by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A previous post here featured a snapshot, taken by Thomas Ward on this date in 1926, from the museum’s collection and showing the northwest corner of Main and 1st streets in downtown Los Angeles, an area soon razed to make way for the new city hall which was completed less than two years later.
Today’s post highlights another of Ward’s photos from the same day, this one taken a couple of blocks over and capturing an area on the west side of Broadway between 1st and Temple. The site now contains the LA Law Library, formerly known as the Los Angeles County Law Library.
In 1926, the location contained several structures of varying sizes and ages with some of the structures at two-story heights, one at four floors and another on the corner with First spanning six stories. While it is obviously tougher to make out which businesses occupied the three buildings further from where Ward stood, magnification does show that there was a garage, either a repair shop or a parking facility and which sold gasoline, in the two-story building next to the one on the corner of first.
Adjacent to that, in another two-story structure, was a law printing shop in the store at the north end of the building. This made eminent sense for two reasons: the county courthouse was behind Ward at Temple and Broadway and the four-story building next to the print shop housed the local branch of the American Type Founders Company, a nationwide concern headquartered in New Jersey and which was formed in 1892 as a business trust consolidating nearly two-dozen firms which made metal typefaces for printing. Fully 85% of all such products were made by the company, which took over an existing company in Los Angeles at that time. Probably the largest customer in Los Angeles for the firm was the Los Angeles Times, which was nearly cater corner at the southeast corner of Broadway and 1st. Also of note with this structure was the advertising on the north wall for Autobanx, a company which issued automobile loans and which was located at Grand Avenue and 10th Street.
The two-story building second from the right had two ground floor stores. The one at the left has a sign that seems to read “Ever-Ready Auto Signal” and which may refer to a horn used in cars. Other signs are for Coca-Cola and what appears to be for a laundry. The shop at the right has the familiar barber’s pole and a sign over the door reading “Max’s Barber Shop.”
At the far right is a structure that was at least three stories and may have had a fourth. Thanks to its very clear signage, we can see that the ground floor, including a substantial awning was comprised of the “Spanish Kitchen” and its address was 127 North Broadway. The restaurant, it turns out, may have been the oldest Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles (at least, a correspondent to the Times in 1977 said so) despite the commonly used “Spanish.”
The eatery was long owned by Ismael Ramirez, born in San Luis Obispo in 1872, and his brothers Audel and Fred were chefs for many years, as well. A sign on one of the windows stated that the restaurant was established in 1906 and it remained in the building for about a quarter-century. An early advertisement from the Times from late summer 1908 for the “Red Front Spanish Kitchen” stated that “lovers of genuine Spanish dishes” would be served from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily and for just fifty cents could enjoy enchiladas, chicken and rice, frijoles, soup and salad, as well as wine and beer to order. There were even a dozen private rooms for women, though all customers were urged to “come early to avoid the rush.”
At that time, however, Los Angeles was in a tizzy over temperance, as teetotalers led by women’s groups and religious organizations, particularly the Methodists who comprised the dominant force in the Anti-Saloon League, aggressively sought to root out the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages wherever possible.
Just a month after the aforementioned ad, the Anti-Saloon League, led by the Reverend Daniel M. Gandier, issued a complaint with the city’s police commission claiming that alcoholic beverages were served at several restaurants, including the Spanish Kitchen, later than the time allowed by ordinance. While some eateries were found to be in violation, Tony Ramirez was able to fend off the complaint
The 15 October 1909 edition of the Los Angeles Herald reported that, when the restaurant’s case came up before a police commissioner, Gandier, joined by a woman and another man, testified that they went to the Spanish Kitchen at 3 a.m. on a Sunday “just as the place was being closed, [and] that a bottle of beer was placed on the table and two enchaladas [sic] served to two members of the party.” The trio, though, “did not seem very clear on the point of whether the food had been ordered, and if it had been paid for or thrown in with the beer.”
The commissioner determined that “it was not a fair test, because the acts complained of had not taken place in the regular order of business and the commission unanimously dismissed the charges.” It was added that “even City Prosecutor Guy Eddie . . . declared that the case was a weak one.” It didn’t help that one witness, George B. Harrison, “made a much better witness for the defense than he did for the side that called him and it was largely on his evidence that the charges were dismissed.”
In 1910, there were rumors that the Spanish Kitchen had its alcohol serving license revoked, but Tony Ramirez took out an ad to declare that, on the contrary, he not only didn’t have the permit revoked, but it was renewed. Within a decade, however, the anti-alcohol forces secured a “local option” victory in getting almost all sales of alcoholic beverages prohibited just before the 18th Amendment was passed ushering in Prohibition.
The restaurant, however, continued to do well and a 1915 article in the Times observed that “visitors to Los Angeles, as well as many residents, find a congenial atmosphere and the richest of Spanish and Mexican [not the latter] dishes, served at the Spanish Kitchen, under the direction of Proprietor Isamile [sic] Ramirez.” Among the foods mentioned were tamales, enchiladas, chile con carne, and stuffed pepper . . . that please the palate and suit the taste.” It was noted that, after nine years of operation, “it is the only place of its kind in California.” Moreover, clientele included “many representative business men . . . and city and county officials,” which made sense given the eatery’s proximity to the downtown commercial district, city hall (down Broadway a couple of blocks), the courthouse and other official buildings.
Sometimes the Spanish Kitchen offered a mix of culinary delights as was the case for Thanksgiving 1919, when the restaurant promoted a $1 turkey dinner with chicken giblet soup, a “combination salad,” turkey and dressing, and cranberry sauce—all traditional holiday items—but added enchiladas, “Spanish beans,” and “Spanish rice.” Hot mince pie and fruit made up dessert and there was black coffee. Note that there was no mention of beer or wine due to the success of the temperance movement locally.
Later years found some historical references to the restaurant, including an interesting review of Los Angeles restaurant history in the 15 June 1924 edition of the Times. There, it was noted that
Wherever the word “barbecue” is spoken Fred Ramirez of the Spanish Kitchen is reverently regarded, because he is supposed to be one of the master barbecue chefs of Los Angeles, which means of the United States.
This was followed with the observation that “Jose Romero is another famous chef de barbecue who still flourishes.” Romero, whose daughter Maud Bassity took care of Laura Gonzalez Temple in her final illness and then stayed on to run the Temple household at the Homestead and be Walter Temple’s longtime companion and whose son Frank was a driver and ranch foreman for the Temples, was widely renowned for his massive barbecues, as this blog has noted previously.
Audel Ramirez died on the job, as it was reported in the Times on 24 September 1927 that, after twenty-three years as chef at the Spanish Kitchen, he passed away of heart disease “while at his work” in the late afternoon. Yet, the restaurant continued on, even as competitors like Estrada’s Spanish Kitchen, El Cholo, and others.
In spring 1932, the Spanish Kitchen advertised its regular “Spanish dinner” for 50 cents, a reflection of the worsening Great Depression, though special chicken plates cost two bits more. The brief notice stated that the eatery had been in business for 27 years under the proprietorship of Ismael Ramirez. Below that, however, was another “Spanish Kitchen” in the Los Feliz district, but if offered “drive-in barbecue sandwiches” through car service along with fountain service and “Spanish food.”
Four months later, in September, the Times reported “Another City Landmark Passing” as the “Old Medford Hotel, Built by Lucky Baldwin, Being Razed.” A bird’s-eye view from across Broadway showed demolition being undertaken by V.G. Nicoletti as “three rickety walls and a pile of debris were all that remained last night of another Los Angeles landmark.”
The structure was reported to have been constructed by Baldwin nearly fifty years prior, meaning sometime around 1885. Reference was made to the building’s “heyday” when a tavern “was a rendezvous for young bloods of the town” by a long-time resident of the boarding house that occupied the upper stories. Before that, he recalled, “it was patronized by prospectors and others who considered it their home when in this city.”
The account noted that the structure was sold after Baldwin’s death in 1909 and that “until a few weeks ago the lower floor was occupied by the Spanish Kitchen.” Notably, the site was to be converted to “an auto park.” As for the Medford Hotel, it doesn’t appear to have dated later than about 1915 and, as noted above, it was a boarding house for a long period. Before the restaurant, there was a massage parlor in that ground floor store, perhaps after the tavern closed.
Whether the Spanish Kitchen continued on elsewhere is not known, but Ismael Ramirez died six years later in 1938. He and his brothers have an important place in Los Angeles restaurant history for their pioneering “Spanish” eatery that, if the 1977 correspondent is correct, was the first Mexican restaurant of note to open in Los Angeles.