A classic burger joint comes back to life.
What does it take to reinvent a classic? To revitalize something without letting the transfusion of new blood completely wash away the old? It takes discipline, and time, and a cautious hand. It takes vision, for what was and will be. More than anything, it takes a strong personality. Or two.
By the time architect Jingbo Lou stepped foot in the the old Cassell’s Hamburgers space half a decade ago, there was hardly any strength left in the place. Faded newspaper clippings dangled woefully inside their outdated picture frames, beneath mismatched tables and tile that had long ago given up its color. The frills were always few and far between at Cassell’s, but this was something different.
Cassell’s was never meant to end up this way. Opened in 1948 by a young Alvin Casell, initially on Wilshire and under the name Cassell’s Patio, the burger haunt was for decades synonymous with chef-driven dedication to quality ingredients and techniques. As rumor has it, Cassell the man was a real estate office worker who lamented the fact that a good lunch was so hard to find. So eventually, he started making his own. Cured hams, housemade tuna salad, and those broiled burgers, still sizzling underneath a slice of melted American cheese. At its height, the lunchtime-only cafeteria found a home on 6th Street, and the growing crowds followed. For a place that only served sandwiches and offered a salad bar, it was as loud and busy as any restaurant in town.
[Cassell's on 6th Street, before it closed.]
There was no more life in the dim corner storefont on 6th Street in Koreatown when Lou walked through; most of that seemed to have left the building at about the same time Al Cassell himself did in the 1990’s, a genial octogenarian who spent nearly all his life working the griddle. Age eventually slowed him down and he sold the name, the equipment and the legacy. By 2010, Al had passed away at the age of 98. Two years later, his life’s work was also gone.
Until Lou. The Pasadena-based architect has a flair for preservation, having worked for years on projects as diverse as Wilshire’s Morgan Adams Building and Whittier College’s Guillford Hall. Lou knows the value in reinvention, and the pitfalls that come with trying to turn back the clock. In one of his latest projects, the Hotel Normandie, Lou saw not only the chance to pay homage to the original 1920’s Walker & Eisen building, but to capture the bygone essence of a neighborhood — without holding back on its updated future. Cassell’s, in many ways, was a perfect fit to anchor the hotel’s glassy 6th Street corner.
Cassell’s was never meant to end up this way
2012 was already shaping up to be a tough year for Cassell’s, having long ago been marginalized into nostalgia and left behind by the community. The recession hadn’t been particularly kind to the burger shop, and just about everyone involved with Cassell’s was looking for an exit strategy. The burgers, which for years had been USDA prime beef flown in from Colorado and ground on site, had lost their luster, even as L.A. was in the grips of a burger renaissance. Most days, the salad bar inside stood limpid and weak, or worse, empty altogether. The old place had held on for a while, serving 1/3 lb. burgers cooked up inside their unique griddle-broiler system. But time had faded all that glory at the edges, like those newspaper clippings from the 1960’s and ’70’s.
[Inside the 6th Street Cassell's, which is now closed.]
Those clips do tell a story of Al Cassell’s vision, though. A prominent 1972 feature in Oui Magazine quotes the man himself, who said he wouldn’t serve french fries because "the more things you do, the less chance there is of reaching perfection." By then, Cassell had for years been making is own mayonnaise in-house, grinding his own meat on a beat up Hobart, and only using the freshest produce in town — decades before just about anyone else was interested in cheffing up their burgers.
Los Angeles Magazine’s George Christy called it the "best five-star burger at its price in town." Even Calvin Trillin had at one time or another called Cassell’s "probably the best one available in Los Angeles," and in 1992, a young writer for the Los Angeles Times named Jonathan Gold was hard-pressed to disagree.
"the more things you do, the less chance there is of reaching perfection"
Twenty years after Gold’s praise ran under the banner headline American Meat in the Times, a yellowed copy under glass would sit in a stack with all the others, meant for yet another Cassell’s location a few blocks away. Waiting to receive it all was Christian Page.
Something of a burger whisperer, Page had first risen to hamburger prominence with Short Order at the Original Fairfax Farmers Market. After two and a half years there, he left to pursue other projects, including the complete rebuilding of a burger icon some 65 years in the making.
In Page, Lou and the Hotel Normandie team had found a creative equal. All sides were interested in preservation and protection of the Cassell’s brand, from the burgers to the signage to the feel of the place. 2013 designs turned into a 2014 build-out, and in late December the new corner location of Cassell’s soft-opened for the holidays, serving three square meals — and no french fries.
Though the layout is different now (no salad bar, lots more light), the spirit of Al Cassell feels right at home. The burgers are still ground daily using chuck and brisket from Colorado farms; potato salad is still a natural side for every burger made; and Page himself is still whipping up batches of mayonnaise in the back. The prices have been updated accordingly, of course, but paying for quality has never been a question.
Even the signage remains, from the old lemonade paintings to the neon Cassell's sign that used to hang in the back of the restaurant. You can see the cleaned up "Only One Plate Per Person Please" sign hanging right next to the open kitchen, where some of Cassell’s original equipment remains. And yes, they even have that Hobart grinder.
Ultimately, nothing can replace the dedication and drive that Al Cassell had for his housemade hamburgers. And with the man’s passing in 2010, that legacy is only getting further and further away. But by bringing the man’s passion back to life, right there at the corner of 6th and Normandie, Page, Lou, and the Hotel Normandie team have brought life back to one of L.A.’s late great burger icons. Which, in a way, is more than just reinvention. It’s a miracle all its own.
3600 W 6th St
Los Angeles, CA 90020