“The menu is to the mood of a restaurant what the tie is to the dress ensemble…a small detail but the most noticeable of all!”
–“Menu Profit Maker,”
Restaurant Management, 1936
“To Live and Dine in L.A.”
Menus reveal as much about a time and culture as they do about a restaurant, revealing not just demographics, food choices, and prices, but also cultural and social values of the period. As Kun quotes intellectual Roland Barthes in his book, “menus are media,” they operate as “a system of communication.” They are not just about eating at restaurant, but customs and beliefs of a community, and the way a society acts and thinks and how that changes over time.
The menu for Maxey’s Singapore Spa functions as a piece of history, revealing the sometimes overt and patronizing racism of the majority white culture, considered acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s. While promoting something exotic, it is also disparaged and demeaned.
Hollywood at Play, by Donovan Brandt, Mary Mallory and Stephen X. Sylvester is now on sale.
The Maxeys worked at a variety of jobs before opening their restaurant. Mr. Maxey sold Sherman Williams paint, hardware, and supplies at a Central Avenue store in 1914. He owned a rooming house at 1822 1/2 S. Main St. in 1924 that was shut down temporarily for violation of the rooming house ordinance. The city directory also shows Maxey selling second hand furniture on West 23rd Street in 1924.
Before the Maxeys acquired the property in 1936, 119 S. Fairfax served several functions. Frank S. Murray pulled a building permit June 19, 1929, to construct a brick market with gravel floors designed by architect Rex Weston. By December, Dick Ormsby is listed as owner of the market, selling the structure by 1932 to Mountain View Dairies, which added a metal roof sign in September. On May 1, 1934, owner Harris Dairy pulled a permit for alterations to the cafe.
The Maxeys perhaps purchased the building to take advantage of the Farmer’s Market across the street, opening a cafe/restaurant in 1936. Mr. Maxey altered the back room and sold liquor there in 1938 and 1939. The family also lived at the same address until 1941, per the Los Angeles City Directory. Mr. Maxey passed away October 12, 1941, at which time his widow Marie (Maree) took over managing the restaurant.
Josh Kun quotes from the Lord Printing Company’s menu printing catalog on page 65 of his “To Live and Dine in LA” book, describing how a menu should work. “A well-designed menu pays two ways. It works for you both inside and outside your restaurant. It not only serves as a menu but it also serves as an advertisement for your restaurant.”
Mrs. Maxey designed a provocative, colorful menu cover for her Singapore Spa restaurant, with what today would be considered a derogatory image of an Asian man possessing a Fu Manchu mustache. Walking the line between Orientalist flair and good taste, she appealed both to authentic Chinese tastes and American tourism with her hybrid approach of old and new, authenticity and fabricated, employing a bilingual menu appealing to both cultures.
Leading with the exotic, the top of page two stated, “Chinese Dishes Prepared By Chinese Chefs,” listing Chinese dishes and meals in Cantonese with American translations below. The No. 4 item, Won Ton, is translated as “Chinese Ravioli,” with No. 37 Hong Sui Ha Kin translated as “Chinese Chicken Roll.” The Chinese menu features a variety of dishes, including soups, noodles, rice, and specialties.
The very bottom of that page included American dishes such as hickory smoked barbecue sandwiches, hamburgers, frankfurters, salads, French fries, and the like, to those afraid or unwilling to walk on the wild side and sample another cuisine. Page 3 featured a full page of imported and regular alcohols and liquors, including their own Zombie, Singapore Sling and Spa, Sumatra Cooler, and rums listed as 151 proof.
Mrs. Maxey employed the back of her menu to play up the authenticity and uniqueness of the restaurant, revealing images of expertly carved teakwood furniture and and objets d’art under the title, “We Boast of the Finest Collection of Chinese Carvings in the United States.” One of the images shows the entrance facade to the restaurant, which replicates a Chinese temple with its elaborately carved roof with signs listing “Chop Suey” and “Liquor.” In hyperbolic language, each elaborate piece of art is described, noting its ancient history, gold, ivory, and jewel coverings, and delicate carvings.
Tourists obviously flocked to it, as the Corsair Mirror in both 1939 and 1941 lists it as one of the unusual and popular places to visit in Los Angeles, joining such restaurants and bars as Grace Hayes Lodge, Charlie Foy’s, Pirate’s Den, and the Zebra Room. The San Bernardino Sun also mentions the restaurant in print in 1953.
Even into the late 1950s, the Los Angeles Times reports on the exotic nature of restaurants around the city, noting how many nations of the world were represented in the metropolis, while at the same time often patronizing to those of other races. In a March 11, 1957 story entitled “Melting Pot Here Fuses Many Races,” the Singapore Spa is praised while at the same time the piece disparages the chef’s background. “Although England has ties with Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong there is nothing British about the cuisine or the atmosphere of Mrs. Marie Maxey’s restaurant at 121 S. Fairfax Ave. Built in the late 30s, it glitters with exquisitely carved Chinese antiques and East Asia shrines.
Mrs. Maxey’s husband, the late Warren Maxey, gathered the treasures in travels to Singapore and Hong Kong. But Mrs. Maxey’s treasure is Kim Lee, the chef, even though some of his dishes are exotically unpronounceable.”
While Mr. Maxey perhaps did obtain the exquisitely carved furniture overseas, there are no travel records that show him ever leaving the United States. In fact, the back of the menu claims that two of the pieces, a Chinese teakwood griffon and a cocktail lounge backbar, called “the largest piece of teakwood in the United States,” formerly belonged to actress Mary Pickford.
One photo displays an old Chinese cabinet which the caption describes as finished “in pure gold and red lacquer.” Another features the Buddha Throne Head Piece, listed as “an excellent example of the patience and dexterity of the Chinese Wood Carvers of the sixteenth century. This altar piece is carved of teakwood and inlaid with twenty four carat gold. It is seven feet tall and eight feet wide, weight approximately two hundred pounds.”
This back bar would form the center piece of Jerry’s Back Fence later that year, when Jerry Smith, a former press agent at CBS Television City across the street, took over operations. Friends with many actors, Smith gained newspaper write-ups for his celebrity clientele.
After decades of hard work, Mrs. Maxey decided to move on, selling the property to Thomas Barton in 1961. Barton would demolish the building to construct the Farmer’s Daughter Hotel, which still stands on the site, along with its restaurant Tart.
While Maxey’s Singapore Spa is long gone, its late 1930s menu acts as a sign of American culture at the time, trying for exoticism while falling into racism and