A detail of a matchbook for Al Levy’s Tavern, 1627 N. Vine St., listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $6.95.
Much of the glamour of classic Hollywood grew out of the fame and atmosphere of its famous restaurants and nightclubs, oases of sophistication and excitement. Stars came to see and be seen, while dining at the same time. Some came because they enjoyed the ambiance or service of the establishments, others merely because the businesses reigned as the “it” spots of the moment. Many eateries remained popular for their excellence food, service, and welcoming presence, like Al Levy’s Tavern located at 1623-27 N. Vine St. Levy’s restaurant grew out of humble beginnings in downtown Los Angeles to reign as one of Hollywood’s premier nightspots for more than a decade.
For more than 50 years, Levy served Los Angeles and Hollywood residents, offering fine dining and festive atmosphere. He catered to the entertainment industry, offering a supportive haven for the film and stage crowd. Many could identify with the friendly and humble man, who saw his simple oyster cart grow into one of the Southland and West Coast’s most popular hotspots.
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An undated photo of Al Levy in a 1940 newspaper clipping.
Born April 25, 1860, in Liverpool, England, Alfred Asher Michael “Al” Levy dreamed big, longing to move to America as a boy. He arrived in San Francisco August 15, 1876 after sailing from Liverpool, and worked hard to make a living. He became a naturalized American citizen on July 16, 1888. By 1886 he lived in downtown Los Angeles, where he operated a small cart that he pushed around the city selling oyster cocktails, a food item he had invented. Per the March 24, 1941 Los Angeles Herald, he stood outside the Opera House at First and Main at midnight to serve theatre crowds.
His high quality food at affordable prices quickly became popular, with bars and later restaurants buying them to sell to eager patrons. Levy used his money to purchase a small “hole in the wall” shop to operate his own establishment, which quickly grew in popularity. Levy recalled for newspapers that “My oyster cocktails were so popular that the saloons began ordering them for their famous free lunches. Then the restaurants began buying them,” and soon he opened a small oyster house at Fifth and Spring Streets. Levy later served what the paper called “hot bird and cold bottle” days, popular with the middle class. His squab simmered in wine sauce became a popular item with the carriage trade crowd.
The July 29, 1897, Los Angeles Herald noted he was renting three adjoining stores on West Third Street as he business quickly grew, spending $5,000 to $6,000 in improvements to attract higher society folk, expanding beyond seafood into classic dinners and sumptuous surroundings.
Levy in a 1940 newspaper clipping.
The theatre crowd as well as cafe society flocked to his restaurant, which saw civic leaders drop in for lunch as they contemplated city duties. His colorful and loquacious personality attracted many to his restaurant as well, which he continually expanded and upgraded as his business grew, moving to Third and Main, and eventually 617 S. Spring St.
Many early silent film pioneers regularly visited his establishment, including Col. William Selig, D. W. Griffith, David Horsley, and Thomas Ince, as well as top stage performers like Minnie Maddern Fiske and Harry Lauder. The May 15, 1914, Variety noted that Levy’s new cafe downtown was “the gathering place for professional people.” To show his support, Levy hosted an Actor’s Fund salute on February 10, 1916 with 60% of gross receipts of his restaurant that day devoted to the fund.
On May 5, 1917, he reserved a special section in his South Spring Street cafe to exhibitions, exchange men, and other moving picture industry people to exchange ideas and develop new policies.
By the 1920s, such film luminaries as Jesse L. Lasky, Ford Sterling, Ruth Roland, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Tom Mix, Mabel Normand, and Charles Chaplin were regulars at Levy’s Cafe. Levy saw the writing on the wall, however, noting that the film industry had moved north and west into Hollywood. In order to keep his best customers, Levy needed a new establishment in the heart of the film colony.
After forty-four years in business, Levy finally opened a new restaurant in Hollywood, announcing in the November 14, 1930, Los Angeles Times that his Tavern would open in early December after over $100,000 in improvements in decorations and equipment at the new 1623 N. Vine St. location.
He hired architect Jack Schultz to design “One of the most distinctive cafes on the Pacific Coast,” after his praised work in creating outstanding interiors in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room and the Fox Wilshire Theatre. The lavish interior would be required to cater to the motion picture industry and other discriminating clientele.
The November 28, 1930, Los Angeles Times described the “modernistic French manner” of the interior and noted that architects Morgan, Walls, and Clements had designed an “old English-style building” for the new eatery, which the December 17 edition of the paper called “an exact replica of an old English inn.”
Levy in a 1940 newspaper clipping.
On Wednesday, December 17, 1930 at 7 pm, Al Levy’s Tavern opened with grand festivities featuring special souvenirs, Klieg lights, an orchestra, a special dinner, and light show. After it opened, the restaurant featured a large, diverse menu with an emphasis on chops, steak, and seafood, with exclusive delicacies.
By August 21, 1931, Levy remodeled the interior in order to seat more than 400 due to the business’s popularity. He spent $10,000 to remodel the back bar and lunch counter in order to add more tables and booths. Eugene Stark was hired as manager on October 2, 1931, bringing his distinctive German-Hungarian recipes with him, a popular draw around town. He introduced a special nine course meal costing $1.25, in line with reduced prices during the Depression.
The motion picture industry once again dominated business, with many agents holding lunch meetings, businessmen and executives concluding deals, and others grabbing a quick bite before shooting or taping radio shows. Throughout the 1930s, Al Levy’s Tavern reigned as one of Hollywood’s prime dining establishments. Stars such as James Cagney, Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, Samuel Goldwyn, Boris Karloff, Thelma Todd, Charley Chase, Carole Lombard, Mary Pickford, King Vidor, David O. Selznick, Joe E. Brown, Hugh Herbert, Anita Page, Alice White, Lyle Talbot, and the Sultan of Jahore regularly dined at the popular eatery.
Location managers organized a group that met regularly at the restaurant as did a songwriting and composers’ organization created by Jack Robbins called the Robbins Round Table Club met regularly in the mid to late 1930s.
Levy took over the restaurant in the Plaza Hotel January 10, 1933, going into partnership with General Ivan Lodijensky when he moved his upscale Russian Eagle cafe into the empty location. By November, Levy sold out his interest in the business.
An undated photo of Al Levy in a 1940 newspaper clipping.
The tavern sometimes skirted the law; on May 18, 1934, Levy was found guilty of serving alcohol by the drink, a charge he appealed to a higher court. I can find no follow up as to how the case was resolved.
Levy constantly needed to expand due to his popularity; in 1934 he took over Stanley Rose’s book shop next door in order to add a bar after the end of Prohibition. He remodeled again, with the Tavern reopening May 20, 1935 with ads trumpeting Levy’s serving of three generations of Angelenos, as well as the heavyweights of the motion picture industry. A special champagne dinner was served at $3 a head, which included pint bottles of Montant Champagne.
In 1936, Levy celebrated his Golden Jubilee in the restaurant business, holding a grand party in the Tavern, which had recently been named “the Most Distinctive Cocktail Room” on the West Coast.
Movie Classic magazine in 1937 called bartender Jack Marsh “the mixologist whose advice is sought by celebrities when their own cocktails taste like hair tonic…” The Tavern’s new Maitre d’Hotel, Alex Montoya, served many a star at Agua Caliente before joining the staff.
Al Levy, center, and Eddie Sutherland, right, in Photoplay magazine.
While the restaurant thrived, Al Levy was slowing down. On February 10, 1940, he collapsed in front of the eatery with a cerebral hemorrhage, and rushed to the hospital. He recuperated, but his health was never the same. Levy passed away March 24, 1941 after an operation at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. He was buried at Forest Lawn Glendale.
His son Robert Levy took over management of the restaurant, continuing its operation. Just days after the elder Levy’s death, the Tavern hosted a 50th Anniversary luncheon honoring George Barbier’s 50 years in Show Business. Universal organized the luncheon with Ralph Morgan serving as chairman and Mischa Auer as master of ceremonies. Such stars as May Robson, Hobart Bosworth, Frank Craven, C. Aubrey Smith, Joseph Hawthorne, William Desmond, and William Farnum hosted their long time colleague.
On July 1, 1941, a major fire swept through the tavern during the lunch hour, forcing 200 patrons to flee. A cook dropped a can of hot grease on a boiler plate, leading to the conflagration. The fire caused more than $40,000 to $50,000 damage. Mike Lyman, President of the Mid-Town Catering Company, operator of the tavern, stated that most of the equipment and interior was ruined by water damage. He also announced, “It is our intention to rebuilt as soon as the building is turned over to us.”
Simon’s Restaurant signed a ten-year least for more than $150,000 on the space, making immediate renovations to the space, turning it over to Mike Lyman, who opened Mike Lyman’s Grill on September 7, 1941.
Al Levy’s reigned as one of Hollywood and Vine’s top hotspots for more than ten years during an era that we now know as that of Classic Hollywood. Levy himself served the residents of Los Angeles and Hollywood for more than 50 years, bringing good food and fellowship to his patrons. Only memories now exist of this once classic restaurant, , now the location for a parking garage.