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Tall tales concocted from the Original Spanish Kitchen

After a 'Closed for Vacation' sign was hung in 1961, the Beverly Boulevard restaurant never reopened. Rumors spread of guns and ghosts, but the real culprit was a love story.

March 01, 2009|Steve Harvey

Closing up one night in 1961, workers at the Original Spanish Kitchen on Beverly Boulevard set out silverware, saltshakers and napkins at each table and neatly stacked the chairs.

And there the settings and chairs remained, unmoved for more than a quarter of a century.

A "Closed for Vacation" sign, hung outside that night, gave no clue that the restaurant would never reopen.

So what happened?

One rumor held that the owner had been shot to death inside and that his wife had wanted the place left undisturbed until the killer was caught.

Some believed the restaurant was haunted. There were stories of knives flying in the night.

The TV show "Lou Grant" set a murder mystery there.

But there was a quieter explanation.

"The truth is," The Times reported in 1989, "that this decaying building has simply frozen in time a moment of happier days in a love story of an elderly woman who has shut herself off from the world . . . "

The woman was co-owner Pearl Caretto. She and her husband, Johnny, had opened the restaurant in 1932, and it became a favorite of stars such as Bob Hope, Linda Darnell and John Barrymore. Mary Pickford, who had a special booth near the door, would bring in recipes.

Then in 1961, the husband was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and Pearl closed the restaurant to take care of him in their residence on the second floor. He died a few years later, and she could never bring herself to reopen.

"Isn't it sad how so many people never find their one true love?" she told writer Michael Szymanski, who tracked her down in 1989. At that time the restaurant was still closed, tables still set. "And always, always, it ends in heartbreak. You'll see."

Caretto, who has since died, was living in an apartment by then, having moved away from the restaurant after it was vandalized. The family sold the property in the late 1990s.

All of this was a long time ago, and yet the restaurant's mystique lives on.

Its sign is still standing, though it's partly covered so that only the "Spa" in "Spanish" can be seen. Perfect for the upstairs occupant, Ona Spa.

"The neighbors wanted it left up," explained Fabienne Dufourg, co-owner of Ona as well as Prive hair salon, which now occupies the former Spanish Kitchen space. A cafe there shut down.

When Dufourg reopened the building eight years ago, the rumors of ghosts were still alive.

"I am very grounded -- I don't believe a word about ghosts," she said. "My husband, he's an artist. He believed it."

But she converted one day in August. "It was very hot," she said, and she was standing inside the building when "I felt like my legs were freezing."

And, so, she said, "We did a clearing." In other words, she hired a psychic from Arizona to check for poltergeists.

The psychic found five ghosts. "The ghosts were coming after my mother-in-law -- oh, it's a long story," Dufourg said. "There was a nasty one. I think he was a sort of killer from the '50s."

The psychic, who charged $70 an hour, chased out the spirits in an impressive time of 30 minutes. These days, the building is ghost-free, more or less.

"Sometimes I wonder," said Lane Lenhart, a manager at Ona. "Funky things happen once in a while, lights going on and off. . . ."

Aside from the "Spa" sign, the old place's name has survived in other ways.

A rock group christened itself Spanish Kitchen and posed by the building for a website photo. The group later dropped the name, but not because of ghosts. It seemed that people kept asking if it was a salsa band.

Meanwhile, a new Spanish Kitchen restaurant materialized on La Cienega Boulevard.

"I wanted to capture some of the romance of old Hollywood," explained owner Greg Morris, no relation to the Carettos.

He didn't inherit any ghosts, but he did meet a link to the Original Spanish Kitchen.

"The owner's daughter came in and gave me a great paella pan with the name stamped on it," he said.

Morris knows the real story of the old restaurant but enjoys listening to versions told by his older customers.

"I've heard stories that there was a Mafia killing there," he said. "Or that the owner was a bullfighter and his wife was a flamenco dancer and he killed her because he didn't like her dancing."

Morris added: "I never correct any of the stories."

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steveharvey9@gmail.com

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