Vernon Watering Hole’s Future Tied to Its Grand Past

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

For fifty years time stood still at La Villa Basque, a 1960s style coffee diner, bar and restaurant hidden in the industrial landscape of Vernon.

During its hey-day, both blue-collar and white-collar trades patronized the restaurant.

“They drank beer, and they drank martinis. They were the people who trucked the long haul, and the people who were there to entertain a million dollar client. La Villa Basque was all those things to all those people,” says Eric Lynxwiler, a long-time patron and urban anthropologist who gives tours in Los Angeles.

The restaurant itself was unique. It contained three different establishments in one – a coffee shop on one end, a traditional dining area in the middle, and a smoky bar at the other end.

Though La Villa Basque has been losing money in recent years, it has attracted a small but passionate contingent of fans, especially among those who appreciate its architecture, as well as its history. They say walking into the restaurant is like a “time warp.”

Former Vernon mayor Leonis Malburg opened the restaurant in February of 1960 for his wife Leonie. It catered to workers in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking industries who formed lines out the door, and it was where the city’s big wigs wined and dined with clients.

Malburg’s grandfather John B. Leonis helped found the city of Vernon in 1905. The restaurant is still in the family and until recently served the food of the Basque region in France, which was where the family originated.

For mid-century architectural buffs, La Villa Basque is a rare bird.

“It’s such a pristine and unique place. There’s not many of these places left,” says Adrian Fine of the LA Conservancy. The conservancy recently held a banquet at La Villa Basque to honor their volunteers.

Unlike other restaurants built around the same time, it did not fall victim to the “design flavor of the month” syndrome, with remodeling happening every five to ten years, he said.

The restaurant is so well preserved that its bar area was used in a recent episode of Mad Men, a television drama known for its fanatical attention to the historical details of the three-martini lunch era.

According to Fine, La Villa Basque is “special because it’s an intact period piece from the early 1960s,” with walls, floors, and fixtures that are all architecturally consistent.

So when the conservancy noticed signs of construction work happening at the site, alarm bells were sounded. They put out an alert, hoping to halt any destruction that they suspected could occur in the process.

They knew the restaurant was probably struggling, and with new management coming in, they were worried the restaurant would be gutted.

“We totally get that it needs to be a thriving business… It’s a very isolated site, we don’t want to stand in the way of that,” Fine said. “We would be happy to promote the site, encourage our members and supporters to come out, spend money…”

Lynxwiler says the restaurant needs “all the support they can get,” but he is worried that with just the remodeling that has already occurred in the banquet hall, the restaurant may be trying to attract a different crowd.

Members of the conservancy have since met with the new managers, says Joe Eagan, who handles the restaurant’s marketing and was a past manager of the restaurant. They are reassuring the preservationists that they are on the same page.

“We don’t want to compete with the Los Angeles club scene,” Eagan said. The new management will try to “attract a lot of designers, retro people who love history and the feel of the 60s,” he said.

They are “walking carefully” in terms of their upgrades, he says. The chef and menu has changed, and they may be doing some reupholstering. The banquet hall was a “fire-trap,” and most of the work will be “to bring it up to code,” he said.

The restaurant has a new name, Viveré, which means “dare to live.” Eagan says Malburg was “ready to call it quits” after 50 years, possibly closing La Villa Basque or selling it off, which would have been a more drastic measure that would have led to the restaurant actually being gutted. Instead they hired a new management company to spruce up the place.

“Vernon can be a mecca for the arts, as opposed to a mecca for the meat packers,” Eagan said.

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March 10, 2011  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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