What Did People Eat On LA's Beaches 100 Years Ago?
On July 4th, 1913, approximately 100,000 people thronged the beaches of Santa Monica, Venice and Ocean Park. Hungry after hours of frolicking in the waves, these daytrippers descended on the restaurants and food carts lining the beach, devouring almost everything in sight. By the afternoon, many lunch stands had erased half the items on their menu and several restaurants had closed for the day. They had run out of food.
Although these beachgoers were next to the ocean, they weren't, for the most part, supping on seafood. The story of Santa Monica cuisine in the early 20th century was shaped less by the abundant sea and more by the region's Spanish roots and its Midwestern ambitions.
The Early Years
It hadn't always been that way. In his talk 200 Years of Santa Monica Food, culinary historian and author Charles Perry, a Los Angeles native, says that for thousands of years the Tongva people were hunter-gatherers, mostly because they could be. The Santa Monica coastal region was rich in pine nuts, wild pears, berries, deer and rabbit. Its native inhabitants transformed live oak acorns into meal through a complicated process of pounding, sifting, boiling and cooking. Shellfish, particularly the coveted abalone, were abundant.
During Southern California's Spanish and Mexican periods, from the 18th century to 1848, isolated settlers decided the frostless Santa Monica region was an ideal place to grow vegetables and fruits, especially oranges, lemons, grapefruit, olives and figs. Settlers cooked meat, particularly beef, in pit barbecues dug into the ground and fed with firewood.
Perry notes that food was occasionally used for non-gustatory purposes. One settler from the Spanish-Mexican era recalled a bumpy ride to Los Angeles on a rutted road. When the driver realized he had run out of tallow, he used the family's rice pudding to grease the cart's wheels.
Santa Monica finally got its first restaurant in 1873, two years before the resort town officially incorporated as a city. According to Perry, in his talk The Wild Old Westside Beach Town Restaurants: 1880-1940, in 1873, a Frenchman named Eugene Aune opened what was probably little more than a seasonal cook shack in Santa Monica.
Aune, part of the rich French diaspora of 19th century Los Angeles, had studied cooking in France. In Santa Monica, he raised vegetables and served what were then exotic foods, such as artichokes and asparagus. He also offered local seafood (razor clams were a specialty). Perry says dinner was an elaborate affair with a soup, a fish course, a roast and a dessert of sweet omelet.
Seaside Hot Spot
Santa Monica soon became a trendy vacation destination for Angelenos. According to Luther A. Ingersoll, in A Century History of The Santa Monica Bay Cities, by 1878 it had two hotels, a clubhouse, lodging houses, eight restaurants, one baker, three fruit stores and multiple saloons. Many of these establishments, like Mrs. C.B. Fuller's "cozy restaurant," were open only during the summer.
Fishing was a popular activity for rich and poor people alike. At the Santa Monica Hotel, visitors could deliver their catch to the establishment's kitchens where chefs would then clean and cook the fish. In 1883, the Los Angeles Times reported:
The fish brigade at Santa Monica composed of Judge Silent and Mr. Northrup of Arizona... made another raid on the finny tribe yesterday morning and succeeded in landing 350 beauties. The brigade invited their numerous friends to a fish dinner at the Santa Monica Hotel in the evening. One hundred of the fish were sent to the courthouse, and a corresponding development in the brains of the county officials is to be looked for. An invitation to a fish breakfast Wednesday at 12pm at the Santa Monica Hotel is acknowledged.
"At Santa Monica the little bivalve donax is very common, and bearing... vivid tints and hues that old sailors and those living by the sea believe are imprinted there by the setting sun, and so call them sun shells. One of the common shells found in the seaweed at Santa Monica is a black, oyster-like shell, with a rich, pearly iridescent interior. They are collected and sold to dealers in paints, who in turn sell them to water-color artists, who use them to mix bronze, silver and gold tints. Sometimes pearls are found in them, though rarely."
According to Ingersoll, Eckert's served the "best fish dinner to be found in California," and was the "best treat one fellow could offer another." One of their staples was abalone (sea snails that taste similar to scallops) and the most popular method of preparation was pounding and slicing the meat, breading it and sautéing it with lemons or pan frying it with butter.
Eventually, the owners of Eckert's built a new grand pavilion at Ocean and Colorado avenues, which was, according to the 1907 Los Angeles Times, in "palmy days a great gathering place for dinner parties and the pleasure-seeking throng."
No matter how luxurious Eckert's pavilion or how succulent its shrimp, it was dwarfed in both culinary and historical importance by the Arcadia Hotel.
Opened in 1887 between what is today Colorado Avenue and Pico Boulevard, the Arcadia served the rich, bland foods desired by transplanted Midwesterners. In 1891, the hotel hosted the second annual banquet of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, whose members came to L.A. via the Southern Pacific Railway.
"Around the elaborately decorated tables, under the brilliant electric lights, faced, flanked and surrounded by garlands, fruits and greens, nearly two hundred guests partook of a sumptuous collation of California products," the Los Angeles Times reported.
At this banquet celebrating California as the "garden of the world," the courses were locally sourced -- but not from Santa Monica.
"The menu was both unique and emblematical," the L.A. Times noted. "The local coloring of the banquet was emphasized by the designation after each dish of its origin. San Diego for the turtle of the soup; Santa Barbara for the beef; Hollywood for the tomatoes."
Crazy For Tamales
The common folk had simpler options. They could head to food stands along the beachfront and piers, lunchrooms on Ocean Avenue or refreshment rooms in popular bathhouses, located on the water. Hot dogs were a staple.
According to writer and food historian Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth, you can thank Southern California's mishmash of cultures and ethnicities for the humble hot dog. The meat was inspired by sausages from the Sonora region of Mexico while the rolls were a spin on the French brioche. Fish dinners, which could be had for as little as 25 cents, would have been a rare opportunity for some visitors.
"If you think about the way that Los Angeles at large was advertising itself in that era, it was basically to get Midwesterners to come out," Spiers says. "And this was before freezing was cheap. So I think eating seafood, or at least saltwater seafood, would have been a treat for Midwesterners."
Los Angeles was also awash in mobile food. Horse drawn carts pegged to the ground were the Victorian era equivalent of food trucks and they did great business on weekends and holidays.
"A lot of the so-called pioneers who would have come here from the Midwest and the East Coast had chuck wagons with them," Spiers says. "I feel like a lot of the people who moved to Los Angeles from other parts of the country, they weren't gonna be freaked out by mobile food. They were used to it. And a lot of the vendors who set up near beaches were mobile food vendors."
Tamales, brought to California by settlers from Mexico and Guatemala, were one of the most popular mobile treats for people vacationing on the Southern California shore.
"Los Angeles was crazy about tamales in the Victorian era," Spiers says. This assertion is backed up by the numerous references to tamale vendors in the Los Angeles Times. In 1899, the newspaper reported:
A.B. Atkinson's tamale foundry on Utah Avenue near Ocean Avenue caught fire today from a gasoline stove. J.R. Smith, who was temporarily in charge of the place, was burned about the face and hands, but not seriously. The flames were subdued with a few buckets of water. The damage was trifling.
Corps of cooks proceeded to inaugurate a mammoth bean bake. A huge boiler filled with the succulent Ventura frijoles, seasoned with generous slices of barley-fed pork was placed over a roaring fire. While the beans were cooking, tables were set, coffee was boiled, and preparations were made for feeding the multitude. Besides the savory pork and beans and steaming hot coffee, there were barrels of Yankee doughnuts, cords of Boston brown bread and gallons of pickles.
Santa Monica Goes Upscale
As motoring to Santa Monica became a popular and progressively easier pastime, chic, sophisticated restaurants appealing to a more metropolitan crowd began to pop up. One of the first was The Sunset Inn, built by Adolphus Busch, head of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. This elaborate restaurant at Colorado Avenue and Ocean Boulevard was announced in 1911. The Los Angeles Times wrote:
Its main dining room will be fifty feet wide and 100 feet in length, commanding an unobstructed view of the ocean. It will be eighteen feet high, finished in Flemish oak with a heavily beamed and paneled ceiling. The inside walls will probably be faced with enameled brick. The main entrance to the room will have a spacious vestibule, with steps and wainscoting of marble. There will be a huge brick fireplace at the north end...Above the main dining hall and of practically the same dimensions will be a roof garden, which will be reached directly by a double stairway... the roof garden will have a floor of heavy ducking finished like a ship deck floor.
The food at the Sunset Inn was similar to the bland, "continental" fare served at Cafe Nat Goodwin on nearby Bristol Pier, which was then a privately owned pier. Opened by vaudevillian Nat Goodwin in 1913, the cafe was one of the hippest watering holes in Los Angeles County.
A surviving menu from 1913 for the Los Angeles Traffic Association's annual banquet, held at the cafe, featured a martini cocktail, "celery en branche," "consommé St. Xavier," filet of flounder, Parisian potatoes in white wine, dry sauteed spring chicken, potato croquettes, petite peas, stuffed tomato surprise and, for dessert, ice cream and cake finished with black coffee.
With the advent of Prohibition in 1920, the Santa Monica restaurant scene would transform into two camps -- family friendly establishments and underground speakeasies popular with the Hollywood set. Several bars shuttered or went underground while new restaurants, including The Lobster, which is still kicking, would open. Some things, however, don't change.
You can still find tamale vendors in Santa Monica, they just operate from food trucks along Ocean Avenue. Hot dog stands still crowd the pier next to vendors selling cotton candy and funnel cakes. Luxury hotels still serve sophisticated (read: expensive) fare to well-heeled tourists and locals. But you definitely won't find a fish dinner anywhere in the city for a mere 25 cents.