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A Fantasy Getaway Right in Town

Travel dreams, cabin kitsch and shoe shopping--themed bars, restaurants offer a little escapism.

September 05, 2002|AL RIDENOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In September, it's a lot easier to leave summer behind with a quick fix of getaway fantasy. L.A.'s long-standing tradition of themed bars and restaurants offers a variety of environments--where you can have dinner in an RV without leaving town, hang out in a campy mountain cabin and order a cocktail in a shoe store.

For those fans of classic camping, there's the Airstream Diner. Open since July, this creation of Los Feliz restaurateur Fred Eric (Vida, Fred '62) is a 24-hour eatery housed in an oversized replica of the renowned streamlined silver trailer. Parked at the corner of Camden Drive and Little Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, Eric sees the restaurant as a casual oasis where locals tired of toting Gucci bags can drop their cares and feel good about enjoying a deep-fried doughnut--along with more "well traveled" dishes.

The trailer look is carried indoors with foldaway travel bar, rounded windows revealing staged scenes of mobile living and plastic tables custom-made by the Airstream company in Jackson Center, Ohio. A longtime admirer of the firm's tenacious sense of style, Eric is himself an Airstream-owning fan of company founder and ideologue Wally Byam, a natural vagabond who saw his creation as a vehicle for helping people from diverse corners come together. The down-home neighborhood feel of the diner is intended to create that same connection.

Across town, the Bigfoot Lodge, in Atwater Village, could pass for one of those rustic stops where Airstream travelers might come to swap tall tales. This woodsy retreat, in the "Sasquatch National Forest," according to a sign, is filled with comic flourishes like a full-size Smokey Bear and mechanical raccoon created by owner Bobby Green and friends. Rockers, gay couples, industry types and college students come here to gather around the hefty flagstone fireplace, listen to live bands or eye the stuffed sloth masquerading as a baby Bigfoot.

Like the Airstream Diner, the Lodge's theming was inspired by personal experience. Green, who grew up in Oklahoma, recalls how his "family was always going to Indian reservations or pioneer towns where they'd put on little shows. And every year we'd go to Colorado or New Mexico skiing where we'd stay in log cabins that looked pretty much like the one we built here." Though the themed interior took roughly three months and $50,000 to assemble, Green thinks the cozy novelty of the place has been key to drawing visitors off the beaten track as well as keeping the crowd relaxed and social. "It's not like someplace with four bare walls where you're always on your guard. People feel they can come here to let loose."

Roughly a year after the 1999 opening of Bigfoot Lodge, New York nightclub entrepreneur Paul Devitt opened an L.A. version of his East Village Beauty Bar, adding nearby a second fashion-themed bar, Star Shoes, the following year. Larger than its New York prototype, L.A.'s Beauty Bar is a knowingly froufrou environment where glam-rockers and bridal parties together sip cocktails like the Prell and the Platinum Blond.

Manager Graham Northwood agrees with Green that fantasy decor makes for a more lively clientele, remarking that he's occasionally "seen people spinning each other around on the barber chairs like they're in a theme park." Retro art from beauticians' manuals, and displays of cosmetics also make for nice icebreakers, he says, and the clear plastic domes of the Beauty Bar's 1960s hair dryers sometimes serve as improvisational space helmets for male astronauts eager to amuse female patrons. Those who take the theme more literally can submit their nails to one of the Beauty Bar's professional manicurists.

Around the corner at Star Shoes, visitors can not only have their shoes shined while sipping their Stolis but can shop from a large array of never-worn vintage footwear. Part of the collection of Joseph LaRose, designer for stars such as Joan Crawford and Betty Grable, these shoes go for anywhere from $100 to $200. Mid-century store fixtures, sandals in spotlighted vitrines and a bar with inlaid marble stars like those on the Walk of Fame combine to evoke the glamour of Tinseltown.

Perhaps the most expansive newcomer to the themed eatery business is Larry Pollack's Saddle Ranch Chop House on the Sunset Strip. A false-front Knott's Berry Farm-style exterior houses this rowdy steak-and-suds hangout enlivened by strolling fiddlers, gas "campfires" for self-serve s'mores and a mechanical bull for urban cowboys with something to prove.

In May, Pollack opened another themed Sunset Boulevard restaurant, Rome, where diners munch gnocchi under a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and he recently opened a second Saddle Ranch, at Universal CityWalk, that's nearly four times as large as the original.

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