To an undiscerning eye, looks as if it’s been serving food and dry goods to North Hollywood’s residents since the turn of the 19th century.
Look up, and you’ll see collections of antique bistro chairs, blue enamel pots and mason jars hung on the ceiling. On the shelves, there are old-fashioned soaps, candles and paper ephemera. The floor is worn and creaky, as if it’s lived through generations of customers who traveled by horse & carriage, then by horseless carriage to get their goods.
I've wanted to visit ever since I spotted the curiously-decorated café after checking out next door, and especially after North Hollywood-Toluca Lake Patch readers as the area's No. 1 coffee shop in February.
When I visit for a cappuccino and breakfast one morning, I’m not surprised when Frank, the man behind the counter, tells me the store is the work of a Hollywood set decorator. In fact, Cahuenga General Store began as a movie props rental house, he says when I ask about all the old-timey décor.
CGS began as Cinema Crates, according to its website, and I later call Anita Hallenbeck, the café’s owner, who confirms the truth.
The café did indeed start out as a prop rentals place in the early ’90s, she tells me. She and her then-husband, Casey, along with her brother, Rob, bought the space to house their existing business and spent a year renovating the interior and exterior to look like a turn-of-the-century general store.
Casey, a "very creative" set decorator, designed the store (he also co-owned the ), and Rob built the interior, she says.
The props they rented were "stuff you’d see in an alley or dock," such as wood boxes, barrels and other antique containers, she says. "When we first opened, it was like a gift store," and they sold products with old-fashioned labels to fit with the store’s antique feel, says Hallenbeck.
Starbucks was becoming popular, so they "got on the bandwagon" and served coffee to customers, she says. Then food was needed to go with the drinks, so they started selling muffins and snacks. The props rental business slowed and was eventually closed, so the small office they built was converted into a kitchen and the business evolved into a café-slash-general-store. Now, the also host live music, and there's at 7 p.m.
In addition to the coffee menu, she also makes salads, soup, desserts and nearly 30 different kinds of sandwiches. On the morning I visit, my cappuccino is perfect and I order the Bomb sandwich for breakfast (scrambled eggs, tomatoes, avocado and melted Swiss cheese with Tapatio and mayo on sourdough), which lives up to its name.
For many, CGS is a hidden gem – as you drive north on Cahuenga Boulevard from Studio City, you'll notice the tree-lined sidewalks and lush, manicured front lawns give way to an industrial area with vacant buildings and car mechanic shops as you pass Magnolia Boulevard in North Hollywood.
Hallenbeck says they chose to open along this stretch of Cahuenga because of the opportunities it held: Before the NoHo Arts District even existed, she and her then-husband envisioned the boulevard as a way to build a community and build more antique, main-street-style storefronts that was welcoming to small businesses. They submitted their ideas with sketches to the Community Redevelopment Agency, but the plans never moved forward.
When I tell her Frank had said their coffee award came as a surprise, she laughs.
"I'm fairly new to the whole social networking (thing)," she tells me. "I actually was shocked...I don't know that my coffee is any (different)."
And despite the economy, Hallenbeck says her business has thrived. "I do have a lot of loyal customers," she says. "The public is really understanding (the importance) of small businesses."
is located at 5510 Cahuenga Boulevard in North Hollywood. Hours are Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.