COLD CASE

Sorry, We’re Closed — For A Few Decades

The building that housed the Original Spanish Kitchen, a favorite haunt of Hollywood stars, remained vacant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles for decades after the restaurant closed.
The building that housed the Original Spanish Kitchen, a favorite haunt of Hollywood stars, remained vacant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles for decades after the restaurant closed.
A favorite of Hollywood stars, L.A.’s Original Spanish Kitchen sat mysteriously vacant for years and years.

For decades, the Original Spanish Kitchen on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District served meals to show-business diners like Bob Hope, Buster Keaton, Howard Keel and John and Lionel Barrymore.

And then one day in 1961, the restaurant closed for vacation — a pause that mysteriously lasted for decades.

As spider webs slowly entombed the chandeliers and dust piled up on the tables still set for dinner, the Original Spanish Kitchen became a kind of culinary Mary Celeste, a place where only the brave and the curious risked a peek through the grubby windows. Its reclusive owner refused every offer to sell — or to tell her story.

At one point, a manager at the nearby El Coyote (itself the home of a few stories) and a friend went to the darkened restaurant to look around. One of them knocked at the door, and a pale old woman cracked the door a couple of inches and told them to go away or she’d call the cops.

The Original Spanish Kitchen’s mystery lived on.

Opened in the early 1930s as a sister restaurant to one downtown, the restaurant was the dream of Johnny Caretto and his wife, Pearl — probably the woman who was unhappy at being disturbed.

Their enchiladas were an immediate success, attracting the celebrity regulars. Mary Pickford was said to have had her own booth by the door, and along with giving autographs to fans, she passed on recipes to Johnny — which he added to the menu.   

In 1961, Johnny was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and went to a rest home for treatment. Pearl carried on as a reluctant host for several months, and then that August, she hung a handwritten sign saying “Closed For Vacation.”

Johnny died a year or so later, and a heartbroken Pearl couldn’t face opening up again, though she kept paying taxes to the city.

Kindly neighbors helped out, but after a series of break-ins and vandalism, in 1980 Pearl moved out of the upstairs apartment she had shared with Johnny and told her daughter from a previous marriage, Patricia Arnold, that she wanted to be left alone.

Unsurprisingly, rumors began to circulate: Johnny had been murdered in a mob hit; “bull fighter” Johnny had objected to Pearl’s sultry flamenco dancing and they had killed each other during a lover’s tiff; Pearl’s ghost haunted the building.

None of those stories were true, though one of them did inspire an episode of the “Lou Grant” television show in which the 30-year-old murder of the owner of “Baby Duarte’s Cantina” was solved by reporters for Grant’s fictional L.A. Tribune. 

Nevertheless, several real reporters did try to find out more — one of them even digging deep into the family history and traveling hundreds of miles in search of an answer — to no avail.   

Pearl died in 1994, and the building was sold a few years later, reopening in 2001 as the Ona Spa and Salon. The new owners insisted on a “clearing” by a psychic, who claimed there were “angry spirits” in the building.

The salon had a small cafe, too, though it came under what might be called Pearl’s Curse. It opened and closed — twice — as did two other eateries there. A few years after Ona closed, the location reopened as the L.A. office for Barry’s Bootcamp gyms.

The Original Spanish Kitchen sign is still outside, but about all that’s left of it are the letters “SPA” — and, according to the current owners, even that may be gone soon.