By WADE DANIELS
Most restaurants don't last 20 years. Many don't even make it past five. So try to explain the success of the Scottish-themed Tam O'Shanter Inn in L.A.'s Atwater Village, which recently marked its 75th year in business.
The food is from another decade and the decor is from, well, another century. No matter. The Tam O'Shanter has survived a comfortable old shoe of the L.A. restaurant world.
"Location has a lot to do with why we're still there," said Richard N. Frank, whose father Lawrence and brother-in-law Walter Van de Kamp co-founded the eatery in 1922.
The Atwater Village area hasn't changed much over the years, Frank said, so the kind of development pressure that turned other landmark restaurants into mini-malls hasn't touched the Tam O'Shanter.
Then too, there's the retro ambiance.
"It's the kind of place where you're not afraid to order a scotch and soda with your prime rib," said New Times restaurant critic Meredith Brody, who cited its "unfashionable stylishness" as part of the Tam O'Shanter appeal.
The restaurant opened on Los Feliz Boulevard in June of 1922 as the Montgomery Country Inn, and like many new restaurants it nearly went belly up in its first few years.
Co-founder Lawrence Frank seized on an idea from a fellow Rotary clubber to convert it into a Scottish-themed restaurant and call it the Tam O'Shanter the name of a work by Scottish poet Robert Burns.
Frank had no Scottish blood but recognized a good angle, and after adopting the theme in 1925 the restaurant went on to become an L.A. culinary landmark, famous for its Scottish pub character, its stick-to-your-ribs fare (like Toad in the Hole, filet mignon and vegetables baked in Yorkshire pudding), and a cast of famous diners that has ranged from Walt Disney to Jay Leno.
In the early days, Los Angeles was not the wall-to-wall city it is today, and the Tam O'Shanter was on the only through road linking Glendale and Hollywood.
It was also one of the few restaurants near Griffith Park, which at the time was regularly used by the movie industry for outdoor location shoots. The Tam O'Shanter quickly became popular with the likes of Tom Mix, Mack Sennett, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Fatty Arbuckle and Douglas Fairbanks.
Perhaps its most famous patron, though, was Disney, who regularly ate lunch there in the 1930s.
Today, the clientele includes people like Frances Blaner, a retiree who has been coming since 1952.
"This was one of the first places a friend brought me when I moved to Los Angeles, and I've come here two or three times a month since then," Blaner said after lunch last week with her husband John. "The ambiance is unique here and the food is very good."
The bulk of its business may be long-time customers, but the Tam O'Shanter has to attract younger people in order to maintain its customer base. The suit-and-tie crowd is in evidence at the restaurant's sandwich bar at lunchtime, and other events, such as a live Irish band, keep youthful party-goers coming in; people from these crowds eventually turn into dining room customers, said Stacey Willet, the restaurant's banquet coordinator.
It may also benefit from its proximity to the hipster locale of Silverlake and Los Feliz. The young crowds concentrated in those areas take many lifestyle cues from the 1940s, listening to swing music, drinking hard liquor and dining in places like the Tam O'Shanter.
"The Tam O'Shanter is not a trendy restaurant, but it's always managed to keep in style," said Frank. "Some restaurants see their clientele grow old and die away, but we've managed to keep people of many ages coming."
Indeed, three quarters of a century is eons when it comes to longevity for restaurants. Some 68 percent of eateries don't see their 10th anniversary, according to the American Restaurant Association.
Frank says the Tam O'Shanter is still profitable, with about $3 million in sales in 1997. That represents a relatively small portion of sales for the Pasadena-based Lawry's Restaurants Inc., which owns the Tam O'Shanter. The company, which also owns five other restaurants including the Lawry's The Prime Rib restaurants, had estimated revenues of $30 million in 1997.
Frank handed his son and company President Richard R. Frank the title of chief executive of Lawry's Restaurants in 1997.
Ultimately, Frank said, the food has to be consistently good in order to make return customers out of the people who visit the place as an oddity.
"One key thing my father taught me always be consistent with the food," Frank said. "He said, 'If you're serving good food, it must be just as good every single time."
The absence of what some restaurants call "heart smart" dishes is okay for places like the Tam O'Shanter, said Steven Steinhauser, director of the restaurant industry practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP.
"Staying true to its concept and not bending to what's hot can allow places like the Tam O'Shanter to weather the vagaries of trends," Steinhauser said. "The restaurant has obviously weaved itself into the fabric of the community and offers something that's always in demand."
More broadly, industry observers see a rise in the popularity of steak houses and meat-and-potatoes restaurants.
"People are eating again in places where they can indulge," said Christine Granados of the National Restaurant Association. "Older people and younger people are not just going out for a meal, they want to have a dining experience and really be treated."
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