In Search of Ancient Encino

In 1972, my family moved from Van Nuys to Encino, crossing the Valley’s metaphorical, Ford Pinto-laden Rubicon for life in the Jewish Alps. Within weeks of our arrival in Encino, the ultimate symbol of a 70’s American suburb on the rise arrived with us: a brand-new McDonald’s.

It may be hard to imagine such an innocent time, but the opening of a new Mickey D’s was once greeted as a civic celebration, replete with a giant party in the parking lot, free McDonald Land swag and an appearance by Ronald McDonald himself. It may also be hard to imagine this, but there was once a time when a slender-hipped boy could talk to a clown without fearing that he’d be thrown in the back of a white van.

On a recent drive through the old mean streets of Encino, I took note that the McDonald’s whose opening I had attended is still there, at the corner of Haskell and Ventura. Merely seeing it, made me think two things. One, you would now never have a shut-down-the-boulevard fiesta for the opening of a new Veggie Grill or Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. And second, it occurred to me how few institutions of my youth still dot the boulevard, where I used to ride my Schwinn, unsupervised, from Tarzana to Sherman Oaks on summer days throughout my childhood. A childhood that over four decades, I increasingly see through the gauzy lens of nostalgic need. As if the cinematographer of The Wonder Years hopped into my head and changed the filter of my memories to ‘Super 8 movie.”

But my interest was piqued. So I went on an amateur archeological journey down Ventura Boulevard in search of any remaining remnants of my boyhood. I didn’t film my excursion, but throughout it, I did fancy myself a less jacked, more fey version of Huell Howser. And any time I did come across a haunt, I did utter “Well, look at that” to my imaginary cameraman. Truth be told, my journey wasn’t quite as dramatic as the tour down the Nang River in Apocalypse Now, but it did conclude with a cave of skulls. Okay, not really. But I did find a pool supply store and a waffle restaurant that opened in 1975.

What you need to know about Encino in the 70’s is that it was a weird sort of place. In some ways, it was like any Jewish suburb in America, akin to Scarsdale or Highland Park or any Jersey town in any New Jersey town in any Philip Roth roman a clef. But then mix in the long hair and rust pants look of seventies Calfornia. Add a scoche of disco on the horizon. Take into account that Mark Spitz and his glorious mustache belonged to our synagogue.

The result: Even the most mensch-y Jewish dads looked like the kind of shady record promoter that would ask Rerun to bootleg a Doobie Brothers’ concert on What’s Happening. And those men that didn’t look exactly like that, could all easily be cast as Gabe Kaplan’s doppelgänger if Lifetime ever made an unauthorized Welcome Back Kotter takedown movie. The Encino moms had somehow wrangled their Jewfros into modified Farrah Fawcett haircuts. And they tended to range in height from 5’3 to 5’3.

So why my obsession with this time in my life? I was going to say “my recent obsession”, but my wife and kids would contend that I’m capable of being nostalgic about anything and everything—even the start of this sentence. Guilty as charged. But I do find that when things are sad or troubling, I frequently retreat into the comforting bosom of 70’s nostalgia, he says while watching a Brady Bunch rerun and listening to Frampton Comes Alive. The Dodgers lost a heartbreaking seven-game series. And a reality show host is allowed to decide if we start a nuclear shooting war with North Korea. To me, this qualifies as sad and troubling. Certainly enough to justify watching a few extra YouTube videos of Isaac from The Love Boat hitting on the ladies of the Lido Deck.

That said, my obsession with old Valley Jew nostalgia isn’t as clear-cut or soothing as it once was. When your father has taken his own life (as many of you know mine did), it becomes hard not to see what had been super comforting memories through the prism of tragedy. I’ll be perfectly frank. I still get PTSD-type shivers every time I drive by the last house where my parents lived in Encino. So, rather than simply seeing it a cozy, ranch-themed vestige of the old days, I also can’t help remembering it as a crime scene in the immediate aftermath of my father’s passing. And then, to add insult to injury, it actually turned into a criminal enterprise when my mom placed the house for sale after she moved out. Before a sale closed, a local street gang moved in and changed the locks, making it their (who knew they needed one) Encino headquarters.

But by and large, most of my memories are pleasant. And the trauma has mostly ebbed. But it does make me wonder if my obsession with old-timey Encino is a retreat back to a time when things were good and easy. Or an unconscious search for hints about when things started to turn. Or I just like chocolate chip pancakes.

Okay, that wasn’t the world’s most subtle segue. But yes, my local IHOP is still here. Yes, yes, admittedly it probably then went by its Christian name, “International House of Pancakes.” But there are so few pieces of my childhood remaining, that let’s lay off the nitpicking please. Sadly, I most remember this IHOP as the place, in the week following my Dad’s death, that I ate massive plates of pancakes and sausage every night for a week and still lost 5 pounds. Which suggests, that yes, lots of my memories are, in fact, tied into sadness. And that grief truly is the greatest diet of all.

So what else is still around? I’ve already spoken about the town McDonald’s. There’s a place called More Than Waffles that I’ve somehow never been to, not even on this excursion. And there’s a super, of fashioned supper club-style joint called the Valley Inn. It’s been around since the 40’s. And while it technically is just across the Encino-Sherman Oaks border, I still included it, largely because it was across the street from Rick Pallack, a local haberdashery where I purchased my first and only bomber jacket.

I think that’s it for restaurants. I guess I was naive to think that nothing would have changed in 45 years. I was probably also naive to think taking this trip would help me rediscover my confidence and grade-school waistline. It is weird to find echoes of old restaurants—new places inhabiting the shells of old ones. Du-Par’s is now Jerry’s Famous Deli. Numero Uno is a Poquito Mas. Pages, our erstwhile late night malt shop, turned into Lancer’s and then, when I evidently wasn't looking, a massive Tony Roma’s steakhouse.

No wait, there’s also Emilio’s a wildly popular Italian restaurant. It may have once been La Scala or Presto or something else. But the menu is unchanged. And it may rightly be deemed the city hall of old school Encino. On two recent dinners there with my family, I knew people at almost every table. No one under 75, but people nonetheless.

The one place that would object to calling Emilio’s “city hall”, if this was a courtroom and buildings could lodge legal objections is Gelson’s supermarket. To this day, even with a Ralph’s across the street, Gelson’s remain the clubhouse for yentas in yoga pants. It’s a place about which I once remarked, “This must be what normal guys feel like at the Playboy Mansion.” In addition to being “My Jew Heaven,” even more than the Loehmann’s changing room, Gelson’s had the added street cred of being across the street from the Jackson Family Compound. So don’t let anyone tell you that Encino had no African-Americans in those days. I can think of at least (Jackson) Five of them.

I found a dry cleaners, appropriately named Encino Dry Cleaners, that’s celebrating it’s 70th anniversary. There’s Leslie’s Pool Supplies. I can’t say with absolute moral certainty that it’s in the same location, but it is a name I remember from when I was a kid. Let’s count that, too. There’s the movie theater in the former Town and Country mall where I saw Meatballs. Beyond that, there’s Encino Little League, where I honed my sporting craft. My first team in 1974 finished 1 and 19 and yet, were not even as good as our record indicated. There’s Valley Beth Shalom temple which I, as a child, believed should be in the Guiness Book of World Records for the “longest bar mitzvah services.” There’s Balboa and Genesta parks. There’s St. Cyrill’s church. And other churches. And there are the elementary schools including my alma mater Hesby, which reopened recently after sitting sad and empty for decades.

But that’s it. Everything else is new. And by “new,” I could be talking about places that are now 25 or 30 years old themselves. Encino as a suburb, has now settled into middle age. Those young families looking for a spanking new place now head out to Agoura or Westlake Village. Maybe those places still hold giant street fairs if a new Island’s opens in their district.

Back in the heyday of Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Encino felt like the epicenter of American teen culture. Now it feels only like the center of Sunday night Persian cuisine. There’s no longer an Encino Bowl. There’s no longer a Flooky’s, a combo platter of hot dog stand, arcade and batting cage. Right there on the boulevard. But that’s okay. Businesses come and go. Kids don’t miss what they don’t know. And I wouldn’t be surprised if The Stand will be as important to some kids’ memories as the Weiner Factory is to mine.

What matters is that I have these memories. Sometimes bittersweet. But more often warm and wistful. And if you can come out of those tricky adolescent years with a positive feeling, someone did something right. For all the polyester pants and male perms, Encino in the 1970’s was a nice place to grow up. I’ll be sure to visit more often.

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