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The Proud Bar at the End of LAX's Runway
November 17, 2017 -- For thirsty airline buffs, few things are more stirring than sipping a glacial, bone-dry martini and watching jet planes land and take off 150 feet away from your bar stool.
That's been the scene for 50 years at the Proud Bird that sits alongside runway two-five left at Los Angeles International Airport. That's also no mean feat in the fickle, fragile restaurant and bar world. Indeed, after a 16-month shutdown for refurbishing, the Proud Bird has been reborn, bigger and more entertaining than ever, in a gigantic hangar-sized space in the same middle-of-nowhere locale just east of the LAX terminal complex.
The brainchild of World War II B-17 co-pilot-turned-restaurateur David Tallichet, the Proud Bird today is a stylish hybrid: saloon; "food bazaar" with six different kitchens and cuisines; an aviation museum with interactive screens and historical displays; and an event center with meeting and conference rooms that can seat up to 1,200 people.
The Proud Bird is also one other thing: the final resting place for 16 vintage airplanes and realistic full-size replicas. There's the legendary Douglas DC-3 "gooney bird" that once flew for Western Airlines; a U.S. Navy-flown Douglas A-4 Skyhawk; a Russian MiG-15 jet from the Korean War; a German Fokker D.VII and a French SPAD S.XIII, World War I era biplanes; and many more.
Unlike most themed culinary ventures, the food and drink offerings at the Proud Bird are surprisingly delicious, fairly priced and shockingly discounted during generously long and frequent "happy hours."
On a recent Saturday visit, I sipped a tall, tart and zesty Blood Mary ($7) and feasted on a quarter rack order of excellent pork spare ribs ($8) as a parade of jetliners of all sizes flying flags from all over the world passed before my eyes.
Only aviation geeks and business travelers with long memories will know where the place got its name.
"My dad asked [legendary Continental Airlines boss] Bob Six if he could have half of his advertising slogan," says John Tallichet, the second-generation leader of the Proud Bird and president of Specialty Restaurants Corporation. Continental, of course, once prided itself as the "Proud bird with the golden tail."
A shrewd and genial bear of a man, Six agreed. Tony Gizzo, a Proud Bird waiter for 36 years, says Six drank martinis. Another aviation legend, Robert W. Prescott, chief executive of LA-based Flying Tiger Line, was "a beer drinker," recalls Gizzo. Prescott was also an ace pilot with the famed Flying Tigers Squadron during World War II and an exact replica of his P-40 Tomahawk fighter hangs from the 75-foot high ceiling of the cavernous room.
The Proud Bird has attracted a flock of celebs and characters over the years. "Elvis came in one night with his entourage after a performance," remembers Gizzo. "We had to make him a Spanish omelet with fries and he drank only coffee." Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabaar "hit his head on an expensive chandelier," says Gizzo. Jet jockey Chuck Yeager was a drop-in, too. The rocket-powered Bell X-1 he piloted to a speed record of nearly 1,000 miles an hour in 1948 is one of the aircraft on display.
In its latest incarnation, the Proud Bird hasn't jettisoned its past. With neither fear nor smirk, the bar has been christened The Mile High Club and it occupies a place of prominence: opposite the wall of windows facing the runway. Nor has it capitalized on its half century of fame by upping prices to the stratosphere. The Proud Bird has a daily four-hour "happy hour." Beers are as cheap as $3, well drinks cost only $5 and special "aviation cocktails on tap" cost just $7. If your flight is delayed or cancelled and you have time to wing over to the Club, the Proud Bird will buy you a free drink to soothe your pain.
Another thoughtful touch: a real-time flight arrival and departure board at the end of the bar.
The Food Bazaar is another bright idea. As he was renovating the family's crown jewel, John Tallichet scoured Los Angeles and persuaded the proprietors of several much-loved restaurants to open an outlet inside the Proud Bird. Now it has dozens and dozens of dishes like fresh Chinese chicken salad ($10); salmon teriyaki bowl ($12); Cuban sandwich ($9); and a whole rotisserie chicken at $13.
John Tallichet has assembled an extremely helpful and friendly "crew," as he calls his employees. Staffers like Fernanda, who greets you at the door; Audrey, who mixes your drink; and the garrulous Gizzo. They provide first class service for economy class prices.
The Proud Bird also has a small squadron of volunteers, mostly aviation enthusiasts, dedicated to carrying on its legacy. Nissen Davis, a former Flying Tiger Line senior executive and longtime executive of the Aero Club of Southern California, is the unpaid resident historian. An earlier volunteer assignment for Davis: find a permanent home for Howard Hughes' all-wood Spruce Goose.
The Tallichet family has made the Proud Bird the unofficial home of the Tuskegee Airmen, the heavily decorated all-black aviator squadron of fighter and bomber pilots in World War II. A large, museum-like exhibit detailing the history of the group sits just inside the door.
In fact, everywhere you look in the Proud Bird, historical aviation photos are either framed on the walls or digitized and displayed on a loop. There is a choice collection of photos of wing walkers and other daredevil flyers in one room. There's even a grainy, black-and-white snapshot of Frances "Pancho" Barnes, the fearless woman aviator credited with launching the movie industry's stunt pilots union.
Little-remembered factoid: Barnes also owned the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon and eatery in California's Mojave Desert that kept test pilots cool and happy between flights. Chuck Yeager was a customer there, too.
Research assistance by Brianna Jones
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