My second-favorite place to get pizza in Los Angeles abruptly closed the other day, reportedly for good. It was Frankie and Johnnie’s, a tiny business about the size of a phone booth located on Little Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, just west of Rodeo Drive. Frankie and Johnnie’s should not be confused with the Johnnie’s New York Pizza chain, though it probably was, often.
Frankie and Johnnie’s served very fine pies with very thin crusts and if you bought slices as opposed to a whole pie, they’d reheat them in their big oven and come out much crisper. It was very difficult to walk past the place and not stop in for a slice or two. They also served an amazingly wide range of decent pasta dishes — amazing because the whole kitchen there seemed to be about the size of a Honda Civic. I’m going to miss that place.
You’re probably wondering what my favorite place is to get pizza in Los Angeles. Once upon a time, it was Damiano’s, featured elsewhere on this site. Now, it’s Vito’s Pizza on La Cienega, a few blocks south of Santa Monica. It’s not fancy but the pizza is made expertly and many friends who obsess on “New York Pizza” and somehow believe one cannot find rotten pizza in Manhattan, swear that Vito’s is as close as you can get. It is very good and I really hope I never have to add it to this blog.
The legendary Woody’s Smorgasburger chain continues to attract so much attention that we can’t contain all its messages in one forum. Visit the others to read what has been said but post your new comments in this thread.
Jan’s Restaurant was located on Beverly Boulevard just east of La Cienega. It billed itself as “L.A.’s Best Coffee Shop.” One wonders how the folks at Astro’s over on Fletcher Drive — owned by the same family and featuring almost the exact same cuisine — felt about that. But Jan’s was pretty good. In the seventies, I lived a block from the place and was in there at least twice a week. Breakfasts were as good as any other option I had. For lunch and dinner, it wasn’t the greatest but it was several notches above Denny’s or Norm’s or any other big chain you could name.
I especially liked the Spaghetti Burger, which was not as many assumed a hamburger with spaghetti on it. It was a hamburger with a dish of spaghetti on the side.
Jan’s was reasonably priced and had good service. It closed in mid-March after more than fifty years in business. We’ve lost too many of that kind of eatery.
To the surprise of no one who has followed the chain’s decline in recent years, the last Koo Koo Roo — the one in Santa Monica — is gone. The Luby’s company, which acquired Koo Koo Roo and Fuddrucker’s in 2010, has turned the last location into a Fuddrucker’s…an ironic finish since the operating premise of Koo Koo Roo, once upon a time, was to offer an alternative the traditional burger and fries fare.
Koo Koo Roo started in Los Angeles in 1988 when two brothers, Ray and Mike Badalian opened their first location and before long, their second. The one I went to was in a little strip mall at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Orlando Avenue, a few blocks east of La Cienega. Before the mall was built, the land housed a Roy Rogers Roast Beef Sandwich stand and then a Golden Bird Fried Chicken shop. Another Koo Koo Roo was located in Koreatown.
The night of the Academy Awards in 1990, Kenneth Berg, a semi-retired real estate broker, passed by and noticed the long line of customers at the Beverly/Orlando location. He decided to stop in and get a “to go” order to eat while watching the Oscars and he was impressed with what he later described as “…the best chicken I ever had in my life.” He soon met the Badalian brothers, invested in their business and later bought them out. He not only liked the chicken but the whole concept of healthy “fast food.”
The story of Koo Koo Roo became one of ups and downs. New stores opened. Other stores closed. Berg’s staff added an expanded menu that included freshly-carved turkey and he renamed the chain Koo Koo Roo California Kitchens. Later, he purchased a controlling interest in the Arrosto Coffee chain and opened coffee bars within his Koo Koo Roos.
It seemed like every few months, Koo Koo Roo was opening more stores and closing others while experimenting with new menu items. The folks who loved Koo Koo Roo (I was one) really loved it but there never seemed to be enough of them. Eventually, Berg’s company sold out to the Fuddrucker’s people and though they added their burgers to most outlets, they didn’t reverse the company’s fortunes…and finally that last one closed.
I miss them. I liked their signature chicken breast. I liked their turkey. I thought their macaroni and cheese was wonderful. But clearly, not everyone liked Koo Koo Roo as much as I did.
Much of this weblog has been joyously devoted to one of my favorite now-defunct places to eat…Woody’s Smorgasburger. Many former employees have chimed in to create a weblogged history of the chain, and the most vocal and interesting has been Phil Ankofski. Recently, Phil sent me some photos of a diorama he has lovingly built of the Woody’s I most often frequented, the one in Culver City. I’ll be posting Phil’s photos here along with some other pics he’s contributed, and I’m sure he’ll be along to offer commentary. Please join in. Here’s the first pic he sent of his remarkable reconstruction…
We’ve had so many messages posted here about the late, luscious Woody’s Smorgasburger that we have to break them up. This is the third thread of comments. You can read our article about Woody’s and the first batch of comments here. You can read the second batch of comments here. Please continue the discussion on this thread.
In the eighties, there was a war of competing hamburger chains: Fuddrucker’s versus Flakey Jake’s. I liked them both but slightly preferred the latter, particularly the Flakey Jake’s on the northwest corner of the intersection of Pico and Sepulveda in West Los Angeles.
The premise of both chains was simple. They sold pretty good hamburgers, a notch above McDonald’s and Burger King at a correspondingly (but not exorbitant) price. They both had other menu items but you went there for the burgers, which were served on a bun cooked on the premises in their own bakery. The bakery also made cinnamon buns and other goodies which you could purchase to take home.
One thing I liked about them was the “dress-it-yourself” bar that I first encountered at Woody’s Smorgasburger, which has become the major topic of this site. You got your burger nude and you carried it over to an area where they had ketchup and mustard and onions and lettuce and tomato and cheese sauces and other toppings. The hamburgers at Flakey Jake’s were pretty darned good and I ate at the Pico-Sepulveda one often.
The two chains were in fierce competition to open up new locations across the country — some company-owned, some franchised. In a few cases, they competed head-to-head: There’d be a Flakey Jake’s literally across the street from a Fuddrucker’s. Fuddrucker’s also sued Flakey Jake’s charging “infringement of trade dress” (copying its format) and then Flakey Jake’s counter-sued Fuddrucker’s charging “restraint of trade” and in ’82, they settled out of court on undisclosed terms.
Around this time, Flakey Jake’s, which had been founded by a Seattle-based seafood restaurant chain, sold out to Frank Carney (co-founder of Pizza Hut) and a group of investors. Apparently, they couldn’t make a go of it. Before long, all the Flakey Jake’s closed…or seem to have closed. Fuddrucker’s, meanwhile, continues to thrive and currently has around 200 outlets across the U.S. — few of them, I’m afraid, in areas where I travel. I’m curious why one chain succeeded and the other didn’t because they were, after all, pretty much the same thing.
There used to be a number of Chuck’s Steak Houses in Los Angeles and I miss ’em. There are still Chuck’s around — the nearest one seems to be in Santa Barbara — but they do not seem to be a chain, exactly. They seem to be independently-owned places opened with the blessing (and perhaps, financial participation) of this guy Chuck.
Chuck was Chuck Rolles, a former All-American basketball player who opened his first restaurant in Hawaii in 1959. The concept was pretty simple. You could get a good steak, a baked potato or rice and a trip to the salad bar for a reasonable price, and you didn’t have to get all dressed up. One of the features of a Chuck’s Steak House has always been the casual, friendly atmosphere. Another was the self-serve salad bar, which at the time was a relatively new idea. Yet another is or was the simple menu, which at times has fit on the side of a little cask on your table.
Chuck’s expanded in many directions with various partnerships and my main recollections are of one in Valley at (I think) Sepulveda and Ventura, and another on Third Street near La Cienega, near where I was then living. It was near a studio called the Record Plant where many rock musicians of the seventies recorded very famous albums. I don’t think I ever went to that Chuck’s without seeing someone who was super-famous in the music industry…and if you didn’t recognize them, an obliging waiter would whisper to you something like, “See that guy over by the bar? That’s Phil Spector.”
The Record Plant burned down one night and I have a feeling that contributed to Chuck’s exit from that area. But maybe the Chuck’s people just decided to give up on Los Angeles because that’s what they did. I liked the food there tremendously, especially the rice that came with your steak. You could substitute a baked potato for a few bucks more but the rice was so good, most people learned not to. Folks I dined with were always trying to figure out what they did to the rice to make it so good but the servers would just tell you, “It’s a secret.” A woman I dined with there once claimed the rice had been cooked, then stir-fried in sesame oil. I have no idea if that’s so.
Chuck’s spawned numerous imitators in the seventies. I went to at least three steak places that tried to replicate Chuck’s down to the nth degree…and they usually managed to get everything right except for that rice. None of them caught on. Only Chuck’s was Chuck’s and I wish we still had one in town.
The Buddha’s Belly on Beverly Boulevard just east of Fairfax closed last September. There’s still a location out in Santa Monica.
The eclectic Pan-Asian restaurant had struggled for some time. The last-ditch effort to keep it open involved turning its private dining room into Buddha’s Lounge (a bar ‘n’ snack place) and then making the place look more like a cocktail lounge. I was never a huge fan of the food there — I was once served an entree that was so overcooked as to be inedible and the management had zero interest in replacing it — but I had friends who loved it. I didn’t much like the parking situation either, and suspect that accounted for some of its problems.
But a lot of people swore by its unique twist on some Asian staples. The magician Ricky Jay seems to have loved it…or maybe it was just coincidence that he always seemed to be at the next table when I ate there. Those who crave its sweet chili shrimp will just have to drive out to Broadway and 2nd by the sea.
The comment thread on the original posting here about Woody’s Smorgasburger got so long that we decided to stop it there and start a sequel over there. You can read the old thread here. Please continue the conversation below. And by the way, all this talk has made some of us miss the place all the more.