A pleasure of the last few months has been looking through Patricia Lombard’s “Images of America: Larchmont,” which was published last year. It reminds me that those of us privileged to live in this neighborhood are just the latest of the generations who have been grateful to have a village nearby.
Our Sunday farmers market is just the right size. We know our vendors and they know our tastes. Many of us shop there for the week.
Larchmont grocery stores
But sometimes I need an onion on a Wednesday. Herein lies my envy of those generations who came before: they had grocery stores. The Keystone Market (1930s), Carder and Hess IGA Grocery (1930s), Safeway, a poulterer, no doubt a butcher too—all once were firmly anchored on Larchmont Boulevard.
A chance meeting with a scholar of California’s food-and-wine history opened my eyes to the impact made by the jewel in the crown of Larchmont groceries—Albert T. Balzer Co. Ltd.
According to writer and book collector, Randall Tarpey-Schwed, Balzer’s was the first gourmet market in California.
Albert Taylor Balzer was a grocer from Iowa who came to Los Angeles and bought Hughes Market, at 133 North Larchmont Blvd., in 1923. My, but Balzer’s trucks were handsome, lined up to deliver to those famous Hollywood names. And the store’s beautifully ordered interior! Just look at the photos in Lombard’s Larchmont book.
Robert Lawrence Balzer
A.T. Balzer’s son, Robert Lawrence, born in 1912, went to Stanford, studied acting in London, and then returned home to Los Angeles to work in the family business. After the repeal of Prohibition, Robert Lawrence’s father assigned him the task of developing the store’s wine division.
It was a heady time for California’s wineries. Before Prohibition, the vineyards had already been planted to French vines that produced “nice, delicate little grapes,” says Tarpey-Schwed. After Prohibition, the decimated fields were replanted; the rest is history. “This confluence of events,” says Tarpey-Schwed, “is what set Balzer off to be an expert.”
Robert Balzer became California’s first (and many think best) writer on the subject of wine. In 1937, he began writing a wine column for the “Beverly Hills Citizen,” published by a former Stanford classmate, Will Rogers Jr.
The elder Balzer died in 1952, and in 1959 Robert sold the store to a small, exclusive grocery chain, Jurgensen’s, which held forth on Larchmont until the late 1980s.
A big personality
Robert went on to a lengthy and storied career as a wine writer and critic (he wrote an influential column for the “Los Angeles Times” for three decades), but there was more: He was also a photojournalist; was ordained a Cambodian Buddhist monk; ran Tirol, a restaurant in Idyllwild; published one of the first (some say the first) subscription-based wine guides; wrote a dozen books; taught at UCLA Extension; lectured widely; and led wine tours in this country and in Europe. He was Gloria Swanson’s close friend, a fact confirmed by her granddaughter and Hancock Park resident, Brooke Anderson Ferguson.
Robert was also known for his “flamboyant personality,” writes Elaine Woo in his “Los Angeles Times” obituary.
Larchmont Chronicle publisher, John Welborne, recalls that his family patronized Balzer’s and then Jurgensen’s, but he didn’t meet Robert Balzer until the early 1970s, at the writer’s wine-tasting seminars at Lawry’s California Center.
“Of course,” Welborne says, “I read his various wine columns. He was a thoughtful and informed writer about wine. In person, Bob was very charming. However, he seldom restrained his rapier wit and observations concerning the world and the people around him.”
So our village has made its mark on the history of food and wine. But landlords of Larchmont, please take note: It’s Wednesday, and I need that onion.
By Paula Panich