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Return of the Castaway : Owners Plan to Rebuild Landmark Restaurant Destroyed by Fire in Burbank

June 01, 1994|VIVIEN LOU CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comedian Bob Hope could sometimes be found sitting at the bar.

Other locals loved it for its sweeping vista of the northeast San Fernando Valley.

The Castaway restaurant, a 31-year-old landmark perched in the Verdugo Hills in Burbank, also drew Burbank-based companies such as the Walt Disney Co., NBC and Lockheed for get-togethers in banquet rooms next-door.

"People would come and sip a pina colada, listen to a song and warm their hands on a furnace," said Rod Westmaas, director of catering for Castaway's banquet center. "More than a restaurant, it was an institution. When the fire went up, many said many dreams and memories went up in smoke."

Today, meeting rooms and a fenced-off pile of debris surrounded by palm trees are all that remain of the restaurant, which was destroyed last summer by an arsonist still at large.

But the restaurant's operators hope to begin rebuilding in July with about $2.2 million in insurance proceeds and reopen in December.

Meanwhile, two large banquet rooms next to the restaurant are still functional, serving as the site for weddings, company parties and high school proms.

"We're not up to our former strength yet, but we've come back strong," Westmaas said.

When it is resurrected, the hilltop restaurant will look much as it did before from the inside--an island retreat.

This time, however, there will be a sprinkler system, an indoor waterfall, a higher ceiling, larger bathrooms, an exterior made of rough cedar and a lobby three times the original size.

"To me, it needed a face lift badly. The toilets were an embarrassment as far as I was concerned," said Ron Weil, director of design for Specialty Restaurants Corp., an Anaheim-based company.

Complaints from residents who worried about increased traffic on the hilltop forced corporation President David Tallichet to consider a more limited expansion. The new proposal would expand the restaurant 1,100 square feet.

The plans were presented to the City Council on Tuesday but council members, still uncertain about what the environmental impact would be for residents, voted 4 to 0 to continue a public hearing to June 21.

The June 29 fire resulted in more than $1 million in damage. There have been no suspects caught, despite a $10,000 reward offered by Specialty Restaurants.

Some people living near the Castaway, such as Esther Christoffersen, have been grateful for the decreased noise and traffic ever since.

"Since the Castaway has gone in, the traffic has been horrendous," said Christoffersen, 74, who has lived on Harvard Road since 1949. "We can't sleep in our front bedroom because of the noise. It has just destroyed a quiet neighborhood.

"If I had my druthers, I'd like to not see it rebuilt. We have enjoyed having the quietness of our street back again."

The fire forced most of the 200 people who worked at the restaurant and banquet center into the job market again. Some have coped well; others have not.

"I guess I felt the pain of many employees who lost their job," Westmaas said. "One individual, a cocktail server, said her whole life was shot. Her whole psyche is out of whack.

"I'd prefer not to believe it was an employee or a former employee (who started the fire). But you can never rule anything out."

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