Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Early French Restauranteurs of Los Angeles: Victor Dol

Los Angeles is, for many foodies, a dream destination.

Year-round access to good fresh produce (and good wine)? Check. 
One of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world? Check.
Relatively affordable rent (compared to Tokyo, Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, etc.)? If you don't mind a strip mall location, check.
Friendly to food trucks? Check. (By the way, food trucks are often cleaner than brick-and-mortar restaurants.)
Chefs of all backgrounds applying French cooking techniques? According to the late Jonathan Gold, check.

The first chefs in Los Angeles to apply French cooking techniques were, of course, French. And the first LA-based chef to have trained in Paris was a Frenchman named Victor Dol.

Victor Dol was born April 5, 1840 in the southern French town of Cuers. After training as a chef in Paris, he came to the United States in 1860. Victor married his first wife, Felicie Malvardi, in 1862. Like Victor, Felicie was from the region of Var. They had two daughters - Josephine in 1864 and Victorine in 1870. The Dol family must have moved around quite a bit in those early days, since Josephine was born in Cuba and Victorine was born in British Columbia, Canada.

Census and voter records indicate that Victor came to San Francisco first, establishing the upscale restaurant Maison Dorée (which was likely named after the Parisian restaurant Maison Dorée). He became a naturalized citizen there in 1876, and set up shop in Los Angeles in 1877. 

Felicie's uncle, Benjamin Flotte, was already living in Los Angeles and running the Oriental Café (don't let the name fool you - the menu was strictly European) with another Frenchman, one C. Casson, and a Prussian, H. Schmitt. (The Oriental Café stood at 221 Main Street, directly across from the Pico House.) Flotte helped his nephew-in-law get his first LA restaurant off the ground (and, at least for a time, lived with the Dol family). 

Victor owned a restaurant in the Downey Block at one point (no surprise here, since the Downey Block also hosted a French-owned wine store and a French-language newspaper). He founded the Restaurant Français at 221 N Main St in 1886. But he is best known (in Los Angeles, anyway) for the Commercial Restaurant.

Imagine, if you can, going to the Commercial Restaurant in 1877. Longtime Angelenos of the day would likely still remember the not-distant-enough days of dirty, primitive eateries like Jean La Rue's. Although the Commercial Restaurant was about three blocks away from La Rue's former location, it couldn't have been further from La Rue's in spirit.

If you were coming from the older part of Frenchtown, you would be walking southwest on Main Street (make that same walk today and you would pass behind City Hall). You come to a gap between two buildings and walk in.

A brick-lined courtyard with a decorative fountain beckons, with the restaurant itself just behind. It has real floors - not dirt. Sneak a peek around you as you dine on fine French cuisine and you may well spot opera stars, politicians, well-heeled visitors from the East Coast, and the celebrities of the era in addition to early LA's foodie crowd.

Curiously, Victor Dol and Eugene Aune were both from the town of Cuers. While going through digitized old issues of the Los Angeles Herald, I found an advertisement for the Commercial Restaurant - directly above an advertisement for Eugene's Restaurant. History doesn't seem to have recorded whether Dol and Aune were friends, rivals, or friendly rivals, or if the ad placement was deliberate, but apparently early LA had a high enough demand for fine French cuisine to support Eugene's in addition to Victor's restaurants.

Although the restaurant industry is very tough, it made the hardworking Dol family rich (besides Victor's restaurants, Felicie took in boarders). Victor sold the Commercial Restaurant to Mr. L. Pegot (founder of a San Diego branch of Delmonico's) in January 1888, announcing his retirement. But (shades of Prudent Beaudry) 48-year-old Victor didn't stay retired for very long.

On January 5, 1889, Victor opened a Los Angeles location of his upscale San Francisco restaurant, Maison Dorée. He proudly advertised it as a Los Angeles equivalent of famed New York restaurant Delmonico's. Daily shipments of live turbot, trout, and sole arrived at Maison Dorée, and Victor imported brie from France (local cheeses just wouldn't do). 

No family is immune to tragedy, and Felicie Dol passed away in 1898 at the age of 58. Victor later married a woman named Tatiana who was 19 years younger than he was.

Victor died at home in Venice (it isn't clear when the Dols moved) in 1911, leaving an estate valued at $625,000. That's about $16.7 million in 2018 dollars. (Try buying Venice real estate for $625,000 now!)

Perhaps unusually for such a successful entrepreneur, Victor Dol was a Socialist. (At the risk of roasting my own subject, Victor might possibly have been a Champagne Socialist in both the figurative and literal senses.) According to probate filings, he left $15,000 to purchase a plot of land in Toulouse, France and construct a building to be donated to a Socialist organization that would be chosen by two trustees he had selected.

As for the rest of that sizable estate, Victor left $6000, plus $1200 a year in rent on two commercial properties downtown (between 6th and 7th on Spring and Broadway), to his widow Tatiana, along with the couple's two lots in Venice. 

The French Hospital received $5000 of Victor's estate, and the Los Angeles County Pioneers' Society received $2000. The rest of Victor's estate was to be split evenly between daughters Josephine and Victorine. Victor is buried at Angelus Rosedale with both of his wives (Tatiana passed away in 1934).

Victor's death announcement in the Los Angeles Herald notes an unusual request: "A clause in the will is to the effect that the dead man desires that the property he leaves never shall be mortgaged nor sold." His descendants seem to have honored that request. 618 South Broadway, built in 1928 on one of the Dols' downtown plots, was the only downtown building destroyed in the 1992 riots. Victor's grandson-in-law, Walter J. Thomson, spent at least $2.5 million rebuilding 618 South Broadway from old photographs and renamed it the Victor Dol Building, noting to the Los Angeles Times that his young granddaughters (Victor's great-great-granddaughters) would eventually inherit the property. 

On a personal note, I almost fell off my chair when I saw the address. I've walked past the Victor Dol Building countless times on my way to Clifton's or a historic theater and NEVER knew it had a French connection. (By the way, I am VERY good at spotting new construction made to look older. The fact that the reconstructed Victor Dol Building looks just as old as Broadway's vintage theaters is a testament to the fact that Thomson cared enough to have it done right.)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Early French Restauranteurs of Los Angeles: Eugene Aune

Before we begin:

  • Wildfires are still raging in the Calabasas/Malibu/Thousand Oaks area. If you want to help, and aren't a trained volunteer firefighter, first responder, or similarly qualified professional, please read this.
  • Can you adopt or foster evacuated animals? Click here. (If you have the land and resources,  large animals are the hardest ones to place.)
  • Are you in a fire-adjacent area? Set out buckets of water if you can. Wild animals are also fleeing - they will be hot and thirsty, and their usual water sources may be unavailable.
  • In case this isn't clear enough, I hate wildfires.

And now to lighten the mood:

Eugene Aune was doing the "farm to table" thing when Los Angeles was less than 100 years old.

He also set up shop in Santa Monica before Santa Monica existed and built Santa Monica's first combination home and business. (Le Guide states that it was Santa Monica's first house, period.)

Born in France around 1828, Eugene Aune built a house/restaurant in 1873, not far from Santa Monica State Beach. The town of Santa Monica did not yet exist. The mere fact that Aune managed to attract customers to a restaurant 17 miles from downtown, in the middle of nowhere, long before the 10 and the Expo Line existed, suggests it was a destination worth the trip.

When Santa Monica was founded in 1875, Aune's house/restaurant got an official address: 114 Main Street. Listings from the 1880s put Eugene's Restaurant, as it was called, at the corner of Second Street and Arizona Avenue (today, that intersection boasts a Tender Greens).

Ever wonder why artichokes, of all things, are such a staple of Southern California cuisine? Aune may very well have gotten the ball rolling. He grew his own artichokes (and other vegetables), serving them in the restaurant. Aune would also serve fish and razor clams fresh from Santa Monica Bay, followed by roasted meat, salad, and an omelet or soufflé for dessert. And wine, of course. Advertisements for Eugene's Restaurant mention "French Clarets and other wines always on hand." Madame Aune* waited tables. Eugene's high-end French dinners set diners back $3 apiece (about $60 today).

Advertisements for Eugene's Restaurant also mention "Rooms, furnished or unfurnished, to rent." Like so many other French Angelenos, Aune eventually rented rooms in addition to his day job. (The restaurant industry is brutal. Chez Panisse didn't turn a profit for 20 years.)

By 1886, voter rolls listed Aune's occupation as "real estate". Towards the end of the year, he placed his restaurant on the rental market.

Eugene Aune passed away in 1892.

My mom is from Santa Monica. Did she learn about any of this in school? Nope.

I lived and worked in Santa Monica. Did anyone tell me any of this? Nope.

Does anyone remember Eugene Aune today? Nope. But if you love LA's world-class culinary scene, maybe you should.

*It's annoyingly common to find no reference to a long-dead married woman's first name, let alone her family name. Even Ancestry let me down this time.