George Geary is a Certified Culinary Professional, culinary educator, TV personality, and author of 16 cookbooks and food history books. His varied resumé includes food prop work at Paramount (where he created the cheesecakes used on The Golden Girls), working as a pastry chef for the Walt Disney Company and operating a tour company that takes people on food adventures in Europe. His books L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants and L.A.’s Landmark Restaurants profile approximately 120 local eateries, about half of which are still in operation, detailing their historical significance and the stories of their owners as well as sharing recipes. (Among them are a number of spots likely to be familiar to longtime Toluca Lake–area residents, like Otto’s Pink Pig, Sportsmen’s Lodge, Casa Vega and Art’s Delicatessen.) In Made in California, he examines the history of California food businesses that went nationwide, including many with roots in the Valley region, such as Bob’s Big Boy, Baskin-Robbins and International House of Pancakes.
Geary took a moment out of his busy schedule — which, in addition to being the featured speaker at the Toluca Lake Garden Club’s October 1 event, included another a few weeks later at the Valley Relics Museum, as well as filming TV segments there and at Bob’s Big Boy — to discuss his fascination with history and some of his favorite local restaurants, past and present.
How did you become interested in culinary history?
I always have been a member of historical groups and a preservationist. I started seeing so many historic buildings that housed restaurants in Los Angeles being torn down. European cities and some East Coast areas seem to save and preserve buildings better than California. This is my way of bringing history, preservation and food together. If we don’t save and learn from our past, we can’t build our futures in food.
What are some of the challenges of doing research on this topic?
Many restaurants do not know their history and don’t want to help you with clarifications, pictures and recipes. I have extensively worked with large formulas and created in-home-size portions for years. If a location did not offer a recipe or the place had been shut down, I researched through menus, newspapers and cookbooks for the recipes. If they could not be found after all, I would create, to the best of my ability, a worthy recipe for that location.
What’s a bygone restaurant you’ve written about that you were never able to visit but wish you could travel back in time to experience?
The Brown Derby.
What local restaurants that have closed do you especially miss?
I miss The French Market in West Hollywood, the Pup ’N’ Taco chain, Chasen’s and En Brochette in Beverly Hills.
What are some local restaurants where you really feel like you’re stepping into the past when you visit?
The Smoke House and Musso and Frank. You know you are in for a treat from your first sight of the neon signs and then seeing the dining room.
What are some of your other favorite restaurants in the Toluca Lake area?
Tiki No in North Hollywood and The Front Yard at the Beverly Garland Hotel.
What do you wish more people knew or understood about L.A.’s culinary history?
I wish cities would put up plaques on the buildings about how long the restaurant has been in business. Today, educating people on these restaurants’ historical significance is challenging. Filming companies love going to period establishments. Mad Men was filmed in every food location that was created before 1960. This brought out the interest in people as to where the places were and dining in the same places as they had filmed.
You’ve covered many landmark restaurants that have existed for decades or even generations. Beyond simple nostalgia, what makes visiting them such a
Most long-term historical restaurants have been around for several reasons — great food you cannot get anywhere else, service, ambiance and knowing you are appreciated. Customers want to return to where their family dined or had a special event. Memories! They will soon fade away if we don’t patronize the older establishments.
For more about Geary’s presentation at the Toluca Lake Garden Club event, see “Garden Club Fundraiser Savors Local History.”