The Tam O’Shanter, as seen in the 1920s, when Los Feliz Boulevard was a dirt road. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Opened 96 years ago, the storybook-style Tam O’Shanter Inn has always provided homey dining with stylish flair. A bit of whimsy in the middle of Atwater Village, the restaurant has evolved from simple country inn to unpretentious but romantic dining establishment.
In 1922 brother-in-laws Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp of bakery fame took over the Montgomery’s Country Inn, a box lunch stop along dusty Los Feliz Boulevard catering to drivers. The September 1938 Pacific Coast Record called establishment the United States’ first drive-in, serving some of the finest hamburgers with outstanding curb service. The magazine’s statements must be taken with a grain of salt however, as there are many errors, including claiming that MGM studio carpenters were involved in construction of the building, though the studio itself did not exist until 1924.
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A 1923 ad for Montgomery’s Chanticleer Inn, later renamed the Tam O’Shanter.
Setting the stage for its transition into a wee slice of Brigadoon, the men hired famed art director Harry G. Oliver, art director for such studios as Selig, Ince, Famous Players-Lasky, and Fox, who had designed a fantasy witch-like administration building for director/producer Irvin Willat in Culver City in 1920. Oliver also devised the Dutch-inspired windmill for the Van de Kamp bakeries. His fanciful, storybook-style architecture appealed to the two men, looking to create a quaint structure reminding patrons of home.
Oliver pulled a remodeling permit October 30, 1922, to expand the modest business into a coffee shop and diner. Employing studio workers and laborers, construction finished in early 1923. Stretching hither and yon, filled with odd nooks and crannies, wavy roofs, and charming design, the hamburger stand blossomed into a romantic-themed restaurant.
On Sunday, February 4, 1923, the renamed Montgomery’s Chanticleer Inn debuted, tripling the size of the previous restaurant. The diner featured popular $2 Virginia-baked ham and Southern fried chicken dinners, along with afternoon teas.
As the February 3, 1923, ad in the Los Angeles Times described it:
“A picturesque highway Inn, remindful of old Normandy. Catering to persons of refinement. No music or entertainment. A place where you may take your family and friends for the enjoyment of fresh farm food served in the old-fashioned country style.” By March, the owners called it “California’s Quaintest Eating Place” in newspaper ads.
By 1925, the name was changed to the more romantic “Tam O-Shanter,” the name of Robert Burns’ epic poem about the drinking classes in the old Scottish town of Ayr in the late 1700s. Following this theme, the cafe, still managed by Montgomery, evolved ever more into the Scottish highlands and tales of knights and their lady faires, with flags, plaids, swords, and other decorative items, growing and expanding several times over the years.
The Pacific Coast Record claims that the restaurant’s reputation was built upon its world-famous hamburgers, all top sirloin and ground daily in the kitchen, including Los Angeles’ first “Cannibal” hamburger, this one raw. By 1938, Ralph Frank managed it for Van de Kamp and Lawrence Frank.
Walt Disney, left, Tam O’Shanter co-owner L.L. Frank and building designer Harry Oliver in 1957, celebrating the restaurant’s 35th anniversary.
A Hollywood fantasy version of the moors, Tam O’Shanter featured walls decorated with mottos and framed tartans of Scottish Highlanders, under which girls dressed in plaid skirts provided meal service. For equestrian friends riding in from the Griffith Park trails nearby, the restaurant featured the “Horsepitality Room,” decorated with bridles and saddles and featuring prints of riding academies on the walls.
Thanks to its location near Hyperion Avenue, animators from the fledgling Disney Studios often visited, with studio head Walt Disney quickly becoming enamored of the restaurant. The Record also clamed that the restaurant had been featured in several early films, though I can find no titles to back that up. Some books claim that such celebrities as Mary Pickford and Cecil B. DeMille supposedly enjoyed the romantic atmosphere over the years, though I find no record of that in the Media History Digital Library.
In 1930, the Montgomery Food Co. applied for a permit to remove the exterior and move the building back twenty feet, due to widening of streets and sidewalks. Over the next few years, they continued enlarging and decorating the building.
After an explosion in 1947, they once again expanded and romanticized the structure. Renowned architect Wayne McAlister devised plans for new waiting and cocktail rooms in 1951. By 1967, the restaurant, now part of the Lawry (variation of the word “Lawrence) chain, was rechristened the Great Scot. Owners came to their senses and returned the name to Tam O’Shanter in 1982.
Still a romantic salute to the past, the whimsical Tam O’Shanter hearkens back to a more graceful, slower time, one celebrating a rural and elegant past.