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Photo courtesy Vintage Los Angeles.
Photo courtesy Vintage Los Angeles.

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Long-Gone Celebrity Haunt Villa Nova Is Hiding in Plain Sight

Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

In celebration of Classics Week 2015, Eater takes a look at one of Los Angeles' forgotten restaurants.

Villa Nova isn’t actually gone. Well, not really.

The space itself is still there. There’s the peaked roof, the little-used second floor, the parking lot just off to the right. Inside, lots of details remain, and some even bear the original Villa Nova name.

In lots of ways, the name is just about the only thing that’s changed. Since 1972, Villa Nova has been the Rainbow Bar & Grill, a Sunset Strip icon all its own. It’s still there now, tucked between The Roxy and that boxy Bank of America on the corner of Wetherly Drive. In the early 80’s, big-haired rockers flocked in droves to the Rainbow, looking to rub leather jackets together in hopes of making a bit of record label magic happen. Lemmy from Motörhead apparently has a designated chair in the back, and John Belushi ate his last meal there before making it back to the Chateau Marmont.

John Belushi ate his last meal there before making it back to the Chateau Marmont

In 1935, though, there was Villa Nova, a simple Italian restaurant started by Allen Dale and his wife Charlotte. Dale was born Allen DiLisio, and had enjoyed a well-worn career during the silent film era, before talkies became popular and DiLisio couldn’t seem to shake his accent for the silver screen. Allegedly using some seed money from longtime friend and silent film star Charlie Chaplin, DiLisio first put down Villa Nova’s roots on Vine, closer to the heart of Hollywood’s action. After a few moves to nearby spaces, the Dale’s settled on their longtime Sunset Strip home in the 1940’s.

Very quickly, the Dales began making the place their own. "Villa Nova had a nautical theme at the time," says longtime L.A. archivist and founder of the popular Vintage Los Angeles Facebook page Alison Martino. There were other touches, too. "People don’t realize, but even today when you walk into the Rainbow, if you look up right at the entrance, there’s a skylight that still says Villa Nova on it." Other touches remain as well, like a second floor mural in what was once the restaurant’s private back room. It reads Villa Up, the name of the semi-hidden club that Allen and Charlotte Dale ran during the 1940’s and 50’s.

Villa Nova is today Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset

Because of the Dale’s contacts inside the entertainment world and the hidden-in-plain sight nature of the unassuming little Sunset Strip building, Villa Nova emerged as a popular destination for stars looking to unwind after a day on the soundstage. Bing Crosby, John Wayne and Henry Fonda were regulars. Judy Garland used to come in after late night gigs and serenade the bar. Years later, in 1945, Vincent Minelli would propose to Garland at one of the tables.

"Don Knotts used to come in with the most beautiful women that Charlotte had ever seen," says Martino, who interviewed the nonagenarian last year for Vintage Los Angeles. "Every night, a new starlet. Just because he was so funny." Decades later, during the Rainbow Bar & Grill era, Don’s seat (table 11) would pass down to The Who drummer/legendary partier Keith Moon.

Marilyn showed up with Mickey Rooney but left with Joe DiMaggio

Even the gangsters had their heyday at Villa Nova. Inside Villa Up, that second floor speakeasy-style drinking room, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel would play cards while the LAPD had dinner downstairs. True to his word as an owner who kept quiet and supported his regulars, Allen Dale never said a word.

But Villa Nova’s most famous claim? It’s where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio met for the first time. "Marilyn showed up with Mickey Rooney," Charlotte told Martino last year, "but left with Joe DiMaggio. I guess she liked the way he looked. Well, as you can imagine, Rooney was furious."

Eventually, as the Dales aged out of the restaurant business, the prospect of running  Villa Nova forever on the Sunset Strip became too much. In 1968, Villa Nova moved down to Newport Beach to better suit the couples’ lifestyle, taking most of the restaurant’s silver screen heirlooms with them (that Newport Beach location would succumb to fire in 1995).

Still, the stories remain, as does much of the original detailing of the place. A few videos capture the exterior of the aging Villa Nova in the mid-sixties, and there’s at least one menu still in circulation from 1946. And while there’s not much left of the nautical theme originally installed by Allen Dale, the stained glass windows and that second floor mural are alive and well. Of course, so is Charlotte Dale, whose stories are still being collected by Alison Martino of Vintage Los Angeles, with the hopes of ensuring Villa Nova’s future is brighter than its nearly forgotten past.

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