In the L.A. Times food section today, Charles Perry unfolds the colorful past of theme restaurants in Los Angeles. He says it all began with The Jail in Silver Lake in 1925, and of course became an iconic L.A. thing.
For a long time, visitors to town considered these "theme restaurants" our most characteristic eateries. Actually a minority among Los Angeles restaurants, they succeeded in capturing the imagination and the spotlight, just as they were intended to do...
When theme restaurants first appeared, they appealed to the giddy mood of a volatile young city. Between 1920 and 1930, Los Angeles' population exploded from 576,673 to 1,238,048. A lot of the uprooted newcomers were expecting movie-like excitement in their new home, and restaurants could easily find moonlighting set designers to provide it. For that matter, film people liked to eat in these exotic settings themselves, and they set the fashions around here.
Another reason for the spate of theme restaurants was that L.A.'s food tastes were overwhelmingly Midwestern in the 1920s, with a bit of Southern cooking in the mix, so all restaurant menus tended to be pretty much the same. When every place in town was serving steak, fried chicken and grilled cheese sandwiches, a colorful theme could help a restaurant stand out. The Jail's menu, for instance, was chicken, biscuits and corn pone...
L.A.'s oldest theme restaurant is the still-vigorous Tam O'Shanter in Atwater Village. It has a Disney-esque, artfully ramshackle roof that looked hundreds of years old even when the place was built in 1922. (It's probably no accident that Walt Disney was a regular customer for years.)
A couple of books by Jim Heimann cover the history of L.A. theme establishments, really
hundreds dozens of them, very well. Anyone seriously into old local eateries should check into the online menu database at the L.A. Public Library. It has images of restaurant menus from the 1870s forward.