A Look Into the Legacy of Experiential Dining
With a history spanning 60 years and more than 70 restaurants, Specialty Restaurants Corporation continues to find a viable recipe for success through its many iterations, ranging from Tiki bars to fine dining.
Launched in the 1950s by industrious World War II veteran David Tallichet, SRC was a pioneer in the themed restaurant boom. From a beachfront luau to a deep, dark mine, each of Tallichet’s concepts emphasized his personal experience, with décor and theme often depicting stories of U.S. pilots.
But as diners’ attitudes changed, SRC deftly adapted to the times. CEO John Tallichet reflects on his father’s hard-earned success and the adjustments the company has made to stay relevant in an ever-changing landscape.
Specialty Restaurants Corporation has always pursued themed restaurants. How did your father build that into the DNA of the company?
He tells the story about going to a middle-of-nowhere, Western-themed restaurant in the mid-1950s. He was taken with it, amazed that people drove from all over to experience this place. At the time, he was working with Hilton Hotels, but the themed restaurant idea stuck with him.
In 1958, he was general manager at a Hilton property in Long Beach. Long Beach was L.A.’s stepchild—a Navy town that was a little rough—but it had some unique things going on. The city was building out the harbor as the shipping industry grew. My dad thought a themed restaurant could give people a reason to hang out at the harbor. That year he opened his first concept, the Reef, a Polynesian-themed restaurant with large luau grounds where he would host pig roasts. He had very little money and obviously wasn’t sure this would be successful, so he never quit his job while all this was going on.
It took awhile for people to realize there was a restaurant out there, but when it finally took off, it was a booming success. It let people get away from it all and feel like they’d gone to some exotic destination. The original burned down in the ’70s, but the rebuild still stands.
My father developed five different concepts and took on new partners for each. One was that Polynesian seafood concept; it grew under different names like Castaway and the Reef. He built two more waterfront spots: a seafood restaurant called Shanghai Reds and Crawdaddy’s, which had a Creole, New Orleans theme. Baby Doe’s was named after the wife of a silver magnate in Colorado, and you would feel like you were dining in a mine. He also had the 94th Aero Squadron, which was a World War I French farmhouse concept.
How have themed restaurants evolved over 60 years?
My dad loved the design of his restaurants so much that, although he was good at food, his emphasis took a backseat to the theming. As people become more sophisticated in their dining preferences, they figured a theme was covering some other ill will. You look at some of the other themed restaurants that grew and then crashed, and I think they all got into that problem. They got too much into the theme and not enough into great food and service.
In some cases we felt like having a theme became a liability, so we went into several of our properties and tried to create more generic, nice-looking restaurants, dialing down themes. We wanted to give guests the feeling that they’re there to experience the setting, food, and service, as opposed to having to fit into this box of a theme. It doesn’t mean that all our restaurants have gone that way—we still have a few with a themed feel. But even at these, the food and service have been played up.
As a legacy company, what are some of the challenges of staying relevant over the decades?
Being based in the L.A. area, there’s always competition, and a lot of interesting things happening. We travel to different markets to keep our operations team on top of what’s changing. We don’t try to be the trendsetter, but we don’t want to wake up one day and have missed an opportunity. We look for a balance and try to stay relevant and competitive. We’ve always had the entrepreneurial spirit my dad instilled and are not afraid to reinvent ourselves. That’s really helped us.
Can you tell us more about the newest concept, The Green Room, which opened in November?
At the Castaway [in Burbank], we have such a great setting—all these rooms in one building. So we thought, “How can we make each of these spaces unique?” We decided that with the talents we were bringing in for this project, we could elevate one room to create a culinary experience with drinks.
There are only five signature cocktails; each has a different type of glass or object used to emphasize flavor. Your server explains why we’re doing a certain cocktail a certain way—just like you’re used to with food.
There is great food, too, but it’s not emphasized as much. You’re going there for the experience of the drinks. These particular menus are only offered in the Green Room, not in the other parts of the Castaway.