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Business still booming for an old railway restaurant

The Fred Harvey eatery at Union Station opened in 1939. The cooks and waitresses are no more, but the space is rented out for private events.

May 24, 2009|Steve Harvey

It has to be one of the few restaurants still used for motion pictures, weddings and fundraisers even though it stopped serving food four decades ago. But, then, few have settings like the Fred Harvey Restaurant at L.A.'s Union Station.

It's a wondrous time capsule from the mid-20th century, with a three-story-high ceiling, black, red and brown floor tiles in the pattern of a Navajo rug, high-backed lunch booths and an Art Deco bar with bubble glass.

Until recently, though, the Fred Harvey was one of Los Angeles' most forgotten landmarks.

Opened in 1939, it closed in 1967 and was largely inactive until a few years ago when the train station's new owners, the ProLogis company, hired Hollywood Locations to rent it out for private events at $5,000 a day.

"That's where Steve Buscemi was thrown over the rail," said Locations manager Jeff Cooper, referring to a scene that was shot on the second floor for the 2005 movie "The Island." "You should have seen the dummy they used for him. It was so realistic you'd ask it for an autograph."

Several political candidates, including Barack Obama, have speechified there.

"He stood right in front of the long bar and talked to everyone for an hour," Cooper said.

Business is good, but it can be hectic.

"I had one woman who was calling five or six times a week about the arrangements for her wedding," Cooper said. "One day she called and said, 'Jeff, you've got to let me come over. The napkin guy is here.' I said, 'You have a napkin guy?' "

These days, the Fred Harvey is a restaurant in name only. Meals are catered, and the kitchen, with its green tile walls, is devoid of ovens.

The cost of bringing the building's ventilation system and other features up to code has been deemed prohibitively expensive by the current owners.

But at least it avoided the wrecking ball and visitors can see the interior on Los Angeles Conservancy's tours.

Meanwhile, the upscale Traxx restaurant in the station's main concourse, north of the Harvey, is open to the public.

There was a time when restaurants and railroads were not compatible, points out author Lesley Poling-Kempes.

In the 1860s and 1870s, greasy spoons sprouted up at rail stops in the West and offered gut-wrenching fare.

"Eggs were shipped 'fresh' from back East, preserved in lime," she wrote in her book, "Harvey Girls: The Women Who Opened the West." Other delicacies might have included "a chicken stew of prairie dogs," chops as tough as "whipcord," biscuits made with "plenty of alkali" and coffee that "was fresh once a week."

And the stuff was dished up slowly. Knowing the trains made stops as brief as 15 minutes, the eateries would stall in the hope that passengers would have to leave before they could eat. The meal, or what remained of it, could then be served to another hungry soul.

English entrepreneur Fred Harvey changed all this, contracting with the Santa Fe Railway to build restaurants that served edible food.

And he used young women as servers after a station manager pointed out that they were less likely than men "to get likkered up and go on tears."

Harvey Girls, as they were called, had to be between ages 18 and 30, "of good character, attractive and intelligent" and willing to abstain from marriage for at least a year.

Not all kept that last promise. "Fred Harvey not only fed the West, he populated it," quipped conservancy docent Tony Valdez, the television reporter, on a recent tour.

The Harvey Restaurant at Union Station was the work of chain-smoking architect Mary Colter, who designed several landmark structures at the Grand Canyon and elsewhere.

It was "elegant and formal and was praised by everyone but the waitresses," wrote Colter's biographer Virginia Grattan. "Colter didn't want to clutter the room with a lot of little serving tables. . . . The waitresses complained that they had no place to set their heavy trays. . . . They had to hold the tray and serve at the same time, an almost impossible feat that caused many waitresses to quit."

There are, of course, no Harvey Girls there now. But the eerily-familiar surroundings can bring forth powerful memories.

One man who rented the place for his 80th birthday pointed to Union Station's main terminal and told Cooper: "The last time I was here, I bought a ticket over there, had lunch here and went to World War II."

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steveharvey9@gmail.com

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