LA Stories

For years the tables remained laid in a restaurant that no longer opened. Andrew Gumbel ponders the spooks of the Spanish Kitchen, and considers why the LAPD is suddenly popular
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The Independent US

One day, they will make a film about the Spanish Kitchen, and it will go something like this. Imagine Fifties Los Angeles, all glaring neon and bright lipstick, James Ellroy-style.

Zoom in on Beverly Boulevard, in the Fairfax district, a street of juke joints and greasy spoons that never seems to sleep. Near the corner of Martel Street, the noise of the boisterous crowd inside booms through a glass-front door. This is the Carretos' famous restaurant, the Spanish Kitchen, which has been going since they lifted Prohibition and has attracted all the slick-suited sleazeballs and idle dreamers that this town is capable of conjuring up.

There, at a corner table, are Mickey Cohen and his boys, the cream of the LA mob. At the bar is Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress whose brutal unsolved murder in 1957 would earn her the nickname the Black Dahlia and a place in criminal infamy. And there, glad-handing the customers, are the Carretos themselves, Pearl and Johnny.

Fast-forward to a hot summer night in 1961, and something strange happens. Pearl posts a sign on the door, "Closed for Vacation. Be Back August 23rd". Except 23 August comes and goes, and the restaurant is still shuttered. The linen tablecloths are still in place, and the pots still sit on the stove in the kitchen, slowly gathering dust and cobwebs.

Years go by. Johnny dies in 1965, but Pearl continues to live above the restaurant. Finally, after vandals trash the place in 1980, she moves out, but refuses to talk about the old days right up to her death in 1994. The rumours abound. Was there woman trouble or did Johnny borrow money from the mob which he couldn't repay? Was he shot, and his death covered up, out of fear? And who was the strange spectral woman said to stalk the empty restaurant? In a movie, the veil of secrecy would finally lift, revealing the terrible truth.

In real life, there has been no such resolution. A year before Pearl died, the premises were sold. But the new owner ran into trouble with the local Orthodox Jewish community (the neighbourhood has changed quite a bit since the 1950s) which fought, successfully, to deny him a liquor licence. Pearl's daugher Pat, meanwhile, insisted that the only reason the restaurant closed so suddenly was because Johnny came down with Parkinson's disease – an explanation that has satisfied few.

And so to the present. The vertical sign, reading Spanish Kitchen, has been reduced to the three letters "SPA", and the premises are – as of a couple of weeks ago – a beauty salon catering to the rich and famous.

And yet... The day after the new owners took over, they found the inside and outside handles of the door hanging on an interior wall. There was no sign of a break-in, leading them to conclude that the restless spirits of the place were playing up again. A "spiritual cleanser" claimed to find no fewer than eight ghosts on the premises, possibly including a bolshy poltergeist and the spirit of Pearl Carreto herself.

It's all cleaned up now, they say. Someone even spotted Cameron Diaz in there the other day.

 

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In the weird post-11 September world, Los Angeles's least favourite institution, its police force, is undergoing an unexpected surge in popularity. Recruitment offices for the LAPD – best known for corruption scandals, random shootings of the citizens it is supposed to protect and the Rodney King beating that triggered the 1992 riots – are suddenly swamped.

Is this good old American patriotism coming to the fore? Not exactly. The new mayor, Jim Hahn, has just approved a new schedule for officers: now they'll only have to work three 12-hour shifts per week, rather than the traditional five shifts of eight hours each. A three-day, 36-hour week with full benefits? In a recession? Nice work if you can get it – no matter who you do it for.

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