Advertisement
Share

La Jolla Then and Now: The food scene, 1920s vs. 2020s

An ad in the May 12, 1920, La Jolla Journal lists grocery items for sale that could be delivered to the home for cooking.
An advertisement in the May 12, 1920, La Jolla Journal lists grocery store items for sale that could be delivered to the home for cooking.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and ventures into this century’s decade of the ‘20s, the La Jolla Light takes a look back at what the ‘20s looked like the last time around in La Jolla and what they look like now.

In looking at The Village of today and its bounty of restaurants, it’s hard to imagine a time when one couldn’t walk down the street for Italian, Thai, Irish, French or other international cuisines. But in the 1920s, there were minimal methods of preservation and plentiful local offerings, so the La Jolla food scene was limited mostly to the home.

In the early 1900s, La Jolla had a grocery store called Barnes & Calloway where the Brooks Bros. building now stands on Girard Avenue. At the time, shopping carts didn’t exist, so grocery trips were limited to what a person could carry either on foot or in a delivery wagon. Alternatively, farmers based at La Jolla Shores would roam the streets with vegetable wagons, selling their produce. People who cooked at home also used the bounty of the ocean to feed their families.

“That’s one of the things that drew people to La Jolla — you could live cheap near the ocean and eat what you found there,” said La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten. “Seafood was big time for the home cook. … They went for fish, abalone, etc. After World War II and environmental regulations came into play, people were limited with what they could take from the ocean, when and how much.”

People also used cooking as an opportunity to socialize. The short-lived La Jolla Social Club, considered a precursor to the La Jolla Woman’s Club and La Jolla Library Association (now the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library) created a book of recipes from its members. Among its contributors were “Mrs. W.S. Lieber,” wife of Walter Lieber, who bought land in La Jolla in 1915 and built cottages to rent to vacationers, and Virginia Scripps, sister of La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps.

“Ellen Browning Scripps didn’t like a lot of fancy cooking, but Virginia did,” Olten said. “Ellen’s favorite food was a baked potato, so when Virginia would travel, it left Ellen able to enjoy her favorite foods in peace. Virginia liked things like curry and other fancier foods.”

In the Social Club recipe book, Virginia contributed her recipes for curry, oatmeal wafers and walnut cookies (see below).

“The recipes were funny to read because it seemed like there was a whole other language,” Olten said. One recipe calls for “a knob of butter the size of an egg.” Virginia’s walnut cookie recipe calls for “walnut meats floured.”

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and ventures into this century’s decade of the ‘20s, the La Jolla Light takes a look back at what the ‘20s looked like the last time around in La Jolla and what they look like now.

But as the Roaring ‘20s became a “party time” and the wealthy made their way to La Jolla to occupy newly created subdivisions, dining out became a lavish affair, Olten said.

“In 1924, Casa de Manana opened [as a hotel] and it had a large dining room with elaborate menus for holidays,” she said. “The hotels all provided places to have a nice dinner out. There was a hotel at the time, the Windansea Hotel, that was originally built in 1909 and closed in the 1940s that had fanciful meals. ... Movie theaters were busy showing silent films. People were in the mood for celebrations. So when people went out, it was white tablecloths and upscale.”

The Spindrift Inn was a hotel and cafe where The Marine Room currently stands on Spindrift Drive.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society)

In the ‘20s, a restaurant called the Brown Bear on what is now Prospect Street was “a big deal in La Jolla,” Olten said.

“Around 1915, manager Lucille Spinney threw a huge party. ... They hung garlands and someone from Paris made paper roses in the French tradition. She thought she would get a lot of publicity, but she only got one photograph of herself, so she was really disappointed. But the publicity she did get worked because the Brown Bear became a well-known restaurant.”

Now, La Jolla’s restaurant rows span from Fay Avenue to Ivanhoe Avenue, Pearl Street to Prospect Street, and beyond. And the demand from diners has come “very much full circle” in that fresh local ingredients are a must, Olten said.

“What was a necessity because you had to eat local is now more of a luxury,” she said. “Expensive restaurants are charging an arm and a leg for hen-laid eggs, and organic produce with no GMOs [genetically modified organisms] cost more.”

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and ventures into this century’s decade of the ‘20s, the La Jolla Light takes a look back at what the ‘20s looked like the last time around in La Jolla and what they look like now.

Jason Peaslee, owner of The Cottage restaurant on Fay Avenue, said diners are coming to La Jolla from across California, the country and the world seeking fresh local ingredients.

“Processed food is out; it’s all about fresh, organic products and making sure you don’t change the food too much,” Peaslee said. “Whole foods are important for people that want to stay healthy as long as possible. People don’t want bologna anymore. For La Jolla, health is definitely front of mind because of all the health and wellness offerings, but even middle America is getting healthier. The more educated we are in food, the more it tells us to eat better.

“But at the end of the day, people also like French toast. It tastes good and makes you happy. Food is an emotional thing.”

Further, with an increase in food photography on social media, plates have to be “Instagram-friendly,” he said.

And because La Jolla is a “touristy town,” locals don’t want to get shut out. “We have locals that are kids and teenagers, young parents, older kids and the older locals. And they all want to be recognized and don’t want to be pushed aside,” Peaslee said. “It’s about taking care of people year-round.”

Trey Foshee, head chef of George’s at the Cove on Prospect Street for the past 22 years, said: “San Diego is a lifestyle and La Jolla is a lifestyle, so when people are here, whether they live or visit, they follow that lifestyle. When you are in Chicago, you get pizza. When you are on the coast, you expect to get healthy food and seafood.”

Visitors from Arizona dine on the Ocean Terrace of George's at the Cove in La Jolla last summer.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

In decades past, he said, chefs would complain that San Diego is just “a fish taco town.” But today, “fish tacos are still a bestseller at George’s,” Foshee said.

“One of the things we ask ourselves, because we want to provide an experience unique to our location, is ‘What is San Diego?’” he said. “When you think of the food of a city, you think about its roots and its culture. Food tends to follow the historical path of the location, and San Diego doesn’t have that deep of a history. It has fishing communities and some ranching and farming, but I keep going back to the lifestyle. I hope when people eat our food, it has a sense of place that tends to be vegetable- and seafood-focused.”

But to provide that historical, upscale feeling for diners, “we still have options for splurging.”

Virginia Scripps’ walnut cookies

From the La Jolla Social Club recipe book, circa 1908

· Two cups brown sugar

· One cup butter creamed with sugar

· Half-cup milk

· Three eggs

· Thicken with flour and add one pint walnut meats floured.

· Roll out and cut, or drop onto greased paper if too soft to roll. ◆