#TBT: The Airport Restaurant Designed By Walt Disney Imagineering

Sometimes you’re in an airport and wonder, “What the hell is something like THAT doing in an airport?” The iconic 1962 TWA Flight Center at J.F.K. Airport is a great example, especially now that Eero Saarinen’s landmark building is in the midst of being reimagined as a world class hotel.

L.A.X. has another such structure – the Theme Building. Designed in 1959, it was completed and dedicated in 1961. After receiving landmark status in 1993, the building that looks like a giant flying saucer got a $4 million renovation in the mid-1990s, with retro-futuristic interior and electric lighting designed by Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), in preparation for it to open as a restaurant called Encounter in 1997.

Encounters outside
From 1961 to 1996, the Theme Room (the main area of the Theme Building) was a restaurant that offered a variety of menus: first international cuisine, so wienerschnitzel (for Austria) and Fondue Suisse A L’Alpine (for Switzerland), and then from the mid-80s onward, more gourmet offerings such as roe-garnished scallop mousse and sake-poached sea bass. Unfortunately, that didn’t last for long and eventually the menu changed again to fare that was described as something from a chain-hotel restaurant in the middle of America and was getting, at best, mediocre reviews in the Los Angeles Times.  Meanwhile, although the outside of the building was very futuristic, the interior was more “California Cold War” than anything else.

After 35 years, the Theme Room closed in 1996. Right around that time, L.A.X. was in the midst of upgrading all of restaurants at the airport and the space in the Theme Building was included in the renovation. Encouraged by Marty Sklar, who thought it was “the right thing to do” to renovate the space, designs soon began at WDI.

Sean Adams, who was asked by Eddie Sotto at WDI to help with the design, said:

We worked with Eddie on the graphic components of the project. It was a wonderful collaboration. At the time, the 1967 version of Tomorrowland was being refurbished. This made us sad. We believed the 1967 Tomorrowland to be the highest achievement in the history of civilization. So we decided to rescue some of our favorite elements with type design, materials, and color.

The space age theme is infused into the experience, and we worked hard to find avenues to express this in every part of the project. Bathrooms can be rather dull, and my business partner Noreen Morioka had a wonderful idea to install the rubber gloves that are used for isolation boxes in the wall between the men’s room and women’s room.

This would allow the guest to put his or her hands through the gloves and touch someone on the other side. Neither party would know who was on the other end. Oddly, this idea was not realized.

There’s a great post from 2009 that has photos of Eddie Soto’s plans for Encounter (as well as some ideas of WDI lighting specialist Michael Valentino) – click here to check it out! LaughingPlace.com also has a REALLY old (2001) 6-page article that goes into great detail about the history of the design. Unfortunately, the links to the pics in the article have been lost to time, but the written part is still fascinating. Click here to check it out.

When Encounter first opened in 1997, it was THE hot spot of L.A. There were 2-hour waits to get a table, John Travolta bought the place out and had a birthday party there, there would be cast & crew wrap parties after movies were done filming, the works. And then a bunch of things happened. First 9/11 caused the T.S.A. and the big wigs at L.A.X. to close the restaurant for 6 months while they decided if it was safe to have so many people outside the secure area for such long periods of time while so close to the airport. Understandably, Encounter wasn’t quite so popular when it reopened, but was still profitable. Then a chunk of stucco fell from the building in 2007, which called for 8 months of closure while safety inspectors did their thing. Almost immediately after it reopened, the building had scaffolding around it for 2 years while it was seismically updated. The restaurant was actually open the whole time, but despite a sign that said so, people didn’t know and didn’t go.

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Well, Joe and I did, in September 2008. We actually went one other time, which was probably in the late 1990s or early 2000s (I can’t find our pictures to confirm – I suspect they still need to converted to digital), and the food was really good. But when we went in ’08, it was “OK at best.” So, unfortunately, are our photos of the visit with a circa 2008 camera:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jim Hill wrote a report on his visit to Encounter in 2012, about a year and a half before it closed. His description and better-than-my pictures of the restaurant can be found here.

And finally, there are a few YouTube videos that give the restaurant justice:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encounter, which was once described as, “The kinda place George Jetson, James Bond and Barbarella could drink together,” was open from 1997 to late 2013. The inside of the building currently remains empty, although the Observation Level is open on Saturdays and Sunday. So the next time you’re at L.A.X. and look at the Theme Building, remember that Disney Imagineers had a hand in what the interior looked like. Fingers crossed that another public space will reopen there soon and maintain WDI’s design so future generations can see and appreciate it.

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