Nebraska-born entrepreneur Harry Culver started working on his plan for Culver City in 1913. Before he got his hands on the land, it was no more than acres of barley fields at the foot of Baldwin Hills, but by 1917 Culver City was incorporated as part of L.A. County.
Harry Culver was the consummate businessman, always seeking out new ways to improve on his ever-growing city. After happening on a film shoot in the mid-1910s, he immediately saw an opportunity and began seeking film executives and producers to come and set up their studios in Culver City. He got his wish in 1915 when Thomas Ince built his Triangle Studios on what is now Washington Boulevard. Just a few years later, Hal Roach built his silent film production company down the street.
In 1918, Ince sold Triangle Studios to Samuel Goldwyn, who would go on to convert the land into the now-defunct Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios. Over the next five decades, the MGM Studios were a breeding ground for some of the most iconic films in American history, including “Ben-Hur” and the first Technicolor musical, “The Wizard Of Oz.” During these years, Culver City became known as the “heart of Screenland,” but as it is all good things must come to an end and the MGM Studios shut their doors in the 1970s.
After remaining essentially empty for over fifteen years, the MGM Studios were bought up by Sony in 1990. It became the home of Columbia Pictures and eventually the Sony Pictures Studios. It was around this same time that the city decided to take action in revitalizing the downtown area of Culver City, which had seen a downturn over the last twenty-odd years. New development and improved infrastructure paved the way for thriving businesses and young, affluent residents.
Today, Culver City is a booming modern metropolis. Washington Boulevard is lined with upscale restaurants and bars, frequented by the growing number of employees at nearby Sony Pictures Studios. But take some time to explore and you will find that there are decades of history in the surviving restaurants and bars of Culver City.
Jackson Market and Deli
In 1925, Culver City’s residents were mostly made up of actors and the men and women working behind-the-scenes at nearby MGM studios. This was a time well before zoning laws would have restricted someone from building a butcher’s shop next door to their house, which is exactly how Jackson’s Market and Deli came to be.
Originally a butcher’s shop catering to the people of Screenland, Jackson’s was converted into a market in the 1950s. Often referred to as Culver City’s best-kept secret, Jackson’s Market is a little city oasis located in between two homes on a quiet residential street. If you don’t know it, you probably wouldn’t be able to find it, so then why has it been successful for so many years? The adorable French café offers sandwiches with fourteen different choices of meat and ten choices of cheese. The tiny grocery features a wide range of unique sodas, teas, wines, beers and pastries. Perhaps the feature that sends most people flocking to Jackson Market is the backyard, which has been transformed into a beautiful secret garden, adorned with lush greenery and murmuring fountains. It is a lovely little haven in the middle of the hustle and bustle of L.A., where celebrities and us regular folk alike can dine in peace and quiet, listening to chirping birds and imagining we’re on holiday in the country. That is until the lunch hour ends and we are sent back to work, likely at Sony Pictures Studios, located just down the street.
Jackson Market and Deli: 4065 Jackson Ave., (310) 425-8426
Johnny Harlowe was a Hollywood actor during the city’s golden age. He graced the big screen with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Katharine Hepburn. It was his old buddy Frank Sinatra who inspired him to open his own restaurant. The two would often kick back at Sinatra’s backyard pool and eat Johnny’s grilling. With some savings and the help of his good friend, Johnny opened Dear John’s in 1962. The bar and steak house quickly became a popular spot for the Hollywood elite. All sorts of stars were known to get up on stage and perform, including Sinatra himself.
Nowadays, the faux brick interior is adorned with old photos of John’s throughout the years, highlighting the famous faces that once would frequent this iconic L.A. supper club. The food is classic old steak house fare, featuring huge portions of Prime Rib and Steak with Lobster. The clientele is an interesting mix of older locals who have been visiting John’s since its heyday and the young Culver City hipsters who try to imagine what their lives could have been were they born in another decade.
Dear John’s: 11208 Culver Blvd., (310) 397-0276
“I love Tito’s Tacos. You love Tito’s too. I love Tito’s Tacos. What else can you do?” If you didn’t just sing along to that jingle in your head, then you must be one of the few unfortunate souls living in L.A. who has not yet run across the infamous Tito’s Tacos. Located right on the corner of Washington Place and Sepulveda, Tito’s is one of L.A.’s most iconic fast food Mexican restaurants, serving the fine folk of Culver City since 1959. Indeed, ask any Westsider and they’ll tell you they grew up eating at Tito’s Tacos, chowing down on the nostalgic taste of hard-shelled tacos, enchiladas and burritos.
Started by an American couple, this taco stand is not the place to come for a traditional Mexican lunch. Instead, it will take you back to a day when Americans thought Mexican food was no more than ground beef, refried beans and fried tortillas. The restaurant’s famous hard-shell tacos are filled with shredded, seasoned beef and then deep-fried to make a sort of open taquito, which is then filled with iceberg lettuce and topped in neon-orange cheddar cheese. You can never order just one because as the jingle goes – “The only thing better than a Tito’s taco – is two.”
Tito’s Tacos: 11222 Washington Pl., (310) 391-5780
Rutt’s Hawaiian Café
Rutt’s Hawaiian Café has been serving up traditional Hawaiian food in Culver City since 1976. The menu features all sorts of Hawaiian classics, including Shave Ice, Kalua Pork and Loco Moco. The breakfast menu even includes a French Toast made from traditional sweet Hawaiian bread. Of course, any Hawaiian restaurant would be remiss not to serve Spam on their menu, and Rutt’s is no exception. Spam, the infamous canned meat, first became popular in Hawaii during WWII with the increased military presence on the island state. Soldiers would trade their canned meals with locals for fresh food and thus Spam quickly became a Hawaiian staple. At Rutt’s it is served to perfection in multiple dishes, including the Spam & Eggs as well as Spam Musubi – a type of Hawaiian sushi.
Owner Paul Wahba brought Rutt’s Café national fame when he agreed to have his restaurant featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in 2014.
Rutt’s Hawaiian Café: 12114 W Washington Blvd., (310) 398-6326
Sam Passy immigrated to New York from Gallipoli, Turkey in 1909 and he and his wife moved their family out to Los Angeles in the early 1910s. Not long after they landed in the City of Angels, Passy became one of the first employees at the new Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., where he worked as a fish vendor at the Jewish supermarket. Sam’s son Eli worked for a long time at the Shrimp House in downtown and his brother Eddie would help out on the weekends. While they got their passion for food from their father, they learned the ropes of the restaurant business in those kitchens.
In the early 1950s, Eddie and Eli decided to open their own restaurant. Eddie went on a quest to find the perfect location and landed in Culver City. They found Johnnie’s and were taken in by the ideal location just off Sepulveda and the bright neon sign advertising French Dip Sandwiches and Pastrami. The sign was so nice that they decided they would just keep the name. When the restaurant opened in 1952, a French Dip Pastrami Sandwich was only $0.70, while a Patty Melt would put you back $1.10. The now infamous pickles at Johnnie’s were a secret recipe developed over years of testing, a secret that today is only known by the restaurant’s most-trusted employees.
Johnnie’s Pastrami is a true family joint. Eli eventually stepped down from the business, but Eddie continued to run it with his brother-in-law Bob Bass. Eddie sadly passed away in 1994, making Bass the sole owner until he also passed in 2012. Today, Johnnie’s is run by Sue Bass, Bob’s wife, who is keeping the tradition alive.
Johnnie’s Pastrami: 4017 Sepulveda Blvd., (310) 397-6654