By Lea Yamashiro
Daily Press Intern
Significant, history-packed landmarks are hard to find in a modern, constantly growing city.
However, there exist some locations that indeed hold significant historic meaning; often, they take can take customers back in time and help trace the city’s evolution. Spitfire Grill, located at the Santa Monica Airport, is a landmark within itself and has been a part of the city since 1991. The restaurant will be celebrating its 25-year anniversary this year, but the event has a bittersweet note due to the ongoing disputes over SMO’s future.
The building where the restaurant is located has been at the airport since 1956. It was first a small eatery, called the Lindaire Coffee Shop, founded to serve pilots who complained that there was “no place to dine.” It served breakfast and lunch to pilots and workers from nearby aviation businesses. The coffee shop then turned into a restaurant called Kitty Hawk that retained its name until 1991.
John Clarizio already owned a restaurant on Third Street Promenade, but he wanted to make an addition. His friend who had a business at the airport at the time told him that the restaurant space was available, so he went for it. It took about six months to get the approval, and then in 1991, the space was his. After remodeling to make the restaurant look and feel like the inside of a 1940s Streamline Moderne airplane, he opened a restaurant called Spitfire Grill.
Clarizio started the restaurant with the intent of creating a local, family-serving restaurant that also honored the historic site.
“We always wanted to pay homage to the airport in the World War Two history,” he said. “That’s how we came up with the name for the Spitfire Grill.”
Clarizio also spoke fondly of the manifestation of a historical feeling at the airport.
“We liked the idea of the airport and how you drive down and you feel like you’ve gone back to the 1950s,” he said. “A lot of the buildings are original buildings built in the ’40s. That feeling is there, and that is a feeling that is hard to find in Los Angeles.”
Over the years, the restaurant has gone through a few architectural changes that increased the amount of space and available seating and dining. The patio has been elongated a few times and the restaurant transitioned with its additions of new space. But, Clarizio said, “the feel has stayed local.” All of the names of the menu items, named after airplanes and other historic sentiments, have stayed the same. Clarizio recalled naming a salad after women who worked at the Barker Hangar who always ordered it on their lunch break.
The addition of Airport Park and the soccer fields also made a positive addition to the typical dining scene of locals and their families, Clarizio said.
“There’s a whole new group of people that otherwise wouldn’t come to the airport,” he said. “There are adult leagues and children’s leagues. It’s a great input for the community.”
The eatery will officially celebrate its 25th birthday Thursday, Sept. 1, with a tasting extravaganza starting at 4 p.m. For $25 per person, patrons can sample food creations by the chef and his kitchen staff. There will also be wine tastings and craft beers available.
While the party will celebrate the restaurant’s history, its future is less certain.
The City of Santa Monica has repeatedly stated that it would like to close the airport and convert the land for other uses. The closure efforts aren’t targeting businesses like Spitfire Grill, but the operation is caught in the controversy.
“It’s closing down pilots who have always been our main source of business,” Clarizio said.
The City’s effort to shutter the airport has forced Spitfire Grill to pay a month-to-month lease, which creates massive instability.
“The City Council has wavered about giving leases,” he said. “There’s no stability. You can’t plan, you can’t get loans. A lot of tenants are leaving. Some of the pilot schools are being told to leave.”
Although the restaurant is celebrating 25 years in business, “It’s bittersweet,” said Clarizio. “We are proud we have been here this long, but we are frustrated we are not being treated better.”
Clarizio and Spitfire Grill will have to keep operating in an uncertain and unstable environment.
“The key thing is that it is a local restaurant that generations of families have gone to. You find it by word of mouth. It’s key that things like this aren’t lost. It’s key that the airport is not lost,” Clarizio said. “I built the restaurant around the fact that it is a local place. We are tied to the schools around here from Santa Monica to Mar Vista. We are connected to the community. We don’t want to lose that.”
The restaurant is located at 3300 Airport Ave., next to the Santa Monica Airport. For more information, or to make reservations, visit www.spitfiregrill.net or call (310) 397-3455.