First published in the Oct. 16 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
It was an emotional evening for Smoke House owner Marti Spencer as the venerable restaurant celebrated its 75th anniversary by throwing a gala party last Tuesday night.
Hosted by former KNBC-4 weatherman Fritz Coleman, the evening saw the legendary eatery packed with longtime regulars, notables from the entertainment world and local political dignitaries who came out to celebrate the three-quarters-of-a-century milestone with Spencer and her staff.
“In today’s world of corporate chain restaurants, it is so great to have this very special family-owned establishment that hasn’t changed much over the past 75 years,” said Coleman as he invited Spencer to join him on stage. “It’s also great to be celebrating anything that is older than me,” he added with a laugh.
Spencer’s voice periodically cracked with emotion as she thanked her staff and those who have supported and contributed to the success of the restaurant which is famous for its old-school red leather booths, celebrity clientele, traditional cocktails, American fare and garlic cheese bread.
“We feel you are all a part of our family and that we are a part of yours,” Spencer told the assemblage. “We love you and feel the love from you, especially those who supported us throughout the pandemic. Having to furlough some of our employees was very difficult for me. But for our loyal customers who still came, and for our staff, who many times had to do the work of three and four people, I’ll always be grateful.”
Established in 1946, the Smoke House was originally located at the corner of Pass and Riverside avenues. In 1949, it moved to the current location on Lakeside Drive, where its proximity to Warner Bros. Studios saw it become a favorite for entertainment industry dining, parties, celebrations and business meetings. When their production company was located on the Warner lot, George Clooney and Grant Heslov did so much business in the restaurant’s red booths that they actually changed the name of their company from Section Eight Productions to Smoke House Pictures.
Spencer, along with her late husband Lee, who passed away in 2016, bought the Smoke House in 1983, owned it until 1992 and bought it back in 2003. Spencer remembers when she received a call from Clooney, who asked if it would be alright if he named his company Smoke House Pictures.
“He wanted my permission, and of course I said ‘yes,’” Spencer said. “Then, in 2013, his film ‘Argo’ won the Oscar for Best Picture. When they were accepting one of the three Oscars they won for that film, just as the music began playing, one of the producers mentioned Smoke House. I know they meant George’s company but all of our customers who heard it were excited and came in saying they heard them mention us. We didn’t do anything to correct them,” Spencer added with a shy laugh. “Then awhile after, when George was in having dinner, we laughed about that and he said, ‘I’m glad you guys milked that for all it was worth.’ He’s one of our favorite customers. We all love him.”
During Tuesday’s 75th anniversary celebration, patrons paid only 75% of the menu prices and 10% of all the evening’s sales were donated to the Burbank Temporary Aid Center (BTAC), which was represented by the organization’s executive director, Barbara Howell, and board member Susan Borders.
Throughout the evening, from a VIP reception to a party that took over the entire restaurant, luminaries from the entertainment industry, including longtime Hollywood publicist Harlan Boll, singer Pat Boone, and actresses Ruta Lee, Carolyn Hennesy and Patrika Darbo, shared their memories of dining at the Smoke House.
Spencer and the Smoke House were also lauded by Burbank Chamber of Commerce CEO Jamie Keyser Thomas and Leslie Smith, who coordinates member services, California state Sen. Bob Hertzberg and Assemblymember Laura Friedman.
“People have an emotional connection to restaurants,” Friedman said. “They identify with them as where significant milestones of their lives have been celebrated. The Smoke House embodies those connections with layers of old Hollywood history and a tremendous amount of soul.”
Following the evening’s formal presentation, which included tributes sent by a who’s who of Hollywood, Bob Bergen, who provided the voice of the animated characters Porky Pig, Tweety and Marvin the Martian, joined Coleman on stage. The duo conducted a raffle of wine and Smoke House items before Coleman capped off the evening by encouraging the assemblage to continue supporting the Smoke House.
“There are tankers just off-shore at the Port of Los Angeles filled with tons of more garlic cheese bread they are trying to get unloaded, so keep on coming back and eating more of it,” he said to a round of laughter and applause.
As the evening culminated with a champagne toast and slices of cake for every attendee, Spencer took a breather in the restaurant’s lobby.
“It is very hard for me not to be emotional tonight,” she said as she dabbed her eyes. “We have become a part of so many people’s lives, from births and christenings to memorial services — the good times and difficult times — from their coming to their going, as my husband used to say. We are so grateful to everyone who has made us a part of their celebrations and a part of their lives.”
DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or (818) 563-1007.