Storied aviation-themed restaurant will reopen this summer after a $12-million remodel

Story by Andrew Dubbins

Photos by Maria Martin

The Proud Bird’s new main dining hall, as seen during construction on April 28

For five decades, celebrating special occasions at The Proud Bird has been a rite of passage for local families and community organizations — many of whom are curious about what’s going on behind the scenes of a massive, $12-million remodel that began in January 2016. Some of them work at The Argonaut, so we asked to tour the construction site ahead of this summer’s grand reopening.

The short of it is that fans of this local institution have little cause for worry: The vintage aircraft remain in place, the banquet rooms will maintain a timeless elegance, and they’ll still serve weekend brunches. What’s new is the main dining area is being converted into an eclectic food hall with immersive aviation exhibits.

Waiting for the tour to start, I strolled around the four aircraft still on display in the front courtyard: a Corsair, Dauntless, Spitfire and P-51 Mustang. I flashed back to when I was a kid: riding the shuttle to LAX, pressing my nose to the glass and rattling off the names of these warbirds to my dad, who taught me to build model airplanes.

When I found out The Proud Bird was getting an expensive makeover, I was initially disappointed. I grew up in L.A. and get tired of seeing local favorites turn into trendy, overpriced destinations. But by the end of my tour, I’d decided The Proud Bird is going to be a different story — a solid mix of 20th-century nostalgia and 21st-century innovation.

My tour guide was Specialty Restaurants Corp. CEO John Tallichet, whose father opened The Proud Bird in 1967. Wearing a construction hat and neon yellow vest over a crisp white button-down, Tallichet led me through the massive 5,000-square-foot food hall as construction workers scurried around us.

“As much as everybody loved us for what we were,” he told me, “you’ve seen a lot of restaurants like that go away. They never really evolved to become what they needed to be in today’s market.”

John Tallichet revels in the expansive view of an upstairs banquet room as a jet roars toward LAX

That’s why The Proud Bird, which used to rely on white tablecloth dining and special events and will still operate formal banquet rooms, is relaunching the main dining area with a more casual feel to accommodate locals who just want to have a bite or a drink and watch the jets come and go.

At the entrance to the food hall, where a Curtis P-40 dangles from the ceiling, diners will be given a “boarding pass” to keep track of a la carte purchases from an array of food stations serving everything from Compton’s famous Bludso’s Barbecue to Asian cuisine, Italian food and soups, sandwiches and salads. Weekend brunchers can purchase an unlimited boarding pass. There’s a counter for to-go orders and delivery pickups, as well as lounge seating and tables equipped with power outlets and free Wi-Fi.

Though I’d felt nostalgic for the days when pilots swapped stories around these tables, I realized there’ll be new conversations here — perhaps by the next generation of aviators or employees of the area’s flourishing high-tech aviation firms.

It helps that there’ll be happy hour specials at the bar, which will serve craft brews and specialty cocktails. While sipping your beverage, you can download an app to listen to air traffic control, or watch LAX flight information and weather updates on big screen TVs. If your flight gets delayed, the restaurant will offer food and drink specials — because in that case “you might as well order another one,” Tallichet said.

At the time of my visit, workers were only in the beginning stages of installing the interactive displays, which Tallichet says will include one about space exploration designed by SpaceX. Out back, patrons will still be able to meander the rows of historic aircraft, including test pilot Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, a DC-3 and a Russian MIG.

“It’s a young person’s playground,” said general manager Adam Fischer. “Where else can you get up that close to airplanes like these?”

Near the end of the tour we headed upstairs to a banquet hall named for World War II aviator Jimmy Doolittle. The room still has its original ’60s-era wooden ceiling beams, a subtle reminder of the history that has been memorialized here and will continue to be.

Standing at the large windows offering expansive views of jets landing at LAX, Tallichet paused for a moment to watch a massive Air New Zealand 747 put down with a noisy roar. “This is our show,” he said with a smile. He’s proud to be carrying on his father’s legacy and hopeful about the second flight of The Proud Bird.

Check for updates about the grand reopening.