A little more than a year ago, David Myers, Sona's ambitious, photogenic chef-owner, was at the helm of an empire. It included not only his flagship Michelin one-star restaurant but also modern brasserie Comme Ça, a small chain of Boule pastry shops, a commercial baking operation and Italian restaurant Pizzeria Ortica, with more on the way.
But with the announced closing of Sona, only Comme Ça and Pizzeria Ortica will remain, and those only with new chefs and new management after a round of firings and departures.
Apparently, there have been some cracks in the House of Myers. In September, Myers' Swiss partners pulled out of the business, and Sona filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors. A settlement with a lender forced the sale of assets, including much of the restaurant's million-dollar wine inventory. And in March, Myers announced that Sona, where a fashionable crowd could indulge in nine-course tasting menus and plenty of Bordeaux, would close its doors.
Few have had the outsize aspirations of the 36-year-old chef from Cincinnati who worked for luminaries such as Charlie Trotter in Chicago and Daniel Boulud in New York before landing in Los Angeles. He has youthful looks, wavy brown hair and a penchant for surfing, and proved to be a promising chef with a gift for making splashy promises.
He maintains that he will reopen Sona in a new location in 2011. A second Comme Ça is slated for the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel, which is still under construction. He also has his sights set on Tokyo. "We have a new opportunity," he said. "Companies evolve, restaurants evolve."
Though the recession of the last couple of years has left many restaurateurs in financial straits, Myers denies that Sona's closure is related to the economy. So what happened?
The problems that caught up with Sona offer a glimpse into a restaurant business that increasingly requires a chef to be more than a creative cook with big ideas.
"David Myers is a great creative person … and we really appreciated that to the very end," said Otto Schmid, who helped form Sona's former managing company, FoodArt Ventures Inc., with his son Basil Schmid and Myers. "But his way of managing companies, managing people and accepting cost controls needs some further development."
But the implosion of Sona is probably far more complicated. "David, Basil and Otto all bought into their own press releases," said Michael Morris, FoodArt's former president of construction and development. Morris claims in a lawsuit against FoodArt, filed in L.A. Superior Court, that he is owed more than $300,000 for construction-related expenses. Neither Otto nor Basil Schmid nor Myers were available to comment.
When Sona opened in 2002, the restaurant was considered groundbreaking. He and his then-wife, pastry chef Michelle Myers, were a culinary "it" couple. They'd met "over gnocchi," as the story goes, while he was a sous chef and she a pastry chef at Joachim Splichal's restaurant Patina.
Together, they wowed the critics with their food. "As other young chefs turn out easy-to-cook, easy-to-please American comfort food, David and Michelle Myers are taking chances," Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila wrote in her review. "When their intricate, cerebral cuisine works, eating at Sona is one of the most exciting dining experiences in the city."
Food & Wine magazine gave Myers a coveted "Best New Chef" award for 2003, dubbing him "one of the most talented young chefs in America."
In 2004, Michelle opened Boule across the street from Sona, replete with pristine chocolates, pâtes de fruits, macarons and blue-green packaging that evoked the brand stature of Tiffany.
In the last few years, Myers expanded at a head-turning pace. Even after he filed for divorce from Michelle in 2007 and she was noticeably absent from the day-to-day operations, he moved Boule into a bigger space in October that year and called it Boule Atelier, with the addition of a bread baker from Japan determined "to change American bread culture."
Comme Ça opened the same month, again to rave reviews and big crowds. A smaller Boule store opened in Beverly Hills that December. The following spring, he announced another Comme Ça near South Coast Plaza, though that never materialized. But in January 2009, Pizzeria Ortica debuted in Costa Mesa.
Each opening seemed to prove Myers had tapped into some kind of dining gestalt. Los Angeles had never seen a bakery like Boule, which was more Rue Saint-Honoré than La Cienega Boulevard. Comme Ça was the first of a wave of bistro-inspired restaurants that washed over L.A. And its notable cocktail program was at the forefront of the arrival of the "cocktail revolution."