Wednesday, January 5, 2011
I did a quick websearch on Restaurants on San Gabriel Canyon Road the other day when I was writing about the house where I lived in LA County from 1954 to 1959. I mentioned that from time to time, we would go out to dinner at a "roadhouse" in the mountains above Azusa. I didn't remember its name, but "El Encanto" is what came up, and that sounded right. From what little I found about it online in that search, it was apparently closed and had been for quite some time. But from Google Mapping, the building was apparently still there.
Today, I did another search, and I found out what happened, or at least what is happening now. It is a remarkable story.
The picture above is indeed of the entrance to the restaurant I remember. It has changed little in 50 years or more. The restaurant closed, it is said, in 2003 or 2004 after many years' operations -- well over 50 -- and the property sat vacant. It was purchased in 2006 by the Watershed Conservation Authority for inclusion in the Azusa River Wilderness Park.
A Master Plan [warning: 253 page PDF; do not open if you don't want to download the whole thing!] for re-use of the property was completed in 2007, and it is really quite a wonderful plan for an urban wilderness park along the San Gabriel River, incorporating the former restaurant as a park headquarters.
The Master Plan itself has not yet been implemented as the Watershed Conservation Authority has continued to acquire adjacent properties to combine with the El Encanto property in order to create an 80-100 acre wilderness park. Apparently last year they achieved their land-holding goals and one might imagine that they would begin implementation of the Plan sometime this year. Well, they would if California weren't on the verge of bankruptcy.
The restaurant I remember was certainly the fanciest place we ever went to eat out. We weren't poor, but we lived as if we were, and going out to eat at all was a fairly rare occurrence. When we did, we usually went to places like the lunch counters at Woolworth's or Grant's, or sometimes, when we were really feeling de luxe, we went to Bob's Big Boy. Very, very occasionally, we'd go to someplace "in town" -- ie: in Los Angeles or surrounding areas.
El Encanto was a surprisingly frequent destination given the infrequency we usually went out at all. I would guess, looking back, we must have gone there eight or ten times in the five years we lived in that part of California.
The drive up to El Encanto was certainly exciting, passing as we did through the (then) little, mostly agricultural towns along the way. There were orange groves and orchards and palm trees all along the route. The orange groves were protected from frost by smudge pots, oil burning heaters that were lit whenever the temperature was expected to drop. They made a powerful stink and of course contributed to the smog which was really bad in the area at the time. There is still a smog problem in the area, but it is nothing like what it was in the mid-50's.
El Encanto wasn't very far up the San Gabriel Canyon Road, but it was completely cut off from the urban/suburban area below. It was beside the San Gabriel River against a steep rise in the mountain. The San Gabriels, like many of the mountains surrounding and in the Los Angeles Basin, rise abruptly from the plain with no real foothills for transition. One gets on the canyon road and the climb is steep.
Once you got to the restaurant, you were really in a different world. How fancy was El Encanto? Well, there was a maitre d' who sat you at a white linen covered table, either in one of the glass walled rooms or, if the weather was good and you requested it, outside on the patio. You were served by a uniformed waiter who was as solicitous as any I've seen anywhere. You were brought a relish tray and bread with your huge, leather covered menus, and of course, you were offered cocktails -- even I was. Non-alcoholic drinks were brought for me; the adults, I recall, liked their vodka gimlets.
The rooms were dark, the tables lit by candles; there were strings of colored lights criss-crossing the ceilings and outdoors. There was a bar, if I recall correctly, near the entrance, and it had colorful neon lighting. Overall, the place was quite large, but it was also very quiet. The floor was carpeted and the tables were far enough apart for privacy. There was sometimes "cocktail music" played by a live band somewhere in the place, but I don't remember ever seeing musicians.
The place smelled of grilled meat, and it was the steaks that drew the clientele. Steaks and baked potatoes and huge iceberg-lettuce salads. The food was good.
At the time, I wasn't much of a beef-eater, though I would have a hamburger now and again. I can only recall ordering a child's portion of steak once, and while it was all right, I preferred other items on the menu. Sometimes I was content with just a baked potato, bread and the relish tray. Simple pleasures.
I really looked forward to going there, enjoying the service and exotic locale, enjoying the food and the adventure of getting there, the beauty of the site on arrival.
In addition to the grilled meat smell of the restaurant itself, there was a very bracing fresh river/forest smell outdoors as well. The view of the river along the edge of the parking lot was really captivating. The whole area was beautiful. And that helped make the restaurant unique. On the drive back home after dark, the lights of practically the whole LA Basin were spread out in front of you as you rounded a corner on the canyon road. The sight was spectacular, as anyone who has seen it from any vantage point above LA can testify.
I really hope that as the site is transformed into a wilderness park, the special nature of the restaurant building will be preserved and that -- who knows -- maybe in the future, on a smaller scale, a new version of the old El Encanto will reopen. I can easily imagine that a new generation -- the grandchildren of my generation -- would enjoy it.
UPDATE: Not that it's at all important, but I've been puzzling over a couple of partial memories I have of eating at El Encanto when time was.
One is that I recall the sign being neon, with a dark background, not the plastic-covered fluorescent sign in the picture above. I seem to recall the bzzzzing sound of the transformer and the smell of ozone when passing by, but I'm not sure of the memory because I've been around a lot of neon signs since then, and they all bzzzz and smell of ozone. So I could be recalling something else.
Second, after I wrote the piece on El Encanto, I had some very strong recollections of eating shrimp cocktail there. This gets a bit dicey because there is another "meat" restaurant up the coast that I frequented as a young adult that served small shrimp cocktails as part of the meal, prior to bringing on the meat. But I was recalling large shrimp arranged in a circle around cocktail sauce in a bowl set in a goblet of ice, which is not the way it was served at the restaurant up the coast, and I can't recall any other place I might have had shrimp cocktail the way I remember it (or think I remember it) at El Encanto.
I only bring this up because it illustrates what happens to memories -- even seemingly crystal clear ones -- over time. They become a mashup of so many things, and what you think you recall with such certainty may or may not be at all what happened -- or how it happened.