A LOS ANGELES RESTAURANT IN 1853, by Harris Newmark

“Not a minute was lost between the arrival of passengers and the departure of coaches for Los Angeles in the early fifties. The competition referred to developed a racing tendency that was the talk of the pueblo. The company that made the trip in the shortest time usually obtained, through lively betting, the best of advertising and the largest patronage; so that, from the moment of leaving San Pedro until the final arrival in Los Angeles two and a half hours later, we tore along at breakneck speed, over roads slowly traveled, but a few years before, by Stockton’s cannon. These roads never having been cared for, and still less inspected, were abominably bad; and I have often wondered that during such contests there were not more accidents. The stages were of the common Western variety, and four to six broncos were always a feature of the equipment. No particular attention had been given to the harness, and everything was more or less primitive. The stage was provided with four rows of seats and each row, as a rule, was occupied by four passengers, the front row including the oft-bibulous driver; and the fare was five dollars.

Soon after leaving San Pedro, we passed thousands of ground squirrels, and never having seen anything of the kind before, I took them for ordinary rats. This was not an attractive discovery; and when later we drove by a number of ranch houses and I saw beef cut into strings and hung up over fences to dry, it looked as though I had landed on another planet. I soon learned that dried beef or, as the natives here called it, carne seca (more generally known, perhaps, at least among frontiersmen, as ‘jerked’ beef or jerky) was an important article of food in Southern California; but from the reminiscences of various pioneers I have known, it evidently astonished others as much as it did me.

Having reached the Half-Way House, we changed horses; then we continued and approached Los Angeles by San Pedro Street, which was a narrow lane, possibly not more than ten feet wide, with growing vineyards bordered by willow trees on each side of the road. It was on a Sunday and in the midst of the grape season that I first beheld the City of the Angels; and to these facts in particular I owe another odd and unfavorable first impression of the neighborhood. Much of the work connected with the grape industry was done by Indians and native Mexicans, or Californians, as they were called, and every Saturday evening they received their pay. During Saturday night and all day Sunday, they drank themselves into hilarity and intoxication, and this dissipation lasted until Sunday night. Then they slept off their sprees and were ready to work Monday morning. During each period of excitement, from one to three or four of these revelers were murdered. Never having seen Indians before, I supposed them to represent the citizenship of Los Angeles — an amusing error for which I might be pardoned when one reflects that nine out of forty-four of the founders of Los Angeles were Indians, and that, according to an official census made the year before, Los Angeles County in 1852 had about thirty-seven hundred domesticated Indians among a population of a little over four thousand whites; and this mistake as to the typical burgher, together with my previous experiences, added to my amazement.

At last, with shouts and yells from the competing drivers, almost as deafening as the horn-blowing of a somewhat later date, and hailed apparently by every inhabitant and dog along the route, we arrived at the only real hotel in town, the Bella Union, where stages stopped and every city function took place. This hotel was a one-story, adobe house enlarged in 1858 to two stories, and located on Main Street above Commercial; and Dr. Obed Macy, who had bought it the previous spring from Winston & Hodges, was the proprietor…

The charges for board at the Bella Union — then enjoying a certain prestige, through having been the official residence of Pio Pico when Stockton took the city — were too heavy, and arrangements were made with a Frenchman named John La Rue, who had a restaurant on the east side of Los Angeles Street, about two hundred feet south of Bell’s Row. I paid him nine dollars a week for three more or less hearty meals a day, not including eggs, unless I provided them; in this case he agreed to prepare them for me. Eggs were by no means scarce; but steaks and mutton and pork chops were the popular choice, and potatoes and vegetables a customary accompaniment.

This La Rue, or Leroux, as he was sometimes called, was an interesting personality with an interesting history. Born in France, he sailed for the United States about the time of the discovery of gold in California, and made his way to San Francisco and the mines, where luck encouraged him to venture farther and migrate to Mazatlán, Mexico. While prospecting there, however, he was twice set upon and robbed; and barely escaping with his life, he once more turned northward, this time stopping at San Pedro and Los Angeles. Here, meeting Miss Bridget Johnson, a native of Ireland, who had just come from New York by way of San Diego, La Rue married her, notwithstanding their inability to speak each other’s language, and then opened a restaurant, which he continued to conduct until 1858 when he died, as the result of exposure at a fire on Main Street…

I distinctly recall La Rue’s restaurant, and quite as clearly do I remember one or two humorous experiences there. Nothing in Los Angeles, perhaps, has ever been cruder than this popular eating-place. The room, which faced the street, had a mud-floor and led to the kitchen through a narrow opening. Half a dozen cheap wooden tables, each provided with two chairs, stood against the walls. The tablecloths were generally dirty, and the knives and forks, as well as the furniture, were of the homeliest kind. The food made up in portions what it lacked in quality, and the diner rarely had occasion to leave the place hungry. What went most against my grain was the slovenliness of the proprietor himself. Flies were very thick in the summer months; and one day I found a big fellow splurging in my bowl of soup. This did not, however, faze John La Rue. Seeing the struggling insect, he calmly dipped his coffee-colored fingers into the hot liquid and, quite as serenely, drew out the fly; and although one could not then be as fastidious as nowadays, I nevertheless found it impossible to eat the soup…

In 1853, free-and-easy customs were in vogue in Los Angeles, permitting people in the ordinary affairs of life to do practically as they pleased. There were few if any restrictions; and if circumscribing City ordinances existed — except, perhaps, those of 1850 which, while licensing gaming places, forbade the playing of cards on the street — I do not remember what they were. As was the case in San Francisco, neither saloons nor gambling places were limited by law, and there were no regulations for their management. As many persons as could make a living in this manner kept such establishments, which were conspicuous amid the sights of the town. Indeed, chief among the surprises greeting me during my first few weeks upon the Coast, the many and flourishing gambling dens caused me the greatest astonishment…

Human life at this period was about the cheapest thing in Los Angeles, and killings were frequent.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of Project Gutenberg, The Internet Archive, “Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913 Containing the Reminiscences of Harris Newmark,” by Harris Newmark, Maurice H. Newmark, Marco R. Newmark, May 10, 2013. (top) Image courtesy of the The Huntington Digital Library, “Bella Union Hotel and Bank of Los Angeles (now Farmers and Merchants) approximately 1871,” by Charles C. Pierce, approximately 1871

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