Early in Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown, private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) sits across from widower Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in a dark LA restaurant with blood-red leather banquettes. Evelyn wears a funereal hat with a black veil. Jake wears a bandage across his nose and arches those famous Nicholson eyebrows as he prods her: “Mrs. Mulwray, I think you’re hiding something.”
As anyone who's seen Chinatown knows, Evelyn was hiding something. What they might not know is that the restaurant, The Prince, still stands today. It is one of only a handful of film-friendly
“I remember the first time I walked in there, it was like I had just traveled in a time machine to LA’s glorious past for a day,” says Harry Medved, who works for Fandango and co-wrote Hollywood Escapes, a 2006 book on filming locations in Southern California. “If those red leather booths could talk, you could imagine hearing tales of the heated, private conversations of Hollywood players from decades ago.”
Located on the ground floor of a brick Tudor Revival-style apartment building at the intersection of Seventh and Catalina in Koreatown, The Prince was opened as The Windsor in the 1940s by legendary restaurateur Ben Dimsdale. The bar and eatery hosted members of the Hollywood elite during its heyday, when it was located across the street from the grand Ambassador Hotel and its famed supper club the Cocoanut Grove.
New owners in 1991 renamed it The Prince and changed the cuisine to Korean, but the old-school décor—miniature Beefeater statues, stained-glass paneling, vintage red-and-gold fabric wallpaper, and oil paintings of landscapes and noblemen—remained intact.
The exterior of The Prince is unassuming, even as its crimson front doors on Seventh Street suggest a world beyond the threshold. “It really does look inconspicuous from the outside,” says Mad Men star Jared Harris, who directed a Season 7 episode of the series (“Time & Life”) that filmed at the restaurant. “You would never imagine that would be in there.”
As you hit the bottom landing, you are immediately bathed in red. On one wall, a baby grand piano gleams. Between the booths, scarlet lamps shaped like British red coats stand at attention. In the center of the wide room, a horseshoe-shaped bar summons images of tuxedoed Old Hollywood playboys sipping Manhattans. Faded elegance is everywhere.
Since its (apparent) silver-screen debut in Chinatown, The Prince has served as a backdrop for an impressive list of films and TV shows. On Mad Men, it stood in for a number of period New York restaurants, including the famed Manhattan steakhouse Toots Shor’s. In 2013’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, it was a central watering hole for preening Las Vegas magicians. Gene Wilder ran out on Gilda Radner there in the 1985 comedy The Woman in Red, while in Jason Reitman’s 2005 satire Thank You for Smoking, it was the D.C. bar where Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) hatched devious public relations strategies to prop up big tobacco.
The restaurant secured its most prominent gig on FOX’s New Girl when it was chosen as the interior of the Griffin, the neighborhood pub where Nick (Jake Johnson) tends bar (the exterior seen on the show is the actual Griffin in Atwater Village). The restaurant’s film-friendly then-owners made the location particularly appealing.
“They were willing to shut down for not a ton of money, which is harder and harder to find these days in Los Angeles—to buy out a bar that's that cool and does that kind of business,” says Jesse Cole, location manager on New Girl seasons one to four (the restaurant was later recreated in exact detail on a soundstage to save time and money). “That bar is particularly special, just because it's kinda off the beaten path. It’s not like Brass Monkey or one of these famous Koreatown bars.”
It’s a testament to The Prince’s multi-purpose appeal that it has appeared in such a wide range of Hollywood productions, from neo-noirs to such quirky comedies as Wonderstone
On Mad Men, The Prince made a total of three appearances thanks to the retro interior and old New York-steakhouse feel. The show’s location manager Scott Poole had previously scouted the restaurant for FX’s short-lived Louisiana-set series The Riches.
“One of the things about Mad Men is, you had to think of anything that would be believable to be in New York. When we were doing The Riches, you were thinking, ‘Where is something believable to be in Louisiana?’” says Poole, who worked on the former show for all of its seven seasons. “And it just happened to be that that place is so versatile, you could shoot it for really anywhere. You could shoot it as if it's in another country if you wanted to.”
Inside The Prince, it is easy to forget the world outside. The restaurant is partially underground. The windows facing the street are red stained glass, backlit so that they glow like a still fire. For those looking for a place to escape without leaving the city, it is tough to beat.
“I love the idea of great bars being a refuge from the world outside,” says Scardino, who liked the “red coat” lamps so much he had the Wonderstone art department make a “magician’s version” of one for the film. “They seem to be on their own time zone whether it’s day or night outside, and The Prince had that quality immediately.”
While The Prince makes only a brief appearance in Chinatown, it was the site of one of the most notorious on-set scuffles between director Roman Polanski and star Faye Dunaway, who feuded constantly during production. As the story goes, Polanski plucked a stubborn fly-away strand of hair from Dunaway’s head when she refused to allow the on-set hairdresser to cut it, leading the actress to curse the director and storm off set. (Tip: If you’d like to dine where Faye Dunaway called Roman Polanski a “mother *****,” request the second booth on the right.)
“Faye used every swear word in her... vocabulary,” says Chinatown assistant director Hawk Koch. “I called [producer] Bob [Evans] to let him know what had happened, and Bob said in his most endearing way…'Can you take care of it?' So I called her agent and her manager, and I went in and talked to Faye, and Roman went in, and we eventually started back and finished the day's work. But if you look at the scene again, you will notice that Faye has a hat on her head.”
In Chinatown, The Prince effortlessly evokes Los Angeles’ nostalgic past, even as Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne subvert any comforting notions of the period with a bleak story that touches on murder, corruption, incest, and the powerlessness of the innocent in the face of unscrupulous forces. Though the restaurant still looks nearly identical to the way it did then, its faded ruby carpets, peeling tables and taped-up windows are bittersweet reminders of the passage of time.
For Hollywood location managers, The Prince is of an increasingly rare breed in the City of Angels: a period restaurant that allows filming.
“Since I started New Girl ... the landscape has changed immensely,” says Cole. “A lot of those bars have shut down and modernized.”
Kevin Lee, who took ownership of the restaurant in June, says he’ll continue to allow filming and will retain the period décor. But some renovations to the bar area are in store. That’s not just good news for Hollywood, but for filming location buffs keen to hang like Jess, Nick, and Schmidt, or even take a side trip to Chinatown.
“[It’s] one of those places that film fans need to experience first-hand,” says Medved. “We take it for granted that LA has these larger-than-life cinematic treasures in our own backyard.”