May 7, 2020
Once a staple of Southern California’s Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO), the Spitfire Grill restaurant recently closed its doors after nearly 30 years of serving the historic airfield and the surrounding community. The closure marks the culmination of many years of struggle against adverse city action. While plans are underway for a new restaurant to replace the longtime pilot hangout, some are concerned it won’t be the same.
“I think it’s just another blow that seems so unnecessary,” said Christian Fry, president of the Santa Monica Airport Association. “This is the first time in decades that we haven’t had a restaurant at the airport. Hopefully, the new owners will continue the Spitfire’s legacy.”
First opened in 1954 as the Lindaire Coffee Shop and later known as the Kitty Hawk, the Spitfire Grill proved extremely popular with local pilots and the greater Santa Monica community; in fact, the Spitfire Grill and its colorful employees were even the basis for the 1996 film of the same name.
The Spitfire was once also one of two dining options on the field. Pan-Asian fusion restaurant Typhoon closed in 2016 after its owner couldn’t secure a suitable long-term lease from city officials intent on shuttering airport-related businesses and forcing the outright closure of SMO.
The lease situation also stymied Spitfire owner John Clarizio, who took over the casual dining restaurant in 1991. Following years of negotiations with the city, Clarizio was finally able to secure a new five-year lease agreement for the Spitfire Grill just last year, with a five-year renewal option.
“I planned to remodel the restaurant as part of the lease, but the project details and related numbers were pretty high,” Clarizio explained. “So, rather than tackling it myself I found someone else interested in doing it.” The Spitfire closed its doors March 1 following a community farewell gathering.
Fry put it more bluntly. “It seems clear to me that John’s choice came in no small part from the amount of energy he expended in fighting the city for a long-term lease. He tried for many years to revitalize the restaurant but couldn’t secure a loan with the proposed two- to three-year lease terms. Even taking the politics out of it, everyone reaches a point when you’re just done.”
While the Spitfire Grill may be gone, there’s hope the new restaurant will continue its tradition of serving SMO. Reportedly, the new facility, although it won’t carry the Spitfire’s name, still intends to appeal to airport users, including the breakfast crowd.
“It was definitely a very hard decision for me to close down the Spitfire,” admitted Clarizio. “This isn’t just a business, it’s a community center, and it was very important for me to hand it off to another restaurant for the community. This place was here before me, and it will be here after me.”