How Lara Hanneman translated two decades of theatrical design experience and a passion for restaurants into the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Buena Park is best known as the home of Knotts Berry Farm, an Old West-inspired theme park less than 10 miles from Disneyland. Now, this sprawling Southern California suburb has an unlikely new restaurant tucked inside a nondescript commercial building from the 1980s. Beyond a pair of heavy doors, the bland facade of The Cauldron Spirits & Brews magically morphs into a rustic, old-world tavern with flickering lights and fragrant French country-style cuisine, complete with an actual Wiccan in the kitchen.
Lara Hanneman wasn't always a professional chef. With a background in theatrical design, she worked as Creative Director at Knott’s Berry Farm, doing stuff like the park’s hugely successful Halloween Haunt. It was a summer job that turned into a 23-year-long career, but while she loved making haunts and mazes, she always secretly wanted to run her own restaurant. So in 2016, she left her job to do just that. She didn't go too far, though. The Cauldron is literally across the street from Knott’s—you can even see rollercoasters from the restaurant windows.
Using her own life savings and some help from family and friends, Hanneman designed, painted, tiled, wallpapered, and feng shui-ed the entire 2,000-square-foot space, just so she could eventually cook in it. “I gave up a lucrative career to build my dream, and now it’s a reality,” she says. “That’s magic right there.”
Most of the decor—which Hanneman repainted and reupholstered herself—comes from antique shops and swap meets. The bar was found in a thrift store, and a distressed door from Israel divides the host area from the rest of the restaurant. The witchy details are surprisingly subtle—not including the bookcase that opens up to a secret room. There's a hand-painted table with a pendulum-style lamp overhead, but no spirit boards. "I tried to stay away from ouija boards and stuff like that,” Hanneman says. “I don't use them myself, because I don't want to conjure anything."
Speaking of conjuring, Hanneman learned to cook because her mom couldn't. When eating out, she found herself wondering how she could recreate and maybe even improve upon different menu items. Then she’d try out her dishes on friends and family at dinner parties and holiday gatherings. But the self-taught chef soon discovered there's a huge difference between cooking for herself and cooking for loved ones. Now she’s learning what it’s like to cook for strangers, too.
The Cauldron serves up local craft beer, California wine, and "specialty potions” like the Grey Witch (French75 with a hint of violette.) The gastropub-style menu features the chef’s personal interpretations of classic bar-food staples, such as house-made bacon jam, croque monsieur sliders, and prosciutto-wrapped shrimp.
More than just serving up tasty food and a fun ambience, however, this witch-themed restaurant could become an opportunity to subtly educate the community on Wicca, like Hanneman’s friend's mom who was first afraid to visit, but then changed her mind as soon as she experienced The Cauldron’s warm, welcoming vibe. "I've always believed in magic in the sense of positive thinking and putting your energy into things, and feeling energy and healing,” Hanneman explains. “I'm not apologizing for who I am and what I'm doing, but I'm also not here to say, 'Witches unite and let's get naked!'"
So how does one become a witch, exactly? "I don’t believe you become or convert to being a witch, you just are. Wicca to me is accepting of everyone’s spiritual place in the universe and what they believe in. The key is to respect each other’s beliefs, not condemn people for thinking differently.” For Hanneman, that includes creating a safe space for all people to just relax and have fun.
“Themed environments are what I do, but entertaining is the reason. Creating an environment that people would feel comfortable in was the main goal. So the theme came from what I find cozy and familiar: A small, European tavern filled with eclectic antiquities and inviting dim lighting. The witch theme was an added twist that made it more fun and a little odd, and frankly, more me.”
The Cauldron Spirits + Brews, 8028 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, CA, 714-484-2733