weddingThat was the idea, anyway, when the Yaneys embarked on what was supposed to be a five-year project in 1973, the year they bought a derelict three-quarter-acre property at the junction of New and Old Topanga Canyon Boulevards. Ralph and Lucile were (and remain) a psychoanalyst and a psychotherapist, respectively, and drove by the property every day on their commute to Beverly Hills. What had become an eyesore by 1973 had in its former incarnations been a Four Square Gospel Church (the first church in the canyon), then a gas station, a junkyard and finally, according to Lucile, “a house of ill repute.” The couple had no aspirations to open a restaurant—they had impulsively purchased the property when an impromptu stroll along the creek that forms its eastern boundary made their “hearts open up” and put them in what Lucile describes as an “altered” state. The restaurant idea came later after Lucile spent a few weeks studying with Dr. Hazel Parcells, a nutritionist who warned against margarine and pesticides, and advocated using pendulums to measure the “life energy” of foods, and magnets and Clorox baths to “cleanse” and re-energize them. (Say what you will, Parcells lived to 106…). Convinced that Parcells’ nutritional techniques were helping their patients with energy-related complaints such as anxiety and depression, the Yaneys came to a decision: they were going to open a restaurant.
“What do people talk about on Monday morning, but where they get the best bargains and what restaurants they’ve gone to,” says Lucile. “If we could get a body of knowledge, attach it to a restaurant, would not that body of knowledge get spread around a city much quicker than if you put the knowledge into a book?”
At around the same time, the Yaneys had joined the Church Universal and Triumphant, founded in 1975 by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, aka “Guru Ma”. Prophet’s teachings combined elements of Eastern religions with Christianity, and placed particular emphasis on karma and communication with the “Ascended Masters” (who include Jesus and Buddha, along with more obscure figures like St. Germain). Key to Prophet’s doctrine was the Violet Flame, a form of “spiritual light” that can transform bad karma to good (and is, of course, the “seventh ray”). Like Parcells, Prophet had very specific ideas about food, and how it relates to energy and (spiritual) health. Meat was to be eaten sparingly, as it leads to “density”, which prevents spiritual energy from penetrating the body, chocolate was verboten for the same reason, as were alcohol and sugar. Pork was also banned from the diet, because ancient Atlantean scientists had intermingled pig and human genes, so, explains Lucile, “eating pork is basically cannibalism.”
So, in 1975, the Inn of the Seventh Ray was established as a sort of laboratory for the Yaneys’ interpretations of these culinary doctrines: “When we served things, it would be with a specific teaching,” says Lucile. “So you couldn’t get a meal without having it as an example of the philosophy that we wrote on the back of the menu.” She is referring to a page-long manifesto of sorts, which has stayed essentially the same since the restaurant’s opening. It articulates the restaurant’s “principles”: organic and local as much as possible, naturally grown meats, no preservatives, refined sugar or bleached flour, and “prepared with love” to transport you to “a higher plane.” Thanks to naturalfood suppliers Erewhon, Mrs. Gooch’s, Alta Dena dairy, Sheldon’s chicken, and a “lovely little English lady” in Topanga who grew organic veggies, the Inn was able to stay on-message while serving fare that earned it a glowing Los Angeles Times review right out of the gate. “Although the Inn has many convictions,” wrote Lois Dwan in her March 14, 1976 restaurant column, “eliminating pleasure is not one of them.” The restaurant became a popular destination for city folks, notes Ami Kirby, Topanga resident since 1963 and curator of the Topanga Historical Society, “a carriage trade for outsiders coming in for romantic gatherings. People can take a pleasant drive, enjoy the creek running by. It’s delightful.” Locals also came in, bringing out of town visitors, and it soon became the place for fairytale-romantic, faintly bohemian weddings.
Popular as it was, the restaurant struggled, as the Yaneys juggled their full-time therapy practice, a family of seven children, and a business that they opened as a “hobby” but demanded their constant attention. Lucile describes their early customers, who often waited in long lines to get tables, as “very patient and very forgiving.” Their finances were precarious, and they were often one slow night away from closing the doors for good. (The bank had refused their loan application— they were therapists after all, with zero restaurant experience. “I would turn me down too, in retrospect,” says Lucile.) It took them eight years just to break even.
Then, in 1987, the Yaneys put the restaurant up for sale. The year before, the Church Universal and Triumphant had moved its headquarters from Calabasas to a sprawling compound in Montana, and the Yaneys had followed. (Two years later, about 1,000 of Prophet’s followers would descend on the ranch, when she summoned them to move into underground bunkers and wait out an impending nuclear holocaust.) Lucile returned to Los Angeles to handle the sale and transition of the Inn. Whether due to its asking price (a reported $1.2 million) or the Yaneys’ insistence that it maintain its New Age identity, the restaurant never sold. According to Lucile, four potential buyers had “something bad happen to them,” before she gave up, and took the place off the market. “I had to cede that there was too much opposition to my selling the restaurant.” So she stayed in Los Angeles, and she and Ralph embarked on what she calls a “commuting marriage.”
Meanwhile, the restaurant’s culinary reputation ebbed and flowed as chefs came and went and variously interpreted “vibrational action” and Lucile’s original recipes. “A business, like a person, has to keep changing,” she says, noting that the place has “evolved” in its 37 years, and the chefs have built upon the successes of their predecessors. The Inn’s current chef, Bradley Miller, left Patina to take the helm in 2009, and the menu’s reputation has risen steadily ever since. (If you were a fan of Hell’s Kitchen, yes, it is that Brad Miller, the seventh chef eliminated in the show’s 2007 season.) Changes have been made as Brad stepped up, and even chocolate has managed to be quietly slipped onto the menu. In her rave 2010 review, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila recounted her first visit to the Inn, years earlier, when the food was “just plain inedible” and the place was more “a curiosity than a destination for anybody who cared about eating.” With Miller, Virbila declares, they have “a serious chef and some serious food.”
Now entering its fourth decade, Ralph and Lucile Yaney’s “five-year project” has seen the food world change around it. Where once dishes made with Bragg’s Amino and sea vegetables, or champagne flutes of Jun (a fermented drink akin to kombucha), or desserts made with almond milk, would mark a restaurant as hopelessly fringe, “we’re mainstream now,” says Lucile. “The culture has caught up to the principles, so have all the other restaurants.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the L.A. restaurant landscape without the Inn, tucked away like a secret garden awaiting discovery. (And now, thanks to avant-pop troubadour Eleanor Friedberger’s 2011 paean to Los Angeles, “Inn of the Seventh Ray,” hipsters across the nation are in on the secret.) Fortunately, the future looks bright as a violet flame for the place, as its visibility and reputation continue to rise, and its years of struggle look to be behind it.
The Inn of the Seventh Ray, 128 Old Topanga Canyon Road Topanga Canyon, CA, innoftheseventhray.com