LAX's Encounter Restaurant and Bar has encountered some pretty
serious challenges over the past 15 years.
Photo by Jim Hill
For those of you who don't remember: When this WDI-designed restaurant
and bar first opened inside of the Theme Building at Los Angeles International
Airport back in January of 1997, people just couldn't get enough of its
retro-futuristic stylings (not to
mention that California Fusion Cuisine menu which renown LA chef John Rivera
Sedlar had put together for this eatery).
Which is why Encounter quickly became a hipster hangout. The perfect place for
a celebrity's birthday party (John Travolta supposedly celebrated his 40th here.
Even though this Oscar-nominated actor was actually 43 at the time) and/or a studio's
wrap party (The cast and crew of Austin
Powers & "Air Force One
" both gathered here for completion-of-production
So back then, Encounter had momentum. More importantly, it
had great buzz. Which is why -- if you came by this place in the late 1990s on
a weekend night looking to grab a quick bite before your flight -- the hostess
downstairs would then tell you that the wait for a table was now two hours or
longer. Which is why so many of us had to settle for a seat at that moon
crater-shaped bar, nursing a drink (which -- FYI -- had been poured out of this
super-cool bar gun that resembled a space-age ray gun. Complete with glowing
laser lights and weird whirring sounds) while we wondered what it might actually
be like to dine at this stylish
But then 9/11 happened. And given that LAX closed this
restaurant and bar's designated parking area while it attempted to reevaluate what
the airport's new security needs would be in the wake of this national tragedy,
Encounter had to close as well. And it was almost six months before LAX and the
Department of Homeland Security could finally figure out whether it was wise
(given the U.S.'s new airport security concerns) to allow this restaurant and
bar's patrons to get within close proximity of Los Angeles
International Airport's air traffic control tower.
Copyright Los Angeles World Airports. All rights reserved
By the time Encounter re-opened in the Winter of 2002, the
bloom was off the hipster rose. Despite the obvious
"Barbarella-gance" of this restaurant and bar, the additional levels
of security that people now had to pass through whenever they entered or exited
LAX didn't exactly make it easy to drop in for a quick cocktail. Which is how
Encounter went from being this celebrity
hot spot that was extremely hard to get into, to a place where travelers could waste
some time before their flight enjoying a surprisingly fine meal in a stylish
setting with a spectacular view.
Encounter encountered another hiccup in March of 2007 when a
half-ton chunk of stucco suddenly fell out of one of those spider-like legs
that tower over LAX's Theme Building and then crashed down on this restaurant
and bar's roof. As you might expect, Encounter quickly closed after this
incident so that safety inspectors could evaluate whether it was okay for
diners & drinkers to return to this structure.
By November of 2007, the authorities at LAX had agreed to
let Encounter re-open. But only after a $12.3 million plan was put in place to
restore the Theme Building / make this then-46 year-old structure seismically-sound.
Which is why -- for almost two years -- this Mid-Century modern structure was shrouded
with all sorts of scaffolding.
Please note the sign in the lower right-hand corner of the above photograph, which says thatthe restaurant in LAX's obviously-being-renovated Theme Building is still open for business.
Which (according to what I heard from Encounter insiders)
was incredibly frustrating to Delaware North (i.e. the hospitality company that actually operates
this restaurant and bar). Because tens of thousands of people would walk past LAX's
Theme Building on the way to their flights, look up at all that scaffolding and
then think "Encounter must be closed because of all that construction. I
guess I'll just have to hold off on visiting that restaurant and bar 'til the next
time I pass through LAX."
Mind you, during this entire time, Encounter is continuing
to rack up all sorts of accolades. With Food & Wine, Esquire.com and Frommers.com
all naming this LAX eatery one of the Top Ten airport restaurants in the
country. Meanwhile Delaware Companies Travel Hospitality Services, Inc.
(working in conjunction with Connie Bass, a Los Angeles entrepreneur) took
advantage of this downtime to revitalize the interior of this restaurant and
Which (I have to admit) gave me pause. Especially when I saw
that all of the "Meow Collection" chairs that designer Lisa Krohn had
created for Encounter being sold off on Craigslist. Given that -- back in the
day -- themed entertainment guru Eddie Sotto had put an awful lot of thought
into the design of this restaurant and bar ...
I worried that this LAX eatery would no longer be (to borrow Mr. Sotto's
description) an " ... intergalactic gateway (which accommodates)
space flights to and from other worlds." A place where " ... the
sophisticated sci-fi feel of (its) interior provides the perfect backdrop for
what (Eddie called) 'jet set' dining in a space-age atmosphere." In short,
Encounter restaurant and bar was supposed to be that imaginary watering hole where
" ... George Jetson, James Bond and
Barbarella could (all) drink together."
Copyright Delaware North Companies Travel Hospitality Services. All
Well, George, James and Barbarella couldn't make it this
past Wednesday night. So I was all by my lonesome as I made my way to LAX's
Theme Building to grab a quick dinner before I then flew back home to New
And I have to admit that things didn't exactly get off to a
great start. I noticed -- as soon as I entered the lobby of Encounter
restaurant and bar -- that they'd sometime over the past few years discontinued
the downstairs hostess. Who used to set the perfect tone for this space-age
dining experience by standing behind a 1960s-style reservations desk in her
sliver dress and cooing "Have a nice encounter" as you entered the
elevators for the upper dining room.
What's more, while the elevator that I rode up to Encounter
in still played that cool Therimin music, its interior was looking pretty tattered.
As if one too many tourists had tried to pry the wood paneling and/or
decorative metal off the elevator's walls to take home as an out-of-this-world
Add to this the extremely low lights level of Encounter
(which is why I nearly walked into this restaurant and bar's
once-white-now-painted-jet-black maitre d stand upon exiting the elevator) and
it did admittedly take me a few minutes to get my bearings after I'd
entered this multi-level eatery.
But once my eyes adjusted to the colorful-if-somewhat-dim
lighting provided by Encounter's eight over-sized lava lamps as well as those
strange amoeba-shaped lighting structures embedded in this restaurant
and bar's ceiling, I have to admit that (as a child of the 1960s) it was hard
not to be thoroughly charmed by this place. What with its curving cloud-like
... and its moonstone quarry walls.
Of course, what also helped here was that the food which
Encounter's staff served up last Wednesday night was delicious. Given that
Nancy was back home in New England, I then didn't have to abide by her "No
Cute Eyes" rule (Translation: No eating anything that has cute eyes. Which
means no beef or pork, but still somehow allows for the consumption of chicken
and fish). Which is why I decided to treat myself to a steak. And the
flame-broiled Flat Iron Steak that I was served was cooked to perfection. It
was this moist, tasty piece of meat that was accompanied by garlic whipped
potatoes & sautéed broccoli and made for a very satisfying meal.
Better yet, even though I had arrived at this restaurant and
bar at 8:30 p.m. and Encounter actually closes its doors at 9 p.m., the staff there told me that I was more than
welcome to linger over my meal. More to the point, after I finished eating, I
was then free to explore the place and check out all of the great details which
made dining inside of LAX's Theme Building such a memorable experience.
So -- once I'd finished that steak -- camera in hand, I
wandered around Encounter. Marveling at all the terrific little touches. Like how
the diachronic glass which had been used to make this restaurant's bar top reflected slightly
different colors depending on the lighting level and the angle you viewed it
That said, looking out of that huge bank of windows at all
of the planes which were coming & going at LAX reminded me that I still had
a plane to catch. Which is why I sadly bid adieu to Encounter's romanticized /
highly-stylized version of space travel & air travel from the 1960s and
lugged my carry-on back to the Delta terminal. Where -- all too soon -- I would
soon be dealing with the harsh reality of modern day air travel, what with its
full body scanners and "Please remove your shoes" rules.
Which is why -- before crossing the street -- I found myself
fondly looking back at the Theme Building, as Michael Valentino's lightning
package turned those four 135 foot-tall parabolic arches which rise above Encounter
from magenta to electric blue. I mean, it's hard to believe that -- back in
late 1996 / 1997 -- the Imagineers were able to deliver this highly stylized
restaurant and bar for just $4 million. Which perhaps explains why -- in
1998 -- Encounter received the International
Themed Entertainment Award for Excellence on a Limited Budget / Themed
So do I miss the downstairs hostess in her silvery space-age
costume? Sure. Not to mention when Encounter's menu used to include this piece
"Any Spacecrafts with an Interstellar Crew of Six or
More shall have an Automatic Docking Fee of 18% (In other words, an 18%
gratuity will be added to parties of 6 or more."
But in spite of some of those small fun details slipping
away, I'm still glad that Encounter has faced down all of those challenges it has encountered
over the past 15 years and has still found a way to stay in business. Give weary
travelers a Barbaraella-gant way to waste
a few hours experiencing some stylized 1960s space-age fun before they then
have to face the grind of real-life, modern day air travel.
So the next time you find yourself with a little free time
while traveling through LAX, why not give Encounter a try? And if you see James
Bond, George Jetson and/or Barbarella seated at the bar when you get off that
elevator, please tell them that I said "Hello," okay?
Encounter Restaurant and Bar is located at 209 World Way at
Los Angeles International Airport. It's open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.,
dinner 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., 7 days a week. For further information, call
310-215-5151 and/or checkout Encounter's website.
Thanks for highlighting this. It was always a pleasure when I went. Have they restored the parking area?