The Source, LA's Cult Favorite Vegetarian Restaurant, Returns — For One Night
Around 1972, a group of 160 or so white-robe wearing hippies descended on Los Feliz where they rented a posh, 24-room, Georgian-style mansion on Inverness Street. Led by Father Yod — aka YaHoWha aka James Edward Baker — a bodybuilder turned war hero turned health food guru, they spent their days meditating, playing trippy music, smoking marijuana, sleeping with each other and eating a strict vegetarian diet.
To support themselves, they founded the Source, a Sunset Strip health food restaurant that became so influential Woody Allen parodied it in the 1977 movie Annie Hall (he orders "alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast"). But by then, the group (some would call it a cult) had left California and its founder was dead.
Whether you see Father Yod as a spiritual visionary who was ahead of his time or a con artist appropriating another culture's traditions so he could sleep with much younger women, the Source Family — and its restaurant — left its mark on Southern California.
On Thursday, December 5, Gratitude Kitchen & Bar in Beverly Hills will pay homage to the vegetarian cuisine of hippie-era Hollywood with a $75, five-course dinner (featuring CBD doses and optional wine pairings) inspired by the menu at the Source. Former members of the Source Brotherhood, including archivist and chronicler Isis Aquarian, will be on hand to tell stories of the group's brief heyday and play songs by the Source's various bands, which released nine psychedelic albums during Yod's life. And because life sometimes imitates comedy, diners must wear white or cream clothing.
The renewed interest in the Source Family's legacy springs partly from a 2012 documentary about the group and partly from our modern obsession with clean eating, communal living and spiritualism. At the center of these interwoven threads is Jim Baker.
From the start, Baker sought a better way of living. Born in Ohio in 1922, the strapping, athletic teenager befriended controversial health food magnate Paul Bragg, who believed in fasting, juicing, vegetarianism and regular exercise. Bragg, who also thought tonsillitis was caused by consuming "mucus forming foods" and blamed cancer on "gooey, slimy foods," is best known as the creator of an eponymous apple cider vinegar.
"[Father Yod] also befriended Jack LaLanne during the war time," Aquarian says. "They actually both were at a V.A. hospital together. He was in as a patient, with shrapnel in his leg from the war, and Jack LaLanne was the dietitian/nutritionist at the recovery center."
LaLanne, who had turned to healthy living as a 15-year-old after hearing a lecture by Bragg, would go on to fame as one of the country's first fitness gurus.
Baker moved to Los Angeles after World War II. While trying to find work as a stuntman and bodybuilder, he fell in with the Nature Boys, a group of vegetarian beatniks known for their antics on Muscle Beach. In 1955, Baker killed his Topanga Canyon neighbor with a judo kick after an argument over a dog turned violent. He managed to avoid prosecution.
Around 1958, Baker and his wife, Elaine, opened the Aware Inn at 8828 Sunset Blvd., a block away from where the Viper Room sits (at least for now). The Aware Inn prided itself on an extensive, mostly organic menu of fresh salads, entrees (including beef tartare and fillet of sole) and cheesecake. Folksy sayings, such as "food should be selected with confidence, eaten with pleasure and digested with ease," adorned the walls.
In 1961, Joan Winchell wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
"This was our favorite spot of the evening, reminding us as it did one of those down-a-side-street "discoveries" in Paris. It's small, cozy, red-checkered, table-clothed and has a fire burning dreamily in the red brick fireplace. You can get a complete dinner there for $2.95, and fellers, if you ever want to be really alone with the girl of your dreams, the tiny Upstairs Aware provides a beautiful view of the city lights and a wonderful waiter... Jim Baker is the unique young owner whose hobby is anthropology. Promised Jim we'd try his stuffed grape leaves next time around at his new Aware Inn in Sherman Oaks."
With the success of the Aware Inn, Baker opened became a Sunset Strip sensation, but in January 1963, he again found himself in trouble with the law. In the dressing room above the restaurant, he shot Robert I. Ingram, a builder from Corona Del Mar, during an altercation over Ingram's young wife, Jean. Baker admitted to kissing Jean once but claimed it was a mutual interest in health food and Indian philosophy that had drawn them together. "It was a spiritual attraction," Baker stated at trial.
Baker was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to one to ten years in prison. He managed to hold on to the restaurant and, in 1965, he opened the Old World, a block east at 8782 Sunset Blvd.
That same year, Baker was was released from a detention center after serving only five months. He was eventually granted a new trial and the charges were dropped although his marriage didn't survive the turmoil. After divorcing Jim, Elaine Baker successfully ran the Aware Inn for years.
Baker, meanwhile, dove head first into the hedonism and social upheaval of 1960s America. He became a follower of the spiritual guru Yogi Bhajan, credited with bringing kundalini yoga to the west and melding it with other traditions, including astrology.
It wasn't long before Baker was itching to open another restaurant. According to the book The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and The Source Family:
"One autumn day in 1968, Jim was hiking among the Calabasas oaks when he met a man on the trail. Jim regaled the fellow hiker, a man named Ray Feldman, with stories of his spiritual quest and his new idea for a restaurant based on dietary wisdom found in the secret teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Essene Gospels of Peace."
Charmed, Feldman loaned Baker $35,000.
"Jim spent the next few months reconstructing the little building he picked on Sunset and Sweetzer from its former life as a motorcycle and hamburger joint," write Isis and Electricity Aquarian in The Source: The Untold Story, their book about life in the family.
"One day, Baba Don, a friend from Yogi Bhajan's ashram, stopped by and asked what he was going to call the restaurant. Up until then, Jim had been referring to it as the 'salad bowl,' but when he opened his mouth to tell the name, he blurted out 'The Source,' as if someone else were speaking through him. And thus, it all began."
On April 1, 1969, the Source officially opened.
The small, 25-table restaurant, with its expansive patio facing the Sunset Strip, featured a fireplace that Baker had converted into a waterfall, topped with melting candles in rainbow colors. The waiters were attractive, young (often very young) flower children clad all in white. Most were followers of the magnetic Baker, abiding by his tenets of healthy living and free love.
His approach to cuisine wasn't an immediate hit.
"He experimented when The Source first opened. It was kind of raw and vegan, and it really wasn't going over very well. He had to switch over to vegetarian, which was dairy. We did have about six or seven items that were cooked with rice and tofu and the tomato sauces and stuff," Aquarian says.
The revised Source menu, featuring vegetable salads, fruit salads, lentil soup, cheesecake and the "best fresh juices on the planet" (including smoothies and lemon slushies) began attracting some of L.A.'s hippest swingers.
"There was a short renaissance period there where it really was very magical," Aquarian says.
Even the L.A. Times liked the fare, which was sourced from local, similarly minded producers like Santa Barbara's Sunburst Farms and date-grower Gypsy Boots, who owned the popular L.A. health food store Health Hut, on Beverly Blvd. near La Cienega:
"Seems like almost everyone's been here at one time or other for The Source's cheese and walnut loaf or Mother's Eggplant (stuffed with Greek olives, mushrooms, pignolias, tomatoes and sautéed in garlic...with brown rice), both of which, as are all entrees, $4.25. Their salads are full and filling, their juices are made fresh to order (even watermelon) and their Kona coffee is as aromatic as the flowers on the tables. They're tight in the running for the best cheesecake in town, with their coffee, carob, date-nut or plain at $1.25 a slice. And their thick cinnamon and nut-stuffed whole wheat French toast is unmatched. You usually get to gaze at some rock star or other since The Source is right in line with the Hyatt House and down the road from the Roxy."
Aquarian says she was especially fond of the Source special, an open face sandwich that featured whole wheat bread topped with guacamole, mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts, tomatoes, melted cheese and the restaurant's famous lemon herb dressing alongside a salad.
The Source soon became known for more than its food. Baker had begun teaching classes in meditation, religion and eastern philosophy at the restaurant on Sunday mornings. He took on a new name, Father Yod. Supported by proceeds from the restaurant, he and his followers moved into the Los Feliz mansion, which had once been owned by Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Holding court at the Source, surrounded by a bevy of earthy beauties, the newly christened Father Yod had officially become a Los Angeles guru.
"The James Baker I had casually known had looked like what he was, a well-to-do Beverly Hills restaurant owner, modishly dressed, with a sort of hip, cool attitude," entertainer Steve Allen recalled in his book Beloved Son: A Story of the Jesus Cults. "The figure that now appeared looked like Michelangelo's version of god the father. Long, flowing gray-white hair, a full beard, piercing eyes."
Despite the group's free-flowing vibe, Yod ran the Source restaurant — and the Source Family — like a seasoned entrepreneur.
"It was very well-organized. Nobody cared what [jobs] they did. We all knew how to do everything but we didn't care if we were waiting on tables or making food. There was a crew and they had their shifts. It was run like a business," Aquarian says.
Joni Mitchell, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie were regulars at the Source. By 1971, it had become quite the scene, as the L.A. Times reported with backhanded glee:
"The Source on the Sunset Strip has become the new cruising stations for street people, musicians, movie makers. "Every kind of person comes here," says Robin, young wife of Source owner Jim Baker, "including a lot of rich Beverly Hills matrons. The Source... also draw[s] a lot of smiling swamis in white turbans and flowing eastern garments. I get the impression that some of these holy men — and some of the other super-serene patrons and serving people — have not only transcended McDonald's golden arches but all carnal appetites as well. But the food is excellent. Besides tasty sandwiches and salads, The Source offers the best fruit juices in L.A., and a hi-protein cereal — with fresh fruits, honey and wheat germ — that would make even the Maharishi put aside his prayer beads for morning pushups..."
"One of the reasons the Source restaurant was so famous and so popular was [Father Yod] had the added advantage of already being a Hollywood legend. Jack LaLanne said, 'I can't go out and eat anywhere. Your restaurant is about the only place I can go.' Even people that ate meat came because the food was good. It was an elevated frequency," Aquarian says.
Back at the Mother House in Los Feliz, Father Yod and the family ate sparingly, often waiting for their shift at the restaurant to grab a bite. According to a 1972 profile in the L.A. Times:
"There is no stove in the kitchen. There is no need for one; the family eats just twice daily, uncooked fruit and nuts and seeds and milk and honey. This morning the women served a "pie" of crushed nuts topped by guacamole, sliced tomatoes and alfalfa sprouts, a fruit and nut salad, sliced bananas with yogurt and carob dressing, wheat rolls with herb sauce, and milk."
In 1973, the Source Family was kicked out of the Chandler mansion after neighbors complained about their free-loving, free-grazing ways, and they moved to a three-bedroom home in Nichols Canyon. Pressure from law enforcement regarding the presence of underage girls began to haunt the family. According to Aquarian, in late 1974, Father Yod, now calling himself YaHoWha, sold the Source to Mel Zahn's Sunset Corporation. He and his most devoted followers decamped for Hawaii.
There, they hoped to open a new restaurant but wary locals resisted those plans. On August 25, 1975, Yod died after crash-landing his hang-glider on a beach. The group disbanded a few years later.
"He just said, 'I've given you everything I know. It's time for you to go out on your own path and journey, now. I've done mine.' And that's what we did," Aquarian says.
Aquarian, who meticulously photographed the family during its brief existence, continues to keep Father Yod's teachings alive as an archivist and historian for the group.
She has watched with pride as ideas about organic, local, vegetarian food have become mainstream.
"This younger generation are really stepping up to the plate. There's going to be no excuses. It's like everybody's getting on the bandwagon," she says.
For years, Aquarian has been friends with Ryland Engelhart, co-founder and mission fulfillment officer of the plant-based Cafe Gratitude chain of restaurants.
"I love what they're doing. They were highly inspired by the Source. [Ryland] said that right up front, 'Oh, my god. We bow to you,'" she says.
Englehart echoes the importance of that link in a statement supplied to LAist:
"The Source restaurant, the first in Los Angeles to promote raw, organic and vegetarian eating, was a pioneer in the idea of a business expressing a culture of love, service and well-being. While there are many differences between the two restaurants, there are threads of similarities that we can playfully acknowledge and pay tribute to."
For Aquarian, the dinner at Gratitude Kitchen represents a passing of the torch.
"This is iconic," she says, "because it's the old guard, which is us, merging with the next generation and just keeping it going as one energy."
Those who haven't had their fill of 'retro commune chic can find Isis Aquarian's sun-kissed photos of the Source in the show "Children of the Sun," on view at Ladies' Room, an art gallery in downtown L.A., through December 20.