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Encounter Restaurant & Bar remains a Barbaraella-gant way to waste some time while passing through LAX

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Encounter Restaurant & Bar remains a Barbaraella-gant way to waste some time while passing through LAX

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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 celebrations).

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 establishment.

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 that
the 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 bar.

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 rights reserved

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 Hampshire.

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.

Photo by Jim Hill

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 souvenir.

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.

Photo by Jim Hill

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 booths ...

Photo by Jim Hill

... and its moonstone quarry walls.

Photo by Jim Hill

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.

Copyright Delaware North Companies Travel Hospitality Services. All rights reserved

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 from.

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.

Photo by Jim Hill

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 Restaurant.

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 of language:

"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."

Copyright Delaware North Companies Travel Hospitality Services.
All rights reserved

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.

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  • Thanks for highlighting this.  It was always a pleasure when I went.  Have they restored the parking area?

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