The Tick Tock Tea Room: Comfort Food From An Uncomfortable Era

Image courtesy Los Angeles Public LibraryDuring the depths of the Depression, Los Angeles teemed with thousands of recent transplants who migrated to the Southland in search of sunshine and a steady paycheck. Whether they were barely getting by, or middle class folk who expected a little to stretch a long way, all were looking for comfort in the midst of so much hard-scrabble suffering.

This was the age of the tea room. Though modern epicureans might associate a tea room with scones and crumpets served to old ladies and excited little girls on vacation, the tea rooms of the '30s were much more a precursor to Golden Corral than the Peninsula. Large, pleasant, and no-frills, these eateries boasted plain, hearty comfort food served quickly and cheaply. They flourished in urban jungles like Los Angeles, with names like the Carolina Pines, Mrs. Mallard's, the Pollyanna, and the Marie Louise. Since it took a lot of customers to make any profit at such low prices, competition was fierce and tea rooms were continually offering cheaper specials, free parking, and even party favors to secure customers.

Image courtesy Los Angeles Public LibraryThe tea room scene was already in full swing when Art and Helen Johnson, a Norwegian auto mechanic and a waitress from Minneapolis, drove their old Model A Ford into Los Angeles in 1930. They quickly sold the car for $500 and bought the Laurel Crest Tea Room at New Hampshire and Beverly Boulevard. When the former owner took back the restaurant's sign, claiming it was not part of the purchase, Art and Helen needed a new name. In honor of the last café they had eaten at in Minnesota, they rechristened the small space the "Tick Tock Tea Room" and hung a cuckoo clock, a family heirloom, on the wall.

It was slow going at first. But once the couple took out an ad touting a 65-cent turkey dinner they saw their business jump from 30 to 100 meals a day. The Tick Tock grew exponentially from there, moving four times in five years. In 1934, they settled into a large colonial at 1716 Cahuenga, just off Hollywood Boulevard. The fully air-conditioned new space sat 300 and featured fluted glass chandeliers, a fireplace, sturdy early American furnishings, banquet rooms, and fresh flowers on every table. Helen acted as the friendly hostess, and there was one waitress for every three tables, creating a system so efficient that one columnist claimed that he sat down at 8:00 and was back in his car by 8:35. By the mid-1930s the Tick-Tock claimed to serve around 2,000 meals a day. (See a profile of the family from the 1980s here: PDF)

The food itself was efficiently rich, filling and fresh. The meal began with rolls, including their famous sticky orange rolls (see the recipe here!). The salads were described as crisp and simple. Guests had their choice of main entrees of chicken, lamb, rabbit, steak, fish, duck, or turkey, fried, chipped, creamed, or baked. Valley-farmed vegetables were cooked family style throughout the day, ensuring that nothing was soggy or overcooked. Desserts included cakes and pastries, but no booze was allowed. It is no wonder that there were nightly lines of "substantial looking" families waiting to stuff themselves to the gills, all for what we would now pay for a piece of bubble gum.

The family atmosphere was extended in the way the Tick Tock interacted with the community. Halloween, St Paddy's Day, Christmas, Mother's Day, New Years -- all were celebrated at the Tick Tock with decorations, "favors, novelties and good food." The Tick Tock was open for lunch and dinner every day but Mondays, and two weeks in the summer when all 75 employees (whose group-funded charitable donations were often listed in the LA Times) took a much needed holiday. Special meals were created to cater to the busy Hollywood shopper on the go, the health conscious, and those on their way to the Hollywood Bowl. In the summer cold plates of turkey, ham and fruit were offered, as were a la carte sandwiches and iced desserts. No wonder Helen Johnson claimed she was so exhausted that she couldn't even stay awake to read a self-help book she had purchased titled, "How to Keep From Getting Tired!"

The Tick Tock, now covered in cuckoo clocks, was propelled through the decades by its famous service, long after most other tea rooms had called it a day. By the late '60s Helen and Art's sons had taken over the day-to-day operations, and many of the couple's five children and 13 grandchildren worked at the restaurant in one capacity or another. The prices stayed supremely consistent -- in 1969 a full dinner was $2.70 to $4.75; in 1981 a "fancy" Easter supper was only $8.40. Art died in 1980 and Helen a few years later. Not surprisingly, the steep decline of Hollywood, as well as new competition, marked an end to the Tick Tock, and it finally closed its welcoming doors for good in the summer of 1988.

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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