Today, it’s just a house, albeit a charming house, but just a house on an innocuous street in the innocuous L.A. bedroom community of Glendale. These days, passersby might not even give it a second glance, but in the first years of the Twentieth Century this little house was one of the most famous restaurants in the West, a mecca for visitors from around the world – It was the renowned Casa Verdugo, an eatery par excellence from days long since past.
It may well be Helen Hunt Jackson whom we have to thank for popularizing the humble tamale, enchilada and burrito. After all, it was Jackson’s spectacularly successful 1884 novel, Ramona, the Harry Potter of its day, that created the world’s fascination with the California of the old Spanish days. Before the advent of Ms. Jackson and Ramona, the rotting relics and ancestors of that era were something to be shunned rather than revered by the now majority American population. Her phenomenally bestselling book changed all that, at least for the buildings, and suddenly there were drives to help save the old missions and adobe homes of the Spanish pioneers and the “Mission” style of architecture was born, which was quite the vogue between 1890-1915 until it was eclipsed by the more sophisticated Spanish Colonial Revival style of the 1920’s. During this era, tourists from the world over flocked to Southern California to see this romantic land for themselves and to visit its colorful and picturesque landmarks.
That fascination was well on the mind of Leslie C. Brand and Henry E. Huntington at the time of their purchase of hundreds of acres of what had been the famous and vast Rancho San Rafael, located in the foothills near where Brand was developing the new community of Glendale. Located on the property were several old structures dating back to rancho days including one known as the “Sanchez” or sometimes “Sepulveda” Adobe, after Maria Sepulveda and her husband Tomas Sanchez, who once owned part of the Rancho. Surrounded by pepper trees and other mature vegetation, the picturesque old adobe had a commanding vista towards downtown Los Angeles from its wide sheltering corredor that ran the entire length of the long narrow facade. Brand and Huntington decided to remake the old house into a tourist destination in the form of a restaurant specializing in Spanish dishes intended to delight the tourists and give them a real “taste” of old California in the most literal sense of the word.
To make the old adobe accessible to the tourists, Huntington arranged for his Pacific Electric Railway to extend up Brand Boulevard, adding a terminus station at the entrance to the restaurant and its surrounding park, which was named “Casa Verdugo” in honor of Maria Sepulveda’s great-grandfather, Jose Maria Verdugo, the original “Don” of Rancho San Rafael. Huntington wanted the guests to feel they were taking a trip back in time when they visited Casa Verdugo and to insure complete authenticity the Pacific Electric searched far and wide until they were able to find an expert in the vanishing art of adobe-making to create genuine adobe bricks for an addition to the Casa. The syndicate expended thousands not only on the adobe itself, but in transforming the surrounding acres into a lush park with meandering pathways winding their way around exotic plantings including varieties of cacti and a fragrant grove of oranges that was intended to represent the type of gardens found in the old California days. Their mania for authenticity, however, did not prevent the Pacific Electric from fudging just a wee little bit on the old adobe’s history, say, oh by about a century or so, placing its advent vaguely around the 1770’s. The house had most likely been built in the 1860’s or 1870’s, by which time California had long since been a part of the good old U.S.A. That little incongruity was cheerfully swept under the rug by everyone associated with the establishment as well as members of the obliging press who agreed not to let a pesky little fact spoil an otherwise grand time.
From the time of its opening in early 1905, the Casa Verdugo was a big hit. Heavily advertised by the Pacific Electric, the Casa Verdugo rode the crest of the wave of public fascination with the romantic days of California’s Spanish and Mexican past and visitors made their way in droves “Out Glendale way” to partake in a Spanish dinner and stroll about the lush grounds. Both the food and the setting were real treats. Diners could enjoy their peppery selections in a variety of inviting locations, from the fireplace-warmed main sala with its thick adobe walls and old beamed ceiling festooned with strings of red peppers to al fresco settings under venerable pepper trees or vine-covered bowers. A most popular spot was, no doubt, the wide veranda where the pleasure of a sunset dinner was enhanced by the heady scent of orange blossoms wafting through the dusky air.
Although its setting was charming in the extreme, Casa Verdugo’s true success was the result of its exceptional proprietress, Piedad Yorba de Sowl, whom Huntington and Brand had wisely granted a five-year lease to run the property upon its opening in 1905. Under de Sowl, Casa Verdugo rapidly became a “must do” for anyone visiting Southern California. As a member of one of California’s vaunted old Spanish families, de Sowl knew how to prepare authentic dishes and the slogan of “You have not eaten real Mexican tamales and genuine Spanish cooking until you have dined at Casa Verdugo” was no mere hyperbole. But de Sowl wisely knew that food alone, no matter how carefully prepared, was only a part of the overall experience. de Sowl ensured her guests were not only well fed they were well entertained and, as in days of yore, music always accompanied the meals. An account of one pleasant outing from 1905 read “All through the dinner the Mexican orchestra discoursed Mexican and Spanish airs, and now and then, in rich and mellow tones some caballero sang soft love songs in the liquid tongues of Castile.” A big hit of Casa Verdugo were its child singer/dancers, Piedad’s daughter Viola Yorba and her nine year-old cousin, Ernest Martinez, who regularly regaled delighted diners with their renditions of such Spanish standards as “La Paloma” and, according to press reports, reaped hatfuls of coins from the grateful patrons in return for their efforts.
Another big hit was the Casa’s famous pet dog, Negro. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out in 1910, Negro (pronounced NAY-gro) was named for the Spanish word for the color black and not as any racial reference. Negro was the official “greeter” for Casa Verdugo and was so popular, that when he was injured and seemingly near death after a battle with a neighbor’s bulldog in 1909, the Times devoted a full column to the story. In 1910, when Negro finally passed away, the Times eulogized his passing saying, in part, “Negro was known to thousands of visitors at the modern Casa Verdugo as the coal black and canine defender of all the dignity that ever surrounded a hacienda of the Spanish grandees.” Everyone liked to joke that Negro had been at the Casa Verdugo since the old Spanish days and his loss was greatly felt by both patrons and staff of the restaurant.
During its heyday, Casa Verdugo regularly entertained hundreds and sometimes even thousands of visitors at a time including a memorable 1907 Shriners outing that brought 5,000 visiting potentates to the old adobe. deSowl pulled off the tall order flawlessly and as the Los Angeles Times later reported “the old Spanish mansion, nestled at the foot of the emerald hills, was resplendent in its holiday attire, and the visitors were given a royal reception. There was action every minute and the affair was so well planned that everybody was delighted with the outing.”
With such an ability to handle mammoth gatherings, it seems there must have been something going on behind the scenes when de Sowl balked at a party of 500 wives of those attending a banker’s convention in 1910. Although she ultimately agreed to the party, she quoted a price that turned out to be 50% more than what the committee had appropriated, for all the trouble the handling the party would cause, something wags in the press dubbed the “Tortilla Tax.” Appalled by the charge, the banker’s committee ran to their friends in high places and, being bankers they had many, and appealed to John McMillian, general manager of the Pacific Electric Company, owners of the Casa Verdugo property, to intervene on their behalf. McMillian, who lived just above the restaurant property on a grand ten-acre estate, confronted deSowl at the restaurant and the pair had such a row that he ordered her evicted immediately from the property and then went out and had something of a nervous collapse, being ordered by his doctor to leave the city for a complete rest. He obviously had not considered just what he was up against when he tried to tangle with the indomitable Senora Piedad Yorba de Sowl.
The test of wills between McMillian and de Sowl horrified the local population who feared a Casa Verdugo run by anyone other than de Sowl would bring in a lower class of clientele and wreck their property values. What happened next was near comic opera. While everyone else was all atwitter about the battle, Senora de Sowl appeared completely unfazed and mysteriously sanguine. When a direct appeal to Henry E. Huntington failed to resolve the situation, a beatific de Sowl announced she would open a new Casa Verdugo, which she did, within a few hundred yards from the original restaurant. How was she able to do this? Well, it seems that de Sowl and her husband Charles had been granted by a then grateful Pacific Electric the northeast corner of the Casa Verdugo property where, in 1907, they built a beautiful Mission-styled home, which the couple dubbed “Soledad.” Upon her 1910 eviction, de Sowl simply reopened “Casa Verdugo” in her former dwelling, taking the staff and most all of the patrons with her, and which she pointedly advertised as “not the railroad place.”
You can well imagine the reaction of McMillian and the Pacific Electric to this unanticipated scenario. They were, of course, apoplectic, but worse news for them was yet to come. Foolishly believing that de Sowl was easily replaceable, the Pacific Electric hired another proprietor, reopening their Casa Verdugo as if nothing had happened. But something had happened. de Sowl had both trademarked and copyrighted the name “Casa Verdugo” and now claimed infringement. A nasty court battle followed, which de Sowl decisively won in 1911 and the Pacific Electric was forced to suck lemons and come up with a new name. They ultimately settled on “La Ramada” and over the next decade the two restaurants operated side by side in an uneasy truce, but one clearly favored by de Sowl. In evicting de Sowl, the Pacific Electric had naively thought people had come to Casa Verdugo to see a building. They hadn’t. They came for an experience, and de Sowl was the one who provided it. It can scarcely be overstated that de Sowl’s opponents were the among most powerful forces on the entire Pacific Coast and her victory over Huntington and the railroads was nothing short of astounding. But the law and the citizens of L.A., or at least their stomachs, were on her side and in the end she triumphed.
de Sowl’s new Casa Verdugo brought the same charms that were so successful to Casa Verdugo vieja. As before, diners could choose indoor or al fresco dining. Those choosing indoor seating had their choice of a series of charming spaces, each with its own unique name and personality such as the Indian, the Red or the Green Room. And to make sure diners didn’t have to rely on the hated Pacific Electric to visit the Casa, de Sowl had a beautiful garage constructed, that housed any number of visiting machines in Mission-styled splendor.
Although the location had (slightly) changed, the service, the menu and the delightful entertainments remained the same and Casa Verdugo continued at the forefront of L.A. eateries well into the 1920’s. In fact, de Sowl was such a success she opened a “Casa Verdugo Secunda” at 736 South Spring Street in 1913 so diners in downtown Los Angeles could enjoy the same style food and service found “Out Glendale Way.” In 1921, de Sowl and the Pacific Electric both sold out to a consortium of three schoolteacher sisters, Jeanette, Ida and Myrtle Baldwin, who bought both properties for the considerable sum of $100,000. The Baldwin sisters retained de Sowl as manager of Casa Verdugo, but within a few years they subdivided the La Ramada property and by 1926, the old adobe and its former grounds of gardens had vanished, replaced by a series of modern homes, some as parodies of the old Spanish casa they replaced. de Sowl’s Casa Verdugo lasted a few years longer, but by 1930, the famous restaurant had closed, returning again to its first life as a private residence.
But de Sowl and the Casa Verdugo restaurant lived on in a new incarnation in the former mansion of Edwin T. Earl on Wilshire Boulevard and Carondolet, which de Sowl opened in 1930. The Casa Verdugo name remained a potent one in L.A. restaurant circles up into the 1960’s. By that time, however, Piedad Yorba de Sowl had long passed, dying at age 84 in 1948. Her former home and restaurant, however, has survived, an accomplishment as remarkable as the woman herself, and remains today a treasured landmark at 1235 North Louise Street at the corner of Randolph, in northern Glendale. In 2005, the Glendale Historical Society hosted a delightful event where an evening at Casa Verdugo was recreated at the house including a copy of a typical Casa Verdugo menu, which was served to appreciative guests. The Society put up pictures of this event on their Flickr page, which can be seen here.
More than 105 years after its opening, the memories of Piedad Yorba de Sowl’s remarkable Casa Verdugo still remain. As former Los Angeles Times reporter Charles Perry wrote in a wonderful Summer 2010 article for Gastronomica, “First, we must recognize Piedad Yorba’s genius. Her Casa Verdugo was no mere restaurant, but an overwhelming experience: romantic setting, aromatic flowers, exotic food, sweet music in a foreign language, colorful dancing.” Just thinking about it makes me hungry. El Cholo, anyone?