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A Silk Purse Out of a Sow's Ear

The landmark building that once housed the Pig 'n Whistle rises from ruin to reclaim its place as an elegant eatery. The family restaurant, once frequented by the likes of Shirley Temple, Spencer Tracy and Howard Hughes, had in recent years become a seedy fast-food joint.

April 26, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE Times

A candy counter ran down one side, a soda fountain down the other, and there was a blue room in the back serving lunch and dinner. An organ in the front room played while people were dining. "Dad's restaurant was such a fine, elegant restaurant," Lois Weber, now 81, recalls of the Pig 'n Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard, the regular haunt of the likes of Shirley Temple, Spencer Tracy and Howard Hughes that her father ran in the late 1930s and '40s.

Today, the main dining room is up front, and booths and tables sporting fine linens and flatware have taken the place of the former candy counter. The blue room at the back has become a second dining area, but in addition to tables and chairs, it now sports several queen-size beds, following a current club trend, for diners to enjoy as well.

The Pig 'n Whistle reopened in its landmark site last month after a renovation that approached $2 million. Once a family-friendly hot spot, today it symbolizes an updated vision for Hollywood Boulevard, reviving the vintage look for a young, hip clientele.

The restaurant's new incarnation is the work of business partners Chris Breed and Allan Hajjar, best known for their high-end Hollywood nightclub, the Sunset Room. Two years ago, they were approached about restoring the Pig 'n Whistle, located next to the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. The venue was clearly a Cinderella--it had become a ramshackle fast-food joint, in keeping with the decay of the surrounding neighborhood, but beneath the grit and the faux ceiling and walls remained the framework of the once-ornate family restaurant.

Hajjar, a structural engineer by training, knew that the project would be daunting, but he and Breed were attracted to playing a part in reviving Old Hollywood.

"I used to see Hollywood as a glamorous place, but when I got here, I realized how rundown it had gotten," says Breed, who grew up and began his career as a restaurateur in England. "My father was into the movies, so it's a little bit of a tribute to him, to bring back old Hollywood to its glory days."

It also seemed like a good business opportunity, given the renovation of the Egyptian Theatre into the new home of the American-Cinematheque in 1998, and the nearby development at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

The job was a major challenge, Hajjar says, and at 3,500 square feet took two years to accomplish. The elaborate coffered ceiling, cornices and wall brackets took the most time, and money; although original details remained after the drop ceiling and wallboard were removed, much was damaged. Silicone molds had to be made to reproduce the missing sections in fiberglass multiples. Old photographs guided the reconstruction.

Of course, there were also various permits to be obtained--the building's facade is a historical landmark, so any work on it required approval. These weren't very difficult to get, since Breed and Hajjar were for the most part recreating the original Pig 'n Whistle look. The overhanging marquee was still there, for example, although the original words and decorations had been boarded over. Now, the new neon around the marquee is an exact replica of the original. The original Pig 'n Whistle opened July 22, 1927, designed by the team of Morgan, Walls & Clements, who were also responsible for the El Capitan and Wiltern Theatres. The restaurant was one of a now-defunct national chain.

With its heavy wooden detailing, including paneling, booths, and a Gothic-style coffered ceiling, Breed believes some decorations of his Pig 'n Whistle date from an even earlier incarnation of the building, around 1910, a period of Gothic revival.

The name derives from two Old English words: "piggin," a lead mug, and "wassail," a mulled wine drunk at yuletide. The original dancing pig logo appears throughout the restaurant--today as it did in the heyday-- featured prominently on a front panel over the entry and as the centerpiece of 1920s tiles throughout the premises.

The Hollywood Pig 'n Whistle folded in the 1950s, and its contents were sold off--the old wooden booths can be found now just around the corner at Micelli's Italian restaurant. Today's version offers an upscale California menu, but Breed has insisted on including a touch of traditional pub fare, such as his mother's recipe for shepherd's pie. There is a kids' menu, but late in the evening the restaurant turns down the lights and is definitely meant to appeal to a nightclub crowd.

Despite these changes, Weber believes that the renovated Pig 'n Whistle brings her memories back to life. "I'm just so lucky to see all this come around," she says.

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