MODERN DAY “MUNCHKINS” OUSTED AT CULVER HOTEL
By Bob Vickrey
In the last year, our monthly lunch club has visited several of the oldest Southern California hotels in our ongoing quest to dine in some of the areas most famous and historic restaurants.
One of the city’s often-forgotten gems is the 92 year-old Culver Hotel in downtown Culver City. The six-story red-brick flatiron landmark was built by real estate developer and philanthropist Harry Culver in 1924, and was designed by the same architectural firm that drew the plans for the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.
When the hotel opened, the nearby Culver Studios was a burgeoning center of the film industry, and it played host to movie stars like Buster Keaton, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks, and Judy Garland. In fact, cast members of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz stayed at the Culver during filming of both 1939 pictures, including more than 100 of the actors portraying the famous “Oz Munchkins.”
The old hotel fell sadly into disrepair in succeeding decades, but was restored to its former splendor in 2007—just about the same time that Culver City was becoming one of the hottest night spots on the Westside.
When we arrived for our anticipated lunch there, we found out the kitchen was closed that day for repairs. When we were told the bad news, our facial expressions must have resembled four disheartened boys (albeit, grey-haired boys) who had made the interminably long 19-minute trip from the Palisades, only to find out we had to choose another lunch destination.
If one happens to have the misfortune of losing a lunch reservation, Culver City would certainly be the best place in Los Angeles to do so. We had already noticed the vibrant street life of the downtown area, which featured dozens of side-by-side restaurants packed with diners inside and outside, where animated young studio-types enjoyed their meals under the sidewalk canopies. Lots of hairstyles among that group featured buns and ponytails—and those were just the men’s styles.
However, we weren’t quite ready to leave the lobby of the Culver Hotel until we’d had a chance to explore all the nooks and crannies of this spectacular shrine to the city’s past. When you first enter the “Culver,” you have suddenly stepped back in time, as the décor of the lobby and lounge areas reflect the same period as when Harry Culver first opened the doors during the “Roaring Twenties.”
We wandered through the sitting areas and second-floor drawing rooms, whose walls were adorned with artwork, including classic George Hurrell black-and-white photos of movie stars of that earlier era. As we descended one staircase, there were two large Hurrell photos on an adjacent wall of a young Gary Cooper, as well as a seductive pose of Bette Davis.
After taking in all the sights of the grand hotel, we strolled along Culver Boulevard for several blocks and agreed that Akasha looked like our best bet for lunch. The busy restaurant offered a simple, but intriguing menu of sandwiches, salads, bowls, flat bread pizza, and other light fare, which suited us that day.
Barry and I decided a martini was in order to help celebrate our pleasurable tour of the old hotel. Arnie was terribly adventurous that day by ordering an “Arnold Palmer.” Josh drank something that was the color of battery acid, but seemed to be in fine spirits after finishing it.
Barry ordered the quinoa and sunflower seed veggie burger with avocado, caramelized onion, smoked paprika aioli, with cheddar cheese (mainly because he couldn’t pronounce “Gruyere.”) I ordered the Cobb salad with a nod to cantankerous “Ty,” and his stormy baseball career—even if the salad happened to be named after a lesser Cobb.) Arnie ordered the rib-eye beef burger, because that’s what Arnie likes best. Josh ended up with a lunch entree that was light beige in color and appeared to be noodles. I’m assuming the dish must have paired nicely with his robust, oaky battery acid.
A friendly looking gentleman with a kind face hovered over us in the corner as he observed the bustling activity in the room. Barry said to him, “You look like an owner to me.” Alan Schulman approached our table and admitted that he was, in fact, part owner of Akasha (with his wife.) The friendly restaurateur sent over a complimentary dessert after we finished our main courses. (Nice going, Barry!)
As usual, we bored our host and our beautiful server Brooke, with the story of our monthly lunch club, and we all agreed later that they each did an admirable job of acting interested. After Brooke’s second trip to the table with our drinks, we could tell that Barry was already smitten. He serves double-duty as our “Driver” (capital “D,” please) and our photographer, so he asked Brooke if he could take her picture. She reluctantly agreed to his request just before we left the restaurant, and he smiled all the way back to the car.
On the way home, we talked briefly about next month’s restaurant choices before I quickly chimed in: “What would you guys think about having lunch at the Culver Hotel?”
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors of the Waco Tribune-Herald and a regular contributor for the Boryana Books website. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.