Before It Became Chinatown, Frenchtown Was Where LA's Gilded Age Robber Barons Feasted
It was Dec. 28, 1881, the thick of the holiday season. At the posh Commercial Restaurant, Isidor Polaski was throwing a glittering party to celebrate the marriage of his sister Gussie. He poured the finest champagne and toasted to the couple's happiness. Guests indulged in a multi-course meal, listed on customized menus printed on silk with each diner's name embossed in gold. The local paper described the French dishes — Consommé à la Royale, Halibut à la Hollandaise, Filet de Boeuf à la Rothschild, Pigeons a la Rebecca, Fetti Pois à L' Anglaise Choux Fleurs, Meringue de Peche à la Reine — in breathless detail.
It was certainly opulent but in the midst of the Gilded Age, with all its materialistic excess, why all the hoopla over yet another extravagant shindig?
Because it wasn't happening in Paris or New York or San Francisco. It was happening in Los Angeles — and the opening of the Commercial signaled that haute European cuisine had arrived in what was then seen as a dusty, backwater burg.
Hello, Haute Cuisine
When French and Swiss immigrants began coming to Los Angeles in the 1830s, many settled inwhat is now Chinatown, creating a neighborhood known as the French colony. While much of the enclave stretched from what we now know as Chinatown and into Little Toykyo, there was also a strong presence of French immigrants, particularly from the Basque region, around the intersection of Aliso and Alameda streets and in the area of the Old Plaza.
One early French Colony resident, Jean-Louis Vignes, would build a California wine empire known as the El Aliso Winery. Many of his compatriots followed, bringing their knowledge of grape-growing, bread-making and fine dining to a city that was hungry to be a cultural metropolis.
By the 1850s, Los Angeles had at least two French restaurants, according to historian Cecilia Rasmussen — Restaurant du Commerce and Restaurant Francais. Probably run out of adobes, these early restaurants likely served country fare like onion soup and hunks of bread. During this period, a man named Benjamin Flotte, "the father of haute cuisine," arrived in California and began reshaping its culinary landscape.
Flotte was a fascinating character. He was a revolutionary and anarchist who would periodically return to Europe to participate in uprisings. After owning a celebrated restaurant in San Francisco for years, Flotte moved to Los Angeles in the 1870s and opened the Oriental Restaurant, across the street from the legendary Pico House, the first fine hotel in the city, located on the old Los Angeles Plaza.
David S. Shields, author of the definitive The Culinarians: Lives and Careers from the First Age of American Fine Dining, says the restaurant was all the more enticing because of the chef. Charles Casson had worked under chef Giuseppe Ranieri as part of the culinary staff for Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Shields described Casson as "a fortunate survivor of the crack-up of the empire." Under him, the Oriental flourished.
In 1873, Flotte left Casson in charge at the Oriental and founded another restaurant in a large adobe house at Main and Temple streets. The area was the center of power in Los Angeles, a stone's throw away from city hall, the courts, jails and a growing commercial and financial district. The feel was decidedly macho, and having a fine French restaurant, already the symbol of haute cuisine in America, signified that L.A. was a town on their rise.
Flotte named his new establishment the Commercial Restaurant. It soon became the place to eat, drink and celebrate in Los Angeles during an era when big spenders, who had lived for years in the rustic accommodations of the rural West, were flush with new money.
"To a town used to dirt floors and barefoot cooks," the Los Angeles County Pioneer Society wrote in 1912, "the Commercial, reached through an inner court with a fountain in the center, seemed almost unbelievable."
Around 1877, Flotte invited his niece Felice and her husband, Victor Dol, to help him run the Commercial.
Dol, born in Cures and trained as a chef in Paris, had been living in San Francisco, where he was running a restaurant. A political radical and committed socialist, he and Felice soon became major cultural and economic forces in downtown Los Angeles. Felice, a brilliant businesswoman, oversaw the family's growing real estate empire while Dol ran the Commercial, adding new touches and presiding over the most up-to-date kitchen in town.
"He served dinners in the French style, accompanied by 'an excellent French vin ordinaire' without extra charge,"Shields writes. "For 75 cents, 'a Bordeaux wine of capital grade' would be brought to the table."
At one farewell party for railroad man C.F. Smurr, the Los Angeles Times gushed, "the feast was spread in the large room fronting New High Street, and at 7:30pm the party sat down to the... menu gotten up by that prince of artistic cooks, V. Dol." The paper listed every single dish.
Committed to sourcing fresh seafood from the bountiful Pacific Ocean, Dol co-founded the American Fishing Company. He also had delicacies delivered from around the world, including, in 1883, a Panamanian green turtle weighing 150 pounds.
By 1889, Dol had moved to a building across from the all-powerful Los Angeles Times. Renamed the Maison Dorée, the restaurant was advertised as "L.A.'s Delmonico," an homage to the famous New York City restaurant.
Located in L.A.'s political and judicial center, Maison Dorée catered to the city's expanding elite. Dol offered multi-course businessmen's lunches for 25 cents, featuring entrees with exotic names like Asparagus alla Parmigiana Turkey, Fish à la Cristoforo Colombo and Bologna Consommé à la Royale as well as a daily selection of oysters.
Flotte and Dol were not the only famous French chefs to make their mark in Los Angeles.
The Mild, Mild West
During the 1870s, Pico House boasted "French Charlie" Laugier as its chef. In 1886, Jules Arthur Harder, born in Alsace and trained in Paris, a former chef for the legendary Lorenzo Delmonico, became chef at Nadeau House, one of L.A.'s earliest luxury hotels (it was at Spring and First streets). Harder had spent years in San Francisco and is credited with advancing the cuisine of California.
"Perhaps of greater long-term consequence, Harder secured the finest seed from French and eastern American sources for garden produce and put it in the hands of California farmers,"Shields explains, "so that vegetables would have a quality commensurate with that available in the markets of New York."
Harder also wrote a book called The Physiology of Taste, which included recipes, best practices and a remarkably forward-thinking philosophy of food:
To embrace the whole list of food articles, their selection, treatment, and best method of preparing them for the table, showing how the utmost value can be obtained from every edible designed by the Almighty for the comfort and nourishment of mankind.
Sadly for Los Angeles palates, Harder's tenure at Nadeau House was brief. He soon moved to Hawaii. More lasting was the delightful and exuberant Frederick Compagnon, a Swiss-born, Paris-trained master chef who worked at San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado for years before running a restaurant in Los Angeles from the early 1900s until his death in 1926.
By the 1920s, the French colony of Los Angeles had dispersed, assimilating into the greater metropolitan sprawl, and the influence of the early French culinarians was all but forgotten. When Union Station was built in the 1930s, the original Chinatown was destroyed. The displaced Chinese businesses and restaurants began to move into the buildings that the French and Swiss had left behind, only a few blocks away from their original locations, creating the Chinatown we know and love today.
One of the last remnants of the old French food-scene is the legendary Taix in Echo Park. Its roots go back to the late 19th century, when patriarch Marius Taix founded the Taix French Bread Bakery at 321 Commercial Street. The current restaurant opened in 1927 and moved to Echo Park in 1964. By that time, columnist Lee Shippey said, it had become the "Frenchiest place in town."