Highland Park, he said.
Then a few weeks ago, Richman looked out to the parking lot of what used to be his dealership on North Figueroa Street and saw three Saabs and two Volvos there. He felt great satisfaction.
In an odd way, that's all related to the award Richman won Sunday for architecture. He was one of seven property owners cited by the Highland Park Heritage Trust for restoring or protecting treasures of the community's past.
The other six winners were homeowners who have been busy buffing up some of Highland Park's distinctive residential architecture.
Richman, along with his architect and contractor, won this year's award for a commercial venture. Sometimes the buildings that win that category have been less than dazzling, suggesting that the award was offered as recognition to those who merely do no harm to the goals of historic preservation.
Richman, though, has set a new standard with the Packard Grill restaurant. That's Packard, the car, and grill, as in the shiny part in front. Though Richman isn't excessively prone to joking, the play on words was inevitable.
The Packard Grill occupies an Art Deco auto showroom built about 1938 when Augustus Noll, owner of a downtown agency, opened a satellite for his son, Bill, at Avenue 42 and North Figueroa Street.
The building was an open showroom, later enclosed in glass, standing on the corner, apart from a row of service bays.
It had stainless steel pillars in front, rising to flagpoles sporting layered discs. Stainless steel panels also swept along the roof line, wing-like, completing the classic Art Deco look.
Initially, it held two Packards. After the war, Fords and Dodges appeared.
Richman introduced imports to the building in the 1960s when he went into partnership with Noll. He had learned cars as a West Coast agent for an English maker, then opened his own dealership near Avenue 50.
Eventually, he and Noll consolidated, then Richman bought out the lot. But not before the showroom was remodeled, burying its Art Deco lines under a layer of neo-Spanish stucco and tile.
Richman was mortified.
"I worked for a car factory, and I am a car dealer," he said. "But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a building." He was quite smitten with this one.
He persuaded Noll to build around the Art Deco features. Richman said he greased the pillars and stainless steel panels and wrapped them in butcher paper.
For the next 20 years, Richman's building slept as the forlorn neighborhood around it wavered under shifting forces.
The Laundromat across the street closed and later became a sewing factory.
The vacant and dilapidated mansion on the corner of Avenue 43 was picked up and moved to the other side of the Pasadena Freeway to Heritage Square. A gas station replaced it. The owner had to abandon plans for a shopping center when he couldn't persuade the elderly couple in the house next door to sell, Richman said.
"They still live there, and that house is still not for sale at any price," Richman said.
Eventually, Richman closed the dealership and recently built a shopping center on the lot. It was all planned long ago, he said, as part of his strategy for reviving the showroom.
"I kept telling my wife, 'One of these days, I'm going to restore the showroom, as it was, for my own benefit,' " he said.
Last fall, with his shopping center leased up, Richman took on the showroom, against the advice of friends and his banker, who said it would be cheaper to build new.
"This is better than a new building," Richman, in a purple plaid shirt and blue jeans, said Tuesday.
Richman always intended the showroom as a restaurant. But by the time the work was finished, he had surprised even himself by becoming its proprietor.
"That's so I have someplace to watch 'Monday Night Football,' " he said.
Though it's a new line of work, Richman isn't worried. "It can't be any riskier than running an auto dealership," he said.
Richman still lives across the freeway in Montecito Heights. He originally moved there to be close to work. He stays because he loves the area and its diverse population.
His clientele includes everyone from young Latino gang members to dressy young professionals from Mt. Washington.
"We've got the most interesting mix of people," he said proudly.
The walls are lined with framed Packard advertising from Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post. In the bathrooms hang photos of Packards proudly on display in the original showroom.
Some of his patrons might not get it. But Richman will be happy to fill them in.