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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

The Big Chicken

August 02, 1990|JONATHAN GOLD

The most spectacular restaurant in California sits in the center of an aggressively multi-ethnic mid-city community. Until its opening, the most ambitious recent bit of neighborhood architecture was the conversion of an old Taco Bell into a purple car-stereo showroom. Either that or the old supermarket that turned into a Korean church.

By now, everybody knows about the new Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise on Western, an astonishing building that has the design community bursting its rivets with urban pride. Color pictures of it are sure to be in half the glossy magazines in the country before the summer is through. The principals of the firm Grinstein/Daniels, who designed Chaya Brasserie and the new Chaya Venice as well as the KFC, tell interviewers they're bringing architecture to the masses. Peter "Melting Pot" Sellars, director of the aggressively multi-ethnic Los Angeles Festival, is sure to check the place out on one of his famous jaunts on the RTD.

Have you seen the thing?

The curved, leisure-suit-green structure, which looks from one angle like a chicken bucket from an alternate universe, is topped with a cube, which in turn is topped with something like a cross between an Isozaki pyramid and a fast-food mansard roof, and emblazoned with a hi-contrast rendition of the Colonel's grinning face. If you look at the building from another angle, you might see a giant, hunching chicken, with that cube as its head, merrily slanting sun louvres as its wings, a hint of a protruding roof in back as the tail.

Here, you literally are inside what you eat . . . heavy! The most abstruse man-and-his-environment lectures don't get any better than this. In other words, the KFC is a slightly cerebralized version of those California Crazy buildings East Coast intellectuals made so much fun of in the '30s, the giant teapots and hot dogs and chili bowls that shout L.A.

Still, the question remains: is eating chicken in a chicken different than eating chicken not in a chicken?

Not really.

You order your food from a fairly traditional counter at the bottom of the bird, then climb a flight of stairs into a stark, airy room that's twice as high as you expect, an oddly vast take on a '50s diner. Two walls are floor-to-ceiling plate glass, giving out onto a view of Western and the Hollywood sign, and the roof, slanted in a '50s coffeeshop sort of way, slices through the implied volume of the space, bringing the outdoors in. Another wall seems to be made of corrugated aluminum--mimicking dinerish quilted aluminum, perhaps--and the tables are dull red, edged with what looks like chrome. A long, J-shaped banquette is leather-look red plastic. There's a nice outside terrace, with one lonely table on it.

Several minutes after you order, after you study the attractive selection of catsup and hot-sauce packets, after you wander around exploring the nooks and recesses of the place, after you stare at the steel doors of the dumbwaiter that is supposed to bring up your food--the woman who runs the thing has a permanent "not-my-fault" look on her face--the chicken finally makes it upstairs. There are obviously kinks to be worked out. (Once the P.A. system blasted an easy-listening version of "Anticipation" while we were waiting. I'm not making it up!)

Actually, the KFC may be a truly democratic restaurant inside, after all . . . Argentines and Koreans, Salvadorans and Thais, Armenians and even the odd Wasp are all equally bewildered by the experience.

I won't presume to tell you about Original and Extra-Crispy, Chicken Little Sandwiches or Kentucky Nuggets. Suffice it to say that if you like this stuff you already know what it tastes like.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, 340 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 467-7421. Cash only. No alcohol. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, about $6.

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