By Katherine Hon
Walking into the Red Fox Room Steakhouse and Piano Bar is like stepping back in time to the 1960s. You might expect to see Don Draper from the television show “Mad Men” enjoying a two-martini lunch in a corner booth. Maroon leatherette banquet seats curve around the darkly paneled dining room. The piano in the bar waits silently for the evening entertainers.
The Red Fox Room comes by its historical ambiance authentically — it opened on Oct. 18, 1959. This classic bar-restaurant at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Louisiana Street adjoins the historic Lafayette Hotel. Installation of a steakhouse dining room was part of a remodeling and renovation program for the hotel after it had been bought from founder Larry Imig by Conrad Hilton, president of the Hilton Hotel chain.
The San Diego Union’s Oct. 17, 1959 issue announced that the “Lafayette Hotel will complete a $500,000 remodeling-modernization program with the opening soon of a Red Fox room.”
The first step of the hotel renovation involved construction of 34 glass-walled lanai units in two stories around the hotel’s large swimming pool. The second step was the steakhouse.
The grand opening advertisement in the San Diego Union’s Oct. 18, 1959 issue explained that “The Red Fox was an old inn in Surrey, England, and dates from about 1560. The three small original rooms have been combined to form a spacious ‘tap room.’ The bar, backbar, and the trim around the doors with the small carved figures all came from Charles of London and date 1560. The fireplace panel with finely carved overmantel, bears the date of 1642.”
Through the 1960s, Frank Rhoades periodically mentioned the Red Fox Room in his San Diego Union local news column. On May 31, 1960, Rhoades referred to “Danny Beaudet’s Red Fox Room in the Lafayette Hotel,” and on Oct. 19, 1961, he described Beaudet as a “singing restaurateur … who sings ‘Star Spangled Banner’ over the mike at Charger football games.”
Five years later, Rhoades commented in his Nov. 4, 1966 column: “You knew it all the time, of course, but I’m just finding out … That the old Red Fox Room at the Lafayette Hotel, long a notorious loser, is buzzing with business again. Freddie Eyarkiou and John Demos have turned the trick, turning it into strictly a steak and lobster house. The uptrend has justified addition of another dining room.”
John Demos making the Red Fox Room a success when he took over in 1966 is no surprise — he already had a long history in the restaurant business. While still a teenager, he was listed in the 1947 City Directory as manager of the Steak House at 801 C St. In 1957, he was listed as the chef, and his brother Spiro was listed as the manager. The Steak House was owned by their father William, who came to the U.S. from Greece — where he also was a restauranteur — in 1920. The family moved from Chicago to San Diego in 1947 when John was 16 years old and Spiro was 17 years old.
After more than five decades, the Red Fox Room is still run by the Demos family, with John’s son Jim managing, Jim’s wife Nancy keeping the books, and their teenage children busing tables during the holidays. John — now age 87 — still comes in many nights to make sure things are going smoothly.
But change is in the air for the Red Fox Room. The Lafayette Hotel is reportedly declining to renew the restaurant’s lease, which will end in March 2019. Undaunted, Jim Demos plans to take the family’s operation to a new location nearby. He has every expectation that their cosmopolitan and loyal crowd will follow them.
—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.