Extra! Extra! Smoke House – Burbank

October 24, 2012

Another one that didn’t make the cut, but had a great gangster connection……

An established favorite in San Fernando Valley for over 60 years, the Smoke House is a stone’s throw from Hollywood and has hosted many famous names. Actor George Clooney became a regular during his days on television hospital drama “ER” and later he and producer Grant Heslov named their production company after it – they’d had so many good meals and good times here.

The Smoke House was originally located at the corner of Pass and Riverside, but within three years this 46 seater venue had became too small to keep up with all the hungry diners. Luckily, they quickly managed to find the perfect location – the Red Coach Inn, which had been due to open as a nightclub but now became their new home instead.

The year was 1949, and it wasn’t long before stars like Errol Flynn, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby took a break here after long days of shooting. “The Laugh-In” show used to hold parties here, and Jack Parr even hosted the “Tonight Show” from this very spot in 1956. Co-owner Lee Spencer told a story about Judy, one of the waitresses, who has been working at the Smoke House for 45 years:

“She served Cary Grant at his table, and when he left he gave her a kiss and said “Judy, Judy, Judy!” It was one of her first days on the job and she still talks about it!”

There are music nights here too, and it was here that Captain & Tennille – a duo who enjoyed a number of hits in the 1970s and 1980s, including a nine week run at #1 with “Love Will Keep Us Together” – were first spotted. Spencer recalled that they got so famous, they had to rip out the fireplace to make them a stage. With so many studios – and – celebrities in the immediate vicinity, the Smoke House has no doubt been the scene of some scandal, but the dark décor, big, red booths and discreet atmosphere seems to prove the ideal veil to hide behind – most of the time.

The Los Angeles Times of August 15, 1951 relished the story about the “latest outbreak of underworld warfare” in the City of Angels: the gangland killings of Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino, who had angered the mob by, among other things, robbing the famous Flamingo Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas.

Smoke House waitress Mildred Blue was one of the witnesses called by the Grand Jury regarding the claim made by James “Jimmy The Weasel” Fratianno and Nicolo “Nick” Licata that they had dined there until 8.30pm on August 6th, a mere 30 minutes before Brancato and Trobino were riddled with bullets in Hollywood.

Blue had contradicted the claim, saying that the pair actually left an hour earlier, but the crime was unproved until 1981 when – after Fratianno had spent many years in San Quentin – he went into the Witness Protection Program and finally confessed to the murders.

As for tales of a mysterious or supernatural kind, I spoke to an employee called Rosie, who has found it to be a quiet place:

“I’ve never experienced anything, and I’ve been here late and alone many times – although I have heard stories. A while back one of the managers said that as he was closing up one night he felt something “pass right through him””.

A place dedicated to prime rib (”In the 12 restaurants that I’ve owned, prime rib has always been the favorite dish,” said Spencer), The Smoke House is also famous for its garlic cheese bread, which was invented by Chef John L. Sullivan.

It was so famous that it even made it into a best-selling crime novel when it was ordered by defense lawyer Mickey Haller in Michael Connelly’s 2005 book The Lincoln Lawyer. Haller’s friend and investigator Raul Levin noted:

“You eat the cheese bread and your breath will probably kill anybody you come in contact with after this”.

It’s said that Sullivan’s recipe for the garlic cheese bread made the Smoke House the largest purveyor of French bread west of the Mississippi, and I can confirm that the cheese has the look and texture of crushed Cheetos and is indeed very garlicky and very addictive!