The Proud Bird Flies Again
The servers in formal dress are gone, but the World War II war birds remain. Owner John Tallichet promises the food bazaar will rival the best in LA
As thoroughfares go, Aviation Boulevard has a shortage of interesting sights. There’s one exception, and it’s a big one – the restaurant just south of the runways at LAX where a sprawling building sits next to an eye-catching gaggle of antique aircraft. Most are warbirds from both World Wars but a few are vintage airliners, one decked out in faded Western Airlines livery. Welcome to the Proud Bird, a landmark that once was a fabled nightspot and has been reborn as a 21st century food bazaar.
The man behind the resurrection is John Tallichet, whose father David opened the restaurant in 1967. IT was the crown jewel of a restaurant empire that included locations around the state, and David flew his private plane to visit them and took his son along. Sometimes the staff at the Proud Bird had an extra duty, watching little John.
“We came by whenever we flew in and out of Los Angeles, and sometimes I was dropped off here and would wait until my dad could come and get me. There was a set of headphones so you could listen to the chatter between pilots and the control tower, and I remember listening for long periods of time and just being mesmerized. The staff took care of me and I had a lot of Roy Rogers from the bar…”
That bar used to be upstairs, and by night it was a happening nightspot.
“They had live music, dancing, and you looked out at the planes landing. I found out later that it was one of the big pickup places in this part of town. It wasn’t convenient because there was no elevator, so my dad eventually moved the bar downstairs and made the upstairs an event space.”
When the bar came downstairs it moved into an environment that was part old school elegant restaurant, part museum. Servers in formal dress did tableside cooking for as many as 300 diners in jackets, ties, and gowns, the epitome of Sixties style. All this happened amid a remarkable collection of over 800 photos and artifacts that included a whole room dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen, the first nonwhite squadron in the Air Force. Other areas commemorated aerospace pioneers, racing pilots, and experimental aircraft. The restaurant was popular enough that it was repeatedly added onto, and a series of event spaces and ballrooms took it from 30,000 square feet to over 50,000 and gave them the ability to serve 2800 people at once.
The restaurant flourished for decades, and meanwhile the boy who once waited for his father there became the owner of Specialty Restaurant Corporation, the company that operates Proud Bird and over twenty other restaurants.
“I started as a dishwasher and have been involved full time in the family business since 1987 – I worked my way up. Operationally I have been in charge since 1996, and in 2007 my dad passed away.”
By then the Proud Bird had run into a problem: times and tastes changed, and it didn’t. The dark, clubby décor was deeply unfashionable and increasingly shabby, the dining room almost deserted in the evening. John said the business was saved by a style of service very different from what had been originally envisioned.
“By the time we were close to closing down about eighty percent of our business was event business, and most of the rest was lunch buffets and Sunday brunch. The fact that we had that business established that the way we were serving our area was by offering variety and flexibility. What we think was missing was that we precooked the food and put it out – there were a few cooked-to-order items but not a lot. That doesn’t fit the way dining is evolving now. People are aware of allergies, they want things cooked to order and fresh, so that’s what we had to give them. The style was outmoded, the place was old and tired, and it was obvious that we needed to reinvent ourselves. I had customers coming to me saying, “I love your restaurant, but you need to spend money here.”
Spend money he has, rather more than expected since the Proud Bird closed last January. The piecemeal additions to the building meant that only once they started demolishing the interior could they find out where the structural supports were, and some weren’t where they were expected or didn’t exist at all. Plans were changed, and changed again, and money flowed to architects and contractors. An unexpected rainstorm while the ceiling was open flooded a ballroom they hadn’t planned to work on yet, and other woes made the budget balloon far past the planned seven million dollars and took the closure long past the planned ten months.
The work is done now and guests walk into a space that reflects modern aesthetics and attitudes toward service. The dark wood is gone, as are the tablecloths and jacketed servers waiting tables. There are no more table servers at all, since guests now enter a food court where multiple stations offer woodfired pizzas, Asian stir-fries, burgers, sandwiches, salads, and barbecue. They’re not just offering any barbecue, but Bludso’s barbecue, an offshoot of the critically acclaimed family business from Compton. John Tallichet seems particularly proud of the connection, and is using it as a template for bringing character and quality to his offerings.
“Kevin Bludso grew up in Compton and used to visit the Proud Bird, and in fact his high school graduation was here. When he heard that we wanted to feature his food he said he felt honored, and we felt honored. We can’t serve his whole menu, because has a barbecue three times the size of ours, but we’re offering parts of it. We’ve talked to some other people about bringing in their concepts, a company that makes Australian pies and another that offers specialty waffles, and when we open for breakfast we’ll have their offerings. We want to show off LA in a different way, bringing in the best ideas from around the area. I’m drawn to fusions of different flavors and cultures, and I’m trying to figure out whether that might have a place on our menu. It’s something I think about carefully because anything we put on the menu has to not only be good, it has to be something we can replicate consistently. I’m a huge fan of Richard Sandoval with his Asian/Mexican flair, and it’s possible that we may explore that direction. “
John hopes the change in style of food and service will energize a new clientele, but knows that it may alienate some of his old regulars.
“We know we can’t please everybody – a percentage of our traditional clientele likes to sit down and be waited on, and that’s going to be missing here. We had concerns that businesspeople would want the traditional sit down experience, so we spent some time going around to popular places like LA’s Grand Central Market. There were businesspeople going in there and having meetings, so they apparently like choices as much as everyone else. Our food bazaar here is going to lend itself to that.”
The people who loved the old place and miss the old one will find one thing unchanged: the view of old aircraft out the window. This is a major attraction for visitors but a major headache for the managers and staff, since those planes are exposed to wind and weather and require maintenance. Not only that, John Tallichet followed a family tradition of requiring the staff needed to learn about them and be able to explain them to visitors.
“My dad believed that a good manager should not only know about good food and service, but also about every aspect of what is on his property. We say that you need to know everything about that plane, for instance that the airliner over there was a C-47 that was converted from cargo to passenger service. You have to inspect it, and when something deteriorates you fix it or get someone out to do it. Some of our managers have said, hey, I’m a restaurant person, not an aircraft mechanic or a historian. This is on top of the non-food related stuff that any restaurant manager needs to know, like the lighting on their sign and how often the trees need to be cut back. I can tell you that it does add some burden and expense, but it’s part of who we are and what we do. Not every manager we hired understood that and some of them didn’t work out because of it.
After this general statement about the responsibilities of those aircraft, John got specific and passionate about one of them.
“We have a P-38 that is painted to replicate the aircraft flown by [WW II ace] Richard Bong, and part of that display has a picture of his wife Marge. The sun would beat down on that and it would start to deteriorate. When I came and saw that it had started to peel I could hear my dad yelling in my ear, what the heck are you doing allowing that? That is sacrilegious. I would tell the manager that he needed to do something about it and he might say, first I have to fix these tables and chairs, and I would say, no, Marge first.”
Fortunately for the manager who is given that order, help is nearby.
“I have an older brother who works for the company and he has a strong love of aviation. He’s in charge of getting all of our aircraft refurbished, and he can talk for hours and hours about every one. The love of aviation is in the family, but maybe more so with him than me.”
With old aircraft as part of the family business, it seemed like a natural question to ask whether he had learned to fly himself. The answer was surprising.
“I wanted to be a private pilot but my father steered me away from getting my license. He owned a Beechcraft Baron and he would turn it over to me when we were in the air, but I never did a takeoff or landing. We had a collection of World War II aircraft that he kept out in Barstow and Chino, and one of his friends lost a son flying one of the planes. He was willing for me to fly with him, but he didn’t want me flying on my own. Then I got married, and my wife hasn’t been wildly supportive of my getting a license. I really believe I will someday…”
Now that the construction here is done he may have a chance to do that, but first he needs to get the word out about the restaurant being open again. He has two advantages, his traditional customer base and the business community.
“There’s a lot of pent-up curiosity to see what has happened here. When we were closing the restaurant there was a huge rush among sentimental or nostalgic customers who wanted to come back for one last meal in the old environment. Some of them seem to think that that’s it, we’re gone and not coming back. There are so many choices in LA that they’ve found new places now and have to get them to remember us again. The great thing about having all this event space is that many of the businesses in the area that relied on us before have been waiting for us to open so they could book events again. Each time they bring 300 people here that’s 300 more people who have a chance to see it and tell they friends that we’re different but we’re open.”
[Note: This is a the full version of a story that ran in an abbreviated version in Beach Magazine]
by Richard Foss