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Where Walt Disney Ate

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Disney Caricature featuring Tam Founder Lawrence L. Frank-thumb-350x484-61316
Disney Caricature featuring Tam Founder Lawrence L. Frank | Photo courtesy Tam O'Shanter

 

"Walt didn't like fancy stuff. . . . He was a very complex man, but his tastes were very simple." -- Songwriter Richard Sherman, 2009.

The original Imagineer found inspiration everywhere he ate.

For all his fantastic dreams, Walt Disney was a mid-century man, with a middle-class, middle of the road taste in food. "Before he married mother, father had eaten in hash houses and lunch wagons for so many years in order to save money that he'd developed a hash house-lunch wagon appetite," his daughter Diane wrote. "He liked fried potatoes, hamburgers, western sandwiches, hotcakes, canned peas, hash, stew, roast beef sandwiches."

His favorite meal was a can of Gebhardt's chili mixed with a can of Dennison's chili, which he often ate at his desk. He was also a big fan of V-8 juice, which he would offer to visitors at the studio, who were often disappointed that there was nothing stronger available.

When he did venture out of the studio, Walt seems to have frequented places that fit in with his fanciful aesthetic sensibilities as well as his palate. He was a regular at Tam O'Shanter, which was a stone's throw away from his studio at 2719 Hyperion Avenue where he worked from 1925-1940. (It's now a Gelson's grocery store.) The legendary Scottish-themed restaurant at 2980 Los Feliz Boulevard has been open since 1922. With its thatched-roof cottage design, large collection of Scottish memorabilia, and upscale meat and potatoes fare, it was the ideal place for Walt to grab a quick bite, always at his favorite table #31, right by the big fireplace. Even after Disney Studios moved into the Valley, Walt remained a regular. 1957 found him at a party honoring the owners of Tam O'Shanter, where many of the guests wore plaids, kilts and tams.

It is also said that Walt frequented Clifton's, the equally legendary cafeteria at 648 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Opened in 1935, (and currently closed while undergoing a massive renovation) owner Clifton Clifford built a theme park of a restaurant, "... of imagination, dreams and whimsy--away from the troubles that we hope can be left at the door for just a short while." Many think that the restaurant's fantasy forest inspired Walt to create Disneyland, just as one can easily see the "Norman" architecture of the Tam O'Shanter in many of the animated cottages found in early Disney movies.

And then there was Biff's, one of the early coffee shop chains (along with the still extant Denny's) that sprung up across California during the post-WWII boom. According to his daughter, Walt believed the cooks at Biff's, which featured the then-novel "exhibition cooking" in which the chef and grill were fully visible to the diners, "did potatoes 'right.'" He was so enthusiastic about their pan fried hash browns that the Disneys' maid, Thelma, went to the coffee shop to inspect their technique. Perhaps most interesting to Walt was the steel frame Googie-style, futuristic architecture of these Sputnik-era eateries. Disney replicated these modernistic fantasies with his "House of the Future" at Disneyland, which boasted such novelties as a microwave capable of cooking three foods at once.

Today, if one wants to get a feel for Walt's spirit, there is perhaps no place better to go than Griffith Park. In the early days of Tam O'Shanter, they would offer box lunches for the people filming, or people simply going on a picnic in the nearby park. Walt even found inspiration for Disneyland while watching his daughters on Griffith Park's merry-go-round. In 1999, Walt's beloved Carolwood Barn, originally on his estate in Holmby Hills, was moved to Griffith Park. Walt spent hours in the barn, tinkering with his extensive model railroad, working on new projects and relaxing with friends. Today the barn is situated in a lovely spot (currently open the third Sunday of every month from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), and features exhibits about the man who brought us Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Cinderella. Sit at one of the nearby picnic tables and bring your own box lunch -- perhaps some chili -- and raise your bottle of veggie juice to the man whose "simple tastes" created a complex empire.

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