Set Designers Dish Secrets of Iconic Eateries Including 'One Tree Hill' Karen's Cafe Designed by John D. Kretschmer
September 6, 2023

Written by Thea Glassman, The Messenger

When My Big Fat Greek Wedding landed in theaters in 2002, three things were abundantly clear: Writer and lead Nia Vardalos was a comedic star, the ensemble cast was delightfully chaotic and Dancing Zorba's, the on-screen family-run restaurant, looked like a delicious place to eat.

The Greek restaurant now belongs in the pantheon of famous fictional dining spots from TV and movies. So, in honor of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 hitting theaters on Sept. 8, we looked back at some of the most beloved restaurants Hollywood has invented and talked to the people who brought them to life.

Dancing Zorba's (My Big Fat Greek Wedding)

In the early '70s, production designer Gregory Keen visited Melbourne and dropped in on a Greek restaurant run by a friend of his grandfather's, an old school joint where you could catch the owner in the back, calculator out, doing the books.

That moment from his youth would serve as an important benchmark when, years later, he was tasked with building the fictional family restaurant of Dancing Zorba's from scratch. Keene kept that Melbourne restaurant in his mind's eye as the crew took over an abandoned supermarket in Toronto and transformed it into the Portokalos' comfy eatery, where the family would tuck themselves into booths with white and blue checkered tablecloths to lovingly spat.

"I wanted it to feel like it had been in the family forever," he told The Messenger. "We spent days just aging [the space] down to make it look, not dirty, but make it feel really real," Keene explained. They washed the tablecloths five or six times to get that faded look and kept the corners and cash register area believably dusty.

"It's a matter of brushing things into the corners of the set that make it feel older," Keene said. "You can do that with a spray gun or a rag and some darker material and you rub it in."

When it came to decorating the walls, Keene borrowed art from his wife's Greek coworkers' homes and hung them in Dancing Zorba's, adding an even more lived-in, authentic feel.

Despite all that attention to detail, Keene said it didn't feel like a living, breathing restaurant until late in the evening before the first day of shooting. "It wasn't until we were hanging the last piece of plastic ivy and that the last Venetian blind was being built that I went, okay, that's it."

Jack Rabbit Slim's (Pulp Fiction)

The iconic retro diner from Pulp Fiction is known for a few things: those car-shaped restaurant booths, the stage where Uma Thurman and John Travolta do the twist and ridiculously overpriced milkshakes.

When director Quentin Tarantino first sat down with production designer David Wasco and set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, he pointed them in the direction of the 1968 Elvis Presley movie Speedway, which featured a club with cars cut in half and re-fashioned into booths, for inspiration.

"He wanted something eye-popping and extravagant in the middle of the movie," Wasco recounted. "He wanted us to be pretty conservative; he was always concerned about being frugal with the sets, but he wanted this one to be pretty outlandish."

The husband-and-wife team honed in on the Googie aesthetic, a retro-futuristic architecture staple of Southern California featuring off-kilter, swooping structures as their reference point for the restaurant's exterior. Tiny Naylor's, a drive-in restaurant from the '40s on Sunset Boulevard, was also an inspiration. The crew built a facade outside a shuttered bowling alley, and the interior scenes were shot on a warehouse set.

"We thought, let's make the dance floor in the center, but let's raise it and make it like a tachometer," Wasco said. "We took pretty hip-looking '50s and '60s cars, pulled all the seats out of them... and surrounded the dance floor [with them]." As the cherry on top of the car-themed decor, they also tracked down a slot car track roughly 25 feet long and installed it in the space.

Tarantino also wanted posters from old-school American International Pictures, like Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman, hanging from the walls, which Hollywood studio painters came in and painted by hand.

"Because the title was Pulp Fiction, I think there was a lot of thought in our minds of the covers of old pulp magazines where there's florid colors," Reynolds-Wasco said of the set, which was splashed with electric blue lighting and mint green tables.

After the film was released, companies began reaching out to Wasco about his design, and, he recalled, tourists would make the pilgrimage to L.A. trying to track down the restaurant. True fans can trek to Australia, where there's a close enough homage.

MacLaren's Pub (How I Met Your Mother)

When production designer Stephan Olson sat down for his interview with How I Met Your Mother creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, they told him they wanted to base the gang's fictional hangout spot on their favorite New York City bar, McGees.

"I said, listen, I spent 13 years in New York in my young graduate school days and afterward working in theater," Olson recounted. "I know all these places, and I can make you a bar that will be McGees and more."

Olson booked the job and honed in on an old theatre district joint, McHale's, with its wood tones and red booths. "It just had a really great feeling," he said. "You felt safe there."

The show filmed on the Fox lot, and Olson chose a little step-down area to serve as the exterior of MacLaren's, just below Ted's apartment building (a hat tip to another New York City bar he frequented, O'Flaherty's on 46th St., which had similar steps). An entranceway was built front and center in the interior set, so every time a character entered the space, it was a big visual moment.

"It's just warmth everywhere," Olson said. "These warm woods, warm green walls, it's just this comfy sort of feeling."

He added, "The lighting is fantastic. There's lots of lights in the bar; it kind of glows."

Nearly 10 years after How I Met Your Mother took its final bow, Olson was honored when he discovered that Lego had created a version of the bar. "Oh, wow," he remembers thinking. "I suppose this is what it's like for an actor when you see [your own] action figure."

Karen's Cafe (One Tree Hill)

For years, Karen's Cafe in One Tree Hill was the heart of the show, a comforting staple in the small southern town, run by Karen Roe (Moira Kelly). When production designer John D. Kretschmer was presented with the cafe's concept and a shoestring budget, he chose a local coffee chain called Port City Java in Wilmington, N.C., to use as a stand-in for the pilot episode.

Once the show was picked up, they rented out an abandoned building across the street, taking architectural liberties by cutting away concrete and creating the now-iconic entryway. As an extra touch, scenic artist Bob Ramsey hand-painted a sign for the door with an open book with the words "Open" and a closed book with "Closed."

"We really wanted to reflect Karen's character as an industrious mother and single mom raising her son and give it an eclectic, organic and very homey feel," Kretschmer recalled. "We wanted this to be the place to be everyone's kitchen, everyone's dining nook."

The production designer decorated the set using amber, jewel tones and twinkly tea lights hanging from the window to add warmth. He looked to smaller restaurants and homes as reference points, aiming to create a space that didn't feel cookie-cutter.

"We wanted it to feel like the food was homemade; in other words, the idea was that you could smell the wonderful aromas of Karen's Cafe through your television," he said.

One of the most unique touches of Karen's Cafe was her rooftop space, where Haley and Lucas played mini golf together. Those scenes were actually filmed on an antiquated parking deck beneath surrounding rooftops and facades.

It was a particular joy to create for Kretschmer, who remembers having an immediate vision for the roof when he got the script. "I just saw it right away. That's one that we dreamed up, and I handed it over to the decorator, and we just laughed and giggled as we're putting that whole set together."

Poor Richard's (The Office)

When it came to building the world of The Office, capturing the reality of life for a Scranton, Pa. paper company was key, down to the smallest details.

Poor Richard's, the local pub Dunder Mifflin employees frequented, is based on an actual bar in Scranton, which sent set decorator Steve Rostine on a mission to get their fictional location as close as possible to its real-life counterpart.

"We contacted the Scranton Chamber of Commerce and said, 'What can you send to help us out, help us make it look authentic?'" Rostine recalled. "They were so generous. They sent T-shirts and glassware with the logo on it, little Scranton stickers and things like that that were found in Poor Richard's."

Rostine and the production team took over Pickwick's Pub in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Woodland Hills, arriving on the scene with reference photos of Poor Richard's in hand. They installed beer taps with local Pennsylvania brews, courtesy of the Chamber of Commerce, and added as many touches from the real-life Poor Richard's as they could — a video game here, a dart board there.

"You pay attention to a lot of details because that's what communicates to the audience and [lets them] actually feel like they're in Scranton, Pennsylvania," he explained.

The prop house at Warner Bros. served as the perfect resource for finding the bar's furniture, including worn, darker-hued chairs that looked like they could have been inside a bar for a long time.

"When you do a sitcom, there's almost always someplace where people can go and let their hair down and feel safe," Rostine said. "These environments give the actors some semblance of reality... they can feel like they're in a place where they can be relaxed, where they might go and have a drink."

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