Los Angeles is a haunted city. Beneath the metropolis the earth’s crust is stratified with history—the pueblo years, old movie sets, blood and assassinations, murders, riots, bottles, glass and buildings—a hodgepodge of broken promises and missed opportunities.
And of course, there are ghosts.
We tear down almost as soon as we have finished building. The past is a mirage in L.A., but even though the physical evidence has been bulldozed, the detritus swept away, the ghosts linger. If you listen, you will hear them wailing down the canyons during a bout of Santa Ana winds.
Those canyons are mythical in Los Angeles: Laurel Canyon, Coldwater Canyon, Benedict Canyon, Beverly Glen, the Sepulveda Pass, Topanga Canyon. This is because in the unique topography of L.A., the Santa Monica Mountains and the Hollywood Hills separate downtown and the city proper from the San Fernando Valley. To drive from the north end of L.A. to the south requires passage over a freeway or through a winding canyon road along asphalt streets that cover old wagon trails. The history gives these canyons the creepy feelings. Charles Manson and his “family” murdered in these canyons. Eddie Nash and his gang committed the Wonderland Murders up in Laurel Canyon. Bodies are buried in partially-dug graves. Mountain lions and coyotes roam the hills snatching up smaller game like Pekinese puppies and house cats. There are ghosts and there is a darkness.
For years, I traveled over Beverly Glen to get to work, and every day I would pass by the Four Oaks Restaurant, a charming little place deep in the canyons. Often, when it was lit up on a warm spring night, I would make a mental note to go there someday and have dinner. But I never did. My wife and I wanted to throw a party to celebrate our 20 year wedding anniversary at Four Oaks, but when we went to the place one day, we found the door locked and the restaurant shuttered. It has remained closed for the last eight years, according to what I could find about the site in the Los Angeles Times. Evidently, the last meal came out of the kitchen in 2005.
Doing some research about the history of the area, I stumbled upon two accounts of Four Oaks’ unique and haunted past. The site of the restaurant was a stopping point for travelers moving over the hills to Los Angeles proper. The drive that now takes 30 minutes depending on traffic was once a grueling trip requiring most of the day. Legend has it that the Four Oaks name came as a result of a massive tree nearby formed from the trunks of four separate trees. As time and civilization progressed, roads were paved and the journey became less arduous, and that is when the trouble started. The restaurant became a speakeasy in the 1920s with illegal hooch and prostitutes. Given the clientele, a number of bad things could have happened on that piece of real estate. The one documented case was a doozy. Down a bit from the current Four Oaks site, a man stormed into a roadhouse and confronted his wife in bed with her lover. In a rage, he hacked off the male adulterer’s head with a scythe, bathing the room in blood. The locals captured the murderer and hanged him, and the wandering wife inherited all of the man’s money and property. According to legend, the husband and his victim still wander the area at night, one of them dressed “in his favorite yellow opera cape,” says Jeff Dwyer in his book, Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Los Angeles (Pelican, 2007). A second apparition has been seen inside the Four Oaks Restaurant and is described by Dwyer as “a large, glowing apparition that hovers near the fireplace in the dining room or in the bar. It has been seen by many but no one can give a clear description of the ghost’s features or determine if it is a man or woman.”
In a second book, Haunted Places: The National Directory (Penguin, 2002) by Dennis William Hauck, the figure in yellow relates to the woman involved in the crime. She supposedly loved the color yellow, so her headless, yellow-clad lover haunts the road looking for her, and probably his head, too.
I did not see any yellow headless ghosts when I went to the site recently. It was just another abandoned restaurant or place of business like so many others around the city after the recession. However, the canyons of L.A. often give me a shiver. The houses are old, the trees whisper in the wind, and especially at night, strange figures often walk the streets. But on my trip to Four Oaks on a recent warm day, I walked around the property unmolested. The only interesting thing were the pictures I took. I kept getting the double-exposure like reflections in the glass as I snapped shots through the windows. Normally, I would edit them out or try a different angle, but in this case, I kind of liked them. History is a layered effect, and I liked the ghost images reflected back in the glass and superimposed on the shot.
The Four Oaks Restaurant is located at 2181 North Beverly Glen Boulevard in Bell Air. The old roadhouse is in the 1400 block of North Beverly Glen. According to Jeff Dwyer, it is no longer occupied.