Monday, October 22, 2018

Early French Restauranteurs of Los Angeles: Jean La Rue (Laroux)

The French, whether in France or abroad, are known for a lot of things.

Sophistication. Military might (fight me on this, Google). Knowing how to beautify anything and everything.

The French are best known, however, for culinary prowess. It should come as no surprise that early Los Angeles' best restaurants were helmed by French chefs.

Today, we meet one of LA's earliest French restauranteurs, if not THE earliest: Jean La Rue (or Laroux).

In 1853, nineteen-year-old Harris Newmark, newly arrived in Los Angeles, was clerking for his merchant brother J.P. and sleeping on the premises. Cooking inside the store was impossible, so Newmark arranged to eat at a nearby restaurant instead.

Newmark gives the proprietor's name as John La Rue. If La Rue's establishment had a name, it certainly doesn't appear in Sixty Years in Southern California. (Nameless restaurants were not impossible in Los Angeles; Nick's Cafe near Chinatown didn't have a name for the first few decades of its existence.)

La Rue was born in France, came to California as a gold prospector, tried prospecting in Mazatlan, and returned to the United States after being robbed twice in Mexico. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, La Rue met and married an Irish woman, Bridget Johnson, in spite of the fact that he spoke no English and she spoke no French. He then opened his restaurant "on the east side of Los Angeles Street, about two hundred feet south of Bell's Row." (If it existed today, it would be roughly at the corner of Los Angeles and Aliso Streets, just west of the 101 in the Civic Center.)

In Newmark's own words:

Nothing in Los Angeles, perhaps, has ever been cruder than this popular eating-place. The room, which faced the street, had a mud-floor and led to the kitchen through a narrow opening. Half a dozen cheap wooden tables, each provided with two chairs, stood against the walls.

(A real dirt floor and a dining room facing the street? Hipsters would have loved La Rue's.)
 The tablecloths were generally dirty, and the knives and forks, as well as the furniture, were of the homeliest kind. The food made up in portions what it lacked in quality, and the diner rarely had occasion to leave the place hungry.
(Sounds like any greasy-spoon in America, to be honest.)
What went most against my grain was the slovenliness of the proprietor himself. Flies were very thick in the summer months; and one day I found a big fellow splurging in my bowl of soup. This did not, however, faze John La Rue. Seeing the struggling insect, he calmly dipped his coffee-colored fingers into the hot liquid and, quite as serenely, drew out the fly; and although one could not then be as fastidious as nowadays, I nevertheless found it impossible to eat the soup.
(I loathe and resent the "grubby French person" stereotype - indoor plumbing began at Versailles, you know - so it pains me to type this.)

Jean La Rue died five years later from smoke inhalation when a fire broke out on Main Street. Bridget Johnson La Rue inherited her husband's orange grove and (what else...) vineyard.

In spite of his critical eye toward La Rue's questionable hygiene and rather dirty café, Newmark notes "Although La Rue was in no sense an eminent citizen, it is certain that he was esteemed and mourned."

Stay tuned for entries on Victor Dol, Eugene Aune, and more...

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