Fish Shanty and the Kooky Wonderland that was Restaurant Row

Alison Martino Hollywood

La Cienega and Beverly Boulevard used to be a playful pocket of themed eateries, amusement parks, and nightclubs

Established in 1950 by the Smith Bros., the Fish Shanty was classic West Coast kitsch. Located at the intersection of La Cienega Boulevard and Burton Way, it was known to Angelenos as “the restaurant that swallowed you whole,” and nothing thrilled me more as a child than walking through the jaws of the Shanty’s whale façade or hiding under his fin, which was made out of thousands of tiny, ocean-blue, midcentury mosaic tiles that sparkled during sundown like the crest of an effervescent wave. (It will be forever preserved on film after being used as the entrance to a British club in the 1965 black comedy, The Loved One.)

Photographs of the La Cienega Smith Bros. Fish Shanty restaurant interior. Handwritten descriptions by Birdie Smith in the Margin.

The kitchen served reasonably priced seafood in a nautical atmosphere that included a ship’s wheel, lavender leather booths, and an aquarium with turtles in the entryway. It was the first time I ever tried clam chowder and sand dabs, and I specifically remember ordering Shirley Temples with extra cherries. (I still have a couple of the plastic mermaids that the waiters stuck on the rim of my glass.) Believe it or not, this area of Los Angeles was once a playful pocket of themed restaurants, amusement parks, and nightclubs surrounded by an amazing landscape of kooky architecture. The fish shack was conveniently located across the street from a disco in the shape of a giant claw called Osko’s and down the road from several beloved cartoonish destinations, like Beverly Park and Ponyland. (Yes, you could actually ride a ferris wheel or jump on a pony where the Beverly Center is today.) Other nearby eateries included Tail o’ the Pup, the Islander, Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel, and The Velvet Turtle. How appropriate!

Beverly Park, also known as Ponyland was a magical wonderland. Tragically it was torn down for the Beverly Center. Ponyland was next door. Both places were extremely popular for divorced fathers and birthday parties.

“Kiddieland” located on Beverly Blvd and “Ponyland” located next door.

The Fish Shanty fit in perfectly with these whimsical landmarks and blended right into so-called Restaurant Row on La Cienega, a section of trendy restaurants such as the original Lawry’s, Ollie Hammond’s, and Tail o’ the Cock. Most of these places are now just memories that helped shape my youth, and the Shanty was the captain that anchored them.

“Tail ‘O the Pup” located on north west corner of La Cienega and Beverly Blvd. Recently brought back as a food truck and lacks everything that was once whimsical and magical.

“The Islander” located on La Cienega between Beverly Blvd and Melrose Ave.

Actor, Alan Hale had his own place called “Lobster Barrel” and Charo’s husband also owned a Kitchy Mexican styled restaurant near by called, “Casa Cugat” located at the celebrity end of La Cienega’s restaurant row.

“The Velvet Turtle” not too far from La Cienega

The Original Lawry’s when it was located on the west side of the street. This structure is now the Stinkin’ Rose.

The The Captain’s Table located above Melrose on La Cienega next to Casa Cugat. Xavier always used his wife Charo in the advertisements. The Captain’s Table had a glorious history as one of the city’s best places to eat fish.

And who could forget playing in that gigantic boot inside Standard Shoes just a few blocks away?

I always felt, growing up, that this was the way certain stores should be — lively and fun. I look back fondly on the Judy’s and the Joseph Magnins…and of course, Standard Shoes. Designed by Deborah Sussman.

And back to the Fish Shanty!

Restaurant Row

Even Rexall Drugs on the corner of La Cienega and Beverly Blvd was magical. Today this is a CVS.

And during the 1950s and 60s you had La Cienega Lanes for bowling at the corner of la Cienega and Santa Monica. It later became Flippers Roller Boogie in the 1970s and 80s.

Climax II and the Captain’s Table located at La Cienega and San Vicente in 1969. (later this structure would be painted white and become Osko’s). Painted by Victor Henderson, Terry Schoonhoven, Leonard Koren and Jim Frazin. Painted over in 1972. In the 1980s these structures were demolished to build a retail strip mall that included the new Loehmann’s location (that moved from 3rd street). It has also recently been demolished Rick Caruso’s latest development.

Osko’s (screen grab from “Thank God It’s Friday”)

Tragically, Fish Shanty was demolished after a fire in the early ’90s and was replaced by a car dealership. Today it’s a swanky apartment building courtesy of Rick Caruso, complete with a Trader Joe’s. The thing I love the most about this re-use of the original Shanty site is the oval cutout in the top of the new modern structure. For me, it represents the neighborhood whale that always made me smile. So next time you walk through the doorway of that Trader Joe’s, imagine yourself heading into the belly of the beast.

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Portions of the above article originally appeared in Los Angeles Magazine.

Alison Martino is a writer, television producer, and pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. Alison muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram.