Thursday, March 12, 2020

We Need to Talk About Taix

Sometime around 1870, a family of bakers and sheepherders from the Hautes-Alpes left France, emigrating to Los Angeles.

For decades, customers have hotly debated how to pronounce their surname - Taix. Long story short, the family says it's pronounced "Tex".

In any case, the family purchased property in Frenchtown - specifically, at 321 Commercial Street - and opened the Taix French Bread Bakery in 1882.

1911 and 1912 were tough on Marius Taix Sr. In September 1911, his sister Leonie Allemand died in France. In the spring of 1912, Adrian Taix (co-owner of The French Bakery at 1550 West Pico Boulevard), died. By summer, brother Joseph Taix died, also in France. And finally, in the summer of 1912, Joachim Taix (who owned the other half of The French Bakery) also died.

That same year, Marius Taix Sr. tore down the Commercial Street bakery, building the Champ d'Or Hotel on the land and leasing the ground floor to a restauranteur.

Marius Taix Jr. was a pharmacist by trade, and owned the French-Mexican Drug Company nearby at 231-235 N. Los Angeles Street. Ads boasted "French and Mexican Preparations Our Specialty". (With the Plaza and Sonoratown so close by, featuring both French and Mexican medicines was a smart move on Marius Jr.'s part.)

Two stories are told about the origin of the Taix family's eponymous restaurant. One is that Marius Jr. got into an argument with the restaurant owner. The other is that Prohibition agents busted the restaurant owner for illegally selling alcohol, and that Marius Jr. confronted him about it.

This isn't too surprising. Prohibition spelled the end for Frenchtown, since it rendered French restaurant owners unable to serve wine (the vintners had long since sold off their vineyards for development). Without wine, diners didn't want to linger at a French restaurant for an hours-long dinner (Little Italy, on the other side of the Plaza, faced the same issue). The overwhelming majority of Los Angeles' French community took pride in being law-abiding, and although Prohibition was decidedly unpopular, it was still the law. Better to close the restaurant and change jobs than to break the law.

In either case, one day in 1927, words were exchanged, the restauranteur threw the keys at Marius Jr. before storming out, and the Taix family rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Taix French Restaurant in the 1950s
Marius Taix Jr. started out serving 50-cent chicken dinners at long, family-style tables, with private booths available for an extra 25 cents (he got around Prohibition by selling "medicinal wine"). He partnered with a French immigrant who had become an experienced restauranteur and baker, Louis Larquier. He also continued to run the pharmacy - a very busy guy!

Six years later, Taix French Restaurant could legally serve wine without having to call it "medicinal". Today, they serve more than 400 wines, along with affordably priced country-style French cuisine.

Marius Jr.'s two sons, Raymond and Pierre, grew up washing dishes in the restaurant. In 1962, the beloved Sunset Boulevard location opened under the name "Les Fréres Taix" - the Taix Brothers.

Taix French Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard
The original restaurant at 321 Commercial Street was forced to close in 1964 to make way for new government buildings, including a courthouse and jail (the same block once included the corral where Michel Lachenais was hanged). The Sunset Boulevard location has a bar called the 321 Lounge, presumably in honor of the original restaurant.

The two different restaurant names - Taix French Restaurant and Les Fréres Taix - were reportedly confusing to diners, and the Sunset Boulevard location dropped "Les Fréres" from its name.

In 2012, the intersection in front of Taix was officially designated Taix Square by the City Council. Intersections are typically named after important Angelenos - very few restaurants receive the same honor.

Alas, the good times will be coming to an end, at least for a while.

Taix has been a Los Angeles institution for 92.5 years. It's popular with couples, families, hipsters, Francophiles, foodies, city bigwigs, and Dodgers fans (Dodger Stadium is 5 minutes away). It even managed to survive Echo Park's decline into LA's scariest drug den (before the hipsters moved in). But the restaurant business has changed a lot, and in the 58 years that Taix has been open in Echo Park, the building's six banquet rooms are used less and less.

A building Taix's size, on a lot as big as Taix's, costs serious money to maintain. And in order for a business - even a legacy business - to stay open, it has to make enough money to cover expenses. That's hard to do when wholesale food prices have risen, labor costs have risen, and much of the building isn't being put to sufficient use.

Raymond Taix's son Michael, who currently owns the restaurant, sold the property in August 2019 for $12 million and is leasing the building as a tenant. The real estate developer which now owns the property plans to build a housing and retail complex, which will include a smaller version of Taix (6,000 square feet vs. the current 18,000 square foot building).

The plan is to store the bar, lounge, and signage, and reinstall them in the smaller future space - essentially shrinking Taix, but keeping everything that makes Taix what it is.

Except for the current building. Unless the developer decides to somehow convert the existing building (which I seriously doubt will be the case), it's doomed.

As of this writing, Taix is still open. Go while you can - no one knows for sure when the developer will get the go-ahead to start construction. And when it starts, count on waiting a good 18 months before Taix reopens.

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