Cosplay cuties, Japanophiles and pop art fans all over Los Angeles shed a tear this week when Royal/T Cafe -- a combination art space, shop and cafe -- closed its doors for the last time.
For five years, the Culver City gem welcomed thousands of people for high tea, art exhibits and premiere parties. The playful combination of saucy waitress costumes, bold, colorful art and adorable objects for sale made for an overwhelming sense of kawaii -- the Japanese word for cute -- that will likely not be replicated soon.
Avid art collector Susan Hancock wasn't looking to open a restaurant when she first became interested in Japanese art seven years ago. Instead, the over-indulgent aunt started buying anime art for her neices when her sisters laid down the law: no more toy purchases.
"Then all of a sudden, I got hooked on it myself, and started falling in love with Japanese artists like Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama," said Hancock to The Huffington Post.
Soon enough, Hancock found herself traveling to Japan to immerse herself in their art world, and at a Nara exhibit called "A to Z," she had an epiphany.
"He had an amazing show, but he also had a cafe and a shop at the same time. And it was in an old warehouse. That's what inspired me."
The long-time New Yorker packed her bags and ditched the East Coast for Los Angeles. She took her concept to LA because it was a "fun, hopping place when it came to art," and the possibility of opening simultaneously with MOCA's impending Murakami show in 2007 gave her a perfect planning deadline.
Royal/T debuted on schedule with an opening exhibit called "Just Love Me," an art show that would land Royal/T one of their signature pieces: a big plastic Nara dog.
"People, not knowing what we were sometimes, would think we were a dog grooming place," laughed Hancock.
Indeed, peering in from the street, it wasn't quite clear what Royal/T was supposed to be. Covered in ivy on the outside and lit with a pink neon crown, the refurbished warehouse boasted a kitchen, private event rooms and plexiglass display cases. If the space defied definition, that was all the better for Hancock, who said she just wanted people to be able to eat with art in an every day environment -- "not like a museum setting."
And the community responded. Hancock said that some of her favorite customers were the ones who came to exhibits dressed in Japanese cosplay, or people who came for lunch during the week and then brought all four generations of their family over on the weekend. "It just became a very magical place," recalled Hancock. "We always wanted people to feel like they were Alice in Wonderland, and the had fallen down a rabbit hole and into a tea party."
Royal/T isn't dead; the concept is just taking on another, more fluid identity. The defunct cafe's site lists brand/art collaborations, pop ups, museum consulting and art trips as part of Royal/T's next life.
But first, a well-deserved vacation. Hancock is headed to south of France, the Hamptons and Hawaii for several weeks before she meets up again with her staff.
Here's her final message to Angelenos as owner of the Royal/T space: "I just want to thank all the people for coming in over the five years. To everybody who had an event here and everybody who enjoyed it, you made it such a special place. Follow us as we go on and do new things around the world."
Hancock shares some of her favorite parties, memories and features with us, and even one "worst" experience. Click through the slideshow to read about the magical time we all had.
<strong>Susan Hancock</strong>: Over in Japan there are over 80 maid cafes. It's in a district that is very much into cosplay, meaning costume play. We thought it would be fun if our waitresses dressed up as maids. Over there, they take it to a different level in that they cater more to men, like a quasi-cheap geisha house -- like when geeky guys come in who don't have girlfriends and they play games on them, they blow on their coffee to cool it off, and they say "Welcome Home, Mister." Of course, being a feminist, and wanting to have a family-owned cafe, I could never do that. So our maids were just very much into dressing the part and being fun and friendly. And then we wanted the atmosphere to be more like a crazy tea party. Pictured: Susan Hancock and several Royal/T maids.
<strong>SH</strong>: We have a three-tiered high tea that everybody loved that had all kinds of sandwiches, fruit and sweets. Quite a few people would come in and order that all times of the day. Other times we'd have private showers and birthday parties, and they would order those for the VIP room. Our Sunday brunch had a DJ with unlimited mimosas, and people would love that, of course. And the during the day, we had a big lunch crowd. Some of the favorites were katsu chicken curry, the taki salad and the salmon rice bowl. <em>Pictured: The High Tea Set</em>
'I Love Culver City'
<strong>SH</strong>: The city of Culver City was very nice. I love Culver City, and that will always remind me of Royal/T. The customers were amazing -- we had a very loyal clientele and I see those customers out and about all the time. They remind me of all the fun events we've had here. I'll think a lot about my employees. My employees are so vital to the experience that happened here. As I continue to interface with them, it'll remind me of my time here. <em>Pictured: Royal/T guests</em>
My Worst Experience At Royal/T
<strong>SH</strong>: One day we had a neighbor two doors down who had a fire. Their fire caused our electricity to go down. That was probably our worst day. The air conditioning went off, our lights went off, everything in the kitchen went off, and you realize how something like that can affect your whole experience. That was definitely the worst day. There were other days where we might have lost one or the other -- lights or something -- but we didn't lose everything. Luckily that night we didn't have an event -- a friend of mine had been planning an event and at the last minute, it didn't happen. I just think that was serendipitous. I would have just felt horrible if they had come in and there was no food, no lights, no air conditioning. It was one thing to turn everybody away for lunch, it's another thing to turn away" an event.
'Art Should Be Fun'
<strong>SH</strong>: I'm most proud of the fact that people came in and said it was a real special happy place. That they'd come in with a bad mood and they'd get into a porta party, which had a disco ball in it, and they'd dance. Or they'd have high tea or the maids would be so sweet to them, or they'd go in the shop or see the art, and it would just make them feel really good. I didn't want the art world to intimidate anybody. I felt like in some ways people are intimidated by art, by contemporary art, like when they walk into a museum or a gallery. I know I used to be. You walk into an art gallery and the person behind the desk would look at you like, you can't afford this. So I wanted to bring it to all people on all levels, and welcome everybody. I loved it when people would dress up in cosplay and come in. <em>Pictured: customers dressed in cosplay.</em>
Goodbye... For Now
<strong>SH</strong>: I just want to thank all the people for coming in over the five years, and everybody who had an event here, and everybody who enjoyed it -- making it such a special place. I just hope they continue to follow us as we go on and do new things around the world. <em>Pictured: Susan Hancock with TJ and Onch of the Onch Movement.</em>
Favorite Opening: Hello Kitty
<strong>SH</strong>: Many people's favorite show here was probably Hello Kitty's 35th anniversary. 90,000 people came through for it, and it probably put us on the map as far as what Royal/T was and who we were and our Japanese affiliation. Hello Kitty brought in artifacts that hadn't been seen from all over the world, from Japan and Taiwan and all over. <em>"Three Apples Hello Kitty 35th Anniversary Celebration" curated by Jamie Rivadeneira, Japan LA</em> <em>Pictured: Hello Kitty</em>
Favorite Opening: Just Love Me
<strong>SH</strong>: This was our very first show, named after a piece in the show by Tracy Emin. It's a neon piece that says, "Just Love Me." That show was our opening during the Murakami show, so we had quite a few Murakamis in it, many many Japanese pieces of art in it, including the big white Nara dog that stayed in our window for a while. People, not knowing what we were sometimes, would think we were a dog grooming place. <em>"Just Love Me" curated by Yuki Kamiya from the Hiroshima Contemporary Museum in Japan</em> <em>Pictured: YOSHITOMO NARA Your Dog, 2002 Fibreglass.</em>
Favorite Opening: The Warholian
<strong>SH</strong>: We had many Warhols, and then he took my collection and we borrowed one from Mattel. It was the first time it had been outside the Warhol collection. It was an amazing, amazing show. It was a really fun night, and we had lots and lots of people come through for the show. <em>"The Warholian" curated by Eric Shiner from The Andy Warhol Museum</em>