From Steinbeck's invocations of Judeo-Christian scripture to today's beachfront real estate squabbles, Californians have long taken on unwise financial and practical burdens in order to live near the sea. Even in a land-locked mid-city enclave like LA's Koreatown, the dream of coastal California living is never far. Among K-Town's several nautical-themed restaurants stands Café Jack, a Korean coffee shop and sushi restaurant housed in a replica of the Titanic.
The owner of Café Jack is Jack Shin, who was so moved by Titanic that he changed both his own name and his son's to "Jack," after Leonardo Dicaprio's character Jack Dawson. "After he saw the movie, he wanted his own Titanic," explained Café Jack manager Christie Ne.
The café is split in two parts: its bow houses the kitchen, while the stern functions as a communal dining area. Most customers eat in small, private "ship cabins." There is also a patio that one might use to, say, scale onto a lifeboat as the ship sinks below the waves.
Café Jack's decor fluctuates between committing fully to its theme, interpreting it loosely, and ignoring it altogether. Its walls display a mixture of topical posters, fan art, screen caps, and visual non-sequiturs: a knockoff Keith Herring, a Curious George poster, an Impressionist-style landscape. Some windows are plastered with café-press decals with love-related phrases or the template message "Your text here." In my favorite of Café Jack's many enclaves, Titanic stuff coexists with personal photographs and unrelated memorabilia. But Jack's crown jewel is an original mural version of the Titanic cover, commissioned by Shin.
Ne told VICE that after the coffee shop's initial novelty wore off, Shin tried different menus and approaches to drum up business. The coffee shop currently serves sushi, a few pastas, pastries, and Korean dishes, and an extensive selection of boba smoothies and fruit slushes. The phrase "Are you ready to go..." is ominously printed on the first page of the menu, the rest of which is in Korean. Though there is a non-smoking sign, smoking is tenuously allowed, provided you use the designated ashtray, a Dixie cup filled with coffee grounds.
The Titanic craze hit the girls of my generation hard, though I was not among them. (I remember proudly yelling "More like Leonardo Di-CRAP-io!" in elementary school.) Hoping to better understand why Shin and Ne liked the movie so much, I enlisted some translation help from local writer Lena Kim and her husband Park Hyonkyu, and was surprised to find out that I had missed Café Jack's main attraction entirely.
According to Ne, Shin reads tarot cards in the back of the restaurant, which accounts for most of the business's revenue. This business, not the café's somewhat steeply priced menu items, is what keeps the ship afloat.
"The owner is very famous," Ne told us, explaining that Shin tends to be "booked solid" after seven each night: customers schedule readings far in advance.
Even taking Shin's psychic side-hustle into account, Café Jack draws surprisingly few tourists for a structure that so loudly screams "tourist trap!" Most of the café's business comes from locals and regulars. Even when Shin, the "captain," is out, the vessel's private rooms are popular spots for daytime business meetings, while local students use Jack's spacious, communal dining room to study. "It's their go-to place," Ne explained.
LA is filled with monuments like this: misapplied simulacra in rapid sequence, Hollywood mythology ventriloquized as a business model or business muse. Like others of its kind, Café Jack commemorates a history that is both cannibalized by popular fiction and preserved by it. As we sat waiting for our plum slushes, a Drake song cut abruptly into "Strawberry Fields Forever."
Unlike most of Cameron's characters, Shin's dream has managed to weather the storm: Café Jack survives as a quiet haven of mysticism and camp, choosing not to compete with the chic, modern coffee shops nearby. Titanic tells of a kind of love that is permitted by devastation and inhospitable to compromise, but real love requires us to compromise daily. Ashtrays need to be emptied. It's always someone's turn to clean the kitchen floor.
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