Thursday, April 1, 2021

Om Shanti

Los Angeles, 

front of this large menu from 1971 features the word “om” in Devanagari script. Underneath is a description of this sacred sound in Indian religions that ends with the mantra “om shanti,” meaning peace. Since the name of the restaurant is not shown on the cover, the menu is sometimes thought to have originated from a place called Om Shanti. It actually comes from a Los Angeles vegetarian restaurant named H.E.L.P., an acronym for health, education, love, and peace. The menu marks the moment in culinary history when vegetarianism began to enter into the mainstream of American life.

Seventh-Day Adventists sponsored the first vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles at 315 West Third Street in 1900.1  While vegetarianism attracted a dedicated following in Southern California, the practice remained on the fringe of society for decades. It was reinvigorated by the rise of Eastern religion in the mid-1960s when the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine on Sunset Boulevard was serving Indian vegetarian cuisine in its café.2 Founded by yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, the spiritual center in Pacific Palisades fostered a belief that a plant-based diet could help elevate a person to a higher level of consciousness.3 A manifestation of this movement came in the form of H.E.L.P. which made its debut at 7910 West Third Street in 1968. It was said to be the first organic vegetarian restaurant in the city. The complex included a bookstore, a whole grain bakery, and the “Hall of Help” where classes were given on hatha yoga and vegetarian cooking, as well as lectures on palmistry, astrology, and metaphysics. 

H.E.L.P. was used as a filming location for a scene in the 1973 romantic comedy “Blume in Love,” starring with Marsha Mason, George Segal, Kris Kristofferson, and Susan Anspach. Owner Warren Stagg makes a cameo appearance as the waiter in this clip that shows the restaurant being patronized by trendy diners seeking a counter-culture experience. (One of the characters is on a journey of self-discovery, trying out new things like yoga.)

The tall menu is printed in vibrant magenta, exhibiting a psychedelic intensity that was still in vogue in the early 1970s. When the menu is opened on two folds, the bill of fare is shown on the three inside panels. H.E.L.P. served a lacto-ovo vegetarian cuisine—dairy products appear directly on the menu and eggs were used in the pastry. Since three-quarters of the guests were non-vegetarians, the restaurant offered substitute meat dishes made with vegetable protein, such as “vegeburgers” and “beef stroganoff” shown on the middle panel. (Double click to enlarge.)

One of the house specialties is called 
braised tofu,” representing an early usage of this term to describe grilled tofu on an English-language menu.4 H.E.L.P. was also progressive in not allowing smoking inside the restaurant. It would not be until 1995 that California banned smoking in restaurants and other enclosed workplaces. 

The restaurant was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Breakfast service began at 4:00 a.m.

The outside panels give this menu its character with regard to time and place. In 1971, the best-selling book Diet for a Small Planet brought national attention to the environmental impact of meat production.5 While the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions was now added to the list of generally accepted reasons for vegetarianism, the 1450-word treatise on the middle panel focuses on the health benefits.

The tract on the other back panel explains how the food was prepared; expresses a willingness to accommodate other types of vegetarians; and provides a few admonishments, such as “the body should rest lightly about the soul, so we encourage you to chew more and eat less.” The restaurant is referenced in the cartoon and at the bottom of the panel in a sentence that plays with the double meaning of the name: “With your help, H.E.L.P. is becoming available to more people.” It is easy to miss.

By late 1974, H.E.L.P. had closed and the space was occupied by the guru-owned vegetarian chain called the Golden Temple Conscious Cookery. The new eatery received mention in “Jean de Belley’s Restaurant Review” which noted that “the number of letters from readers asking for reviews of vegetarian restaurants (in Los Angeles) averages about one per year. But every month we receive inquires for inexpensive dining.”6 

The slow (some say inexorable) shift toward eating more plant-based foods has picked up steam in recent years. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were about 19,000 restaurants devoted to vegetarian and vegan cuisine in the United States. Even though California remains at the heart of the movement, the USC Library “diaccessed” (disposed of) an item it miscataloged as an “Om Shanti restaurant menu, 7910 West Third Street [Los Angeles?]” which happens to be how this menu was described on eBay.7 Perhaps it is the same one.

Om Shanti.

1. Seventh-Day Adventists established twenty-seven vegetarian restaurants throughout the country at the turn of the last century. E. G. Fulton, Vegetarian Cook Book: Substitutes for Flesh Food. Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press, 1904.
2. Eric Brightwell. “Vegetarian and Vegan Los Angeles,” blog dated 11 July 2018. However, I do not recall seeing the café on a visit to the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in the summer of 1964.
3. Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952) was a Hindu monk and first prominent Indian teacher to settle in the United States.
4. William Shurtleff, ‎Akiko Aoyagi. History of the Natural and Organic Foods Movement (1942-2020). Soyinfo Center, 2020.
5. Frances Moore Lappé. Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.
6. “Jean de Belley’s Restaurant Review and Gourmet Guide,” Vol. 7, No. 11, November 1974.
7. Online California Archive (OAC), Coll2014-017, USC Libraries, University of Southern California.
8. Former restaurateur Warren Stagg died in 2016 at Pune, India where he was a long-standing member of the faculty at the Ajna Center for Learning.


Anonymous said...

Thank you ever so much for this blog! My sisters and I loved the food and dining atmosphere at H.E.L.P. Our favorite had to be the Brownie. After all these years we are still talking about it together. Thank you again.
--Carol S.

Jan Whitaker said...

Great one, love it! Can't help but laugh at Bako-Bits.