Issue: Discover Hollywood Winter 2020

Tam o'Shanter: Walt Disney Ate Here

Michael Darling

No matter how quickly you drive east on busy Los Feliz Boulevard, when you pass the Tam O’Shanter Restaurant your eyes can’t help but linger. The charming country lodge looks immensely out of place across the street from a massive strip mall. But when you step inside, you enter a storybook storybook Scottish manor where the waitstaff wears plaid, the prime rib is cut perfectly, and the scotch goes down smooth. Is it any surprise that this fantasyland was where Walt Disney went for lunch and creative inspiration?

The Tam, as it’s casually known, was opened in 1922 by brothers-in-law Lawrence Frank and Walter Van De Kamp. The two men and their families had moved out to Los Angeles from the Midwest in the early 1900s and ran a shop downtown where they sold Dutch-style potato chips. A real estate agent approached them with an opportunity:  With the studios popping up, he believed the area between Hollywood and Glendale would soon become the real downtown Los Angeles, so they should get in on the ground floor and build a restaurant there. While the neighborhood didn’t develop the way the real estate agent prophesized, the restaurant’s location did help it become a success.

Frank and Van De Kamp wanted something unique and were influenced by their love of travel. “They had taken a couple trips with their family and loved the English countryside manor,” says John Lindquist, general manager of the Tam O’Shanter. Conveniently, the storybook architectural style was in vogue at the time. Frank and Van De Kamp hired Harry Oliver, a noted Hollywood art director and part-time architect responsible for Beverly Hills’ famous “Witch’s House,” to design the building.

Oliver used all his Hollywood tricks to give the Tam the right old-world charm; wood beams were charred and wire-brushed to make them look aged, while angels were all just a little off. “He told his team don’t measure anything, do it all by hand, and that’s pretty much how they got the original look of the building,” says Lindquist, adding “You’ll notice there are seven different colors of paint on any part of the wall because it’s supposed to look old and smoke stained.” The rustic look of the Tam not only blended in with the rural area that would become the Atwater Village neighborhood, but would also help catch the attention of hungry motorists. Though the Tam has had many additions and alterations, the basics of Harry Oliver’s design are still visible and remains an eye-catching due to its anachronistic architecture..

As their business grew, in 1938 the family opened Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills and the now closed windmill-adorned Van de Kamp bakeries. While the Tam is known for Scottish favorites like prime rib, smoked salmon and toad in the hole, its biggest contribution to America’s culinary history is its season salt. Lawry’s Season Salt, which is often found at grocery stores and in pantries across the country, was first developed in the Tam’s garage and can still be found tableside at the Tam. Incredibly, the Tam is the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles still owned by its founding families, with the Frank and Van de Kamp families still involved in its operation to this day.

The Tam’s historic impact goes far beyond salt recipe, it also inspired Walt Disney and his animation teams. “When they built the studio on Hyperion, they didn’t include a commissary and we as the only viable restaurant in the area, so Disney came for lunch five times a week,” says Lindquist. Disney would take meetings at a corner table in the restaurant and eventually became good friends with the owners and staff. Even after moving his growing empire to Burbank in 1940, Disney still went to the Tam for lunch.

As it became common knowledge that Disney frequented the Tam, Disney animators began to descend on the restaurant’s patio. There, they’d sketch and hope that the boss would take a look at what they were working on and give it his blessing. It’s possible that Disney and his artists made their unofficial workshop part of film history. According to Lindquist, “If you compare Snow White’s house and the original pictures of the restaurant, they’re an exact match.”

While it’s well known that Disney first dreamt up Disneyland while watching his daughters ride the merry-go-round in Griffith Park, it was at the Tam that he conceived his theme park. “In the Disney family archive, there are Tam O’Shanter napkins that contain some of the sketches for Disneyland attractions,” says Lindquist. A few years ago, Disney imagineers actually borrowed the Tam’s Table 31, Disney’s usual seat, and installed a plaque that shows some of Disney’s napkin drawings. There you’ll discover sketches for a Tomorrowland spaceship, a jungle river and dinosaurs. The Tam’s special relationship with Disney is visible at the restaurant’s entrance, where a 1958 portrait by Disney artist John Hench depicts Lawrence Frank in full Scottish regalia, joined by Mickey Mouse and his friends.

Being near the giant outdoor soundstage that is Griffith Park has brought many other film folks to the Tam. In the days before craft services, actors on their lunch break would come down from Griffith Park to the Tam in full costume. “There are pictures of centurions in armor sitting at the bar,” says Lindquist. John Wayne was often known to take a regular table at the Tam after riding his horse around Griffith Park.

However, the Tam’s greatest tradition predates the invention of the movie camera; the annual Burns Night supper. Burns Night suppers go back to the 1800s and are formal dinners that honor the memory of Scottish national poet Robert Burns. As the Tam takes its name from Burns’ 1790 poem “Tam O’Shanter,” it was decided in the 1970s that the Tam should bring the Scottish tradition to Los Angeles. Every January they do two dinners during the week of Burns’ birthday. It’s a special evening of bagpipes, scotch, Burns’ poems and a ceremonial “sleighing of the haggis” by Dr. Neil McLeod, an English expat who has performed at the Tam for over 30 years.

While the Tam is only 98 tears old, its history, food and traditions make it timeless.