Don't get Piero Selvaggio started on the growing number of restaurants in this city--the owner of Valentino and Primi has had enough.
"There's such an exaggeration of restaurants, an incredible explosion of confusion . . . an overabundance of nothing ," he says. "I think we should start talking about a moratorium on restaurants."
And yet, Selvaggio is in the process of adding to the cacophony: he's opening a third restaurant of his own.
So are a lot of other people. Figures from the California Restaurant Assn. show that 19,015 food sales and use permits were granted in Los Angeles County in 1988 (including a small percentage of institutional cafeterias)--that's up from 18,606 in 1987 and 15,719 in 1980.
This week alone there was the unveiling of St. Marks in Venice, serving equal parts California/eclectic cuisine and live jazz (Billy Preston played opening night); the opening of the PCH Bar & Grill on the former site of Les Anges; the reopening of Santa Monica's Cafe Montana, still on Montana Avenue, but a few doors down from its original location; and the reopening of da Pasquale in Beverly Hills, which closed for two weeks while the restaurant's counter seating was removed and tables added. ("I found out that people in Beverly Hills don't want to have dinner at a counter," said chef/owner Pasquale Mora.)
Monday, Angeli Mare, the third Angeli restaurant in the L.A. area, opens in Marina del Rey. And looking ahead to restaurants in the works, it seems that Selvaggio's longed-for moratorium won't come any time soon.
A survey of L.A.'s established restaurateurs revealed more than 30 major projects due for completion within a year. Selvaggio, Wolfgang Puck, Michel Richard, John Sedlar, Bruce Marder, and Mario Tamayo are a few of the major restaurant personalities taking the plunge . . . again. What follows is a selective summary of those projects.
(One warning: Projected opening dates, especially long-range estimates, should be noted with caution. A restaurant almost never opens when it originally says it will.)
Angeli Mare: This is how things have settled in the Angeli empire: Angeli Caffe, the original Angeli, is small, mostly limits itself to pizza-and-pasta basics and is jam-packed every night. Trattoria Angeli, just 2 years old, is the showcase restaurant--it's where chef/co-owner Evan Kleiman is likely to do her experimenting; more specialized regional Italian specialties show up on the menu. Angeli Mare, set to open to the public Monday night, fits somewhere in between the Caffe and the Trat . . . at least that's co-owner John Strobel's pre-opening prediction. In size, it competes with the Trattoria, while its menu will tend to stick to the basics, like the Caffe. But the Mare does have a couple of things that its sister restaurants don't--a full bar for one thing (it is in the Marina) and lots of fish (" mare " means "fish" in Italian). "There's going to be fresh oysters and tuna carpaccio . And we've stolen the calamari from the Caffe and brought it here," Strobel says. Projected opening: Monday.
Atlas Bar & Grill: When Mario Tamayo opened Cha Cha Cha and then Cafe Mambo, the young and the trendy flocked to his intimate, brightly painted Latin/Caribbean hot spots and made him a restaurant star. Now he's about to launch his long-awaited supper club, the Atlas Bar & Grill located in the Wiltern complex space recently vacated by L.A. Ole. This is the big time for Tamayo, who thus far has succeeded with tiny, creative places that seem to run on raw energy. The Atlas, however--as its name implies--is huge and will include a stage for live performances. Taking care of the kitchen is Victoria Granof (a veteran of among others, Trumps, City and Angeli--"you know, the circuit," she says). There will be a few familiar dishes from the Cha Cha Cha/Mambo menus, but Granof plans on reaching for ethnic influences far beyond the Caribbean . . . Thailand and Korea, for instance. "The menu's still evolving," Granof says. "I just discovered we have a smoker here so I think we're going to do a lot of smoked seafood and cheese and maybe Chinese bacon." She's also got a repertoire of Yucatan specialties. And what does she call such culinary globe-trotting? Why, "International Bistro Food," of course. Projected opening: late November.
Authentic Cafe: Waiting crowds have been a fixture at the Authentic from the day it opened its doors 18 months ago. Expansion was inevitable. Its food is of the Southwestern/eclectic ilk which became so popular two years ago and is still going strong. Now the restaurant is about to spread into the adjoining space which used to be a butcher shop run by the father of Authentic owner Roger Hayot. A wood-burning grill has been added and there will be more vegetarian items offered. But that's not all. A second restaurant, in yet another adjoining space is in the works. So far, breakfast seems to be the concept ("There's a big call for it in the area," says general manager Joel Kessel), but that might change. Expansion due for completion November 1. Projected opening of the Authentic's second unnamed restaurant: January/February.
Bice: When the Milan-based Bice opened a branch in New York, it was instantly one of that city's busiest restaurants. Earlier this year, the Bice group opened the casual Bice Pomodoro on La Cienega, which turned out to be a watered-down version of the original Bice concept. A few weeks from now, L.A. will have a more representative version of Bice to evaluate. More serious (and more expensive) than Pomodoro, the new Beverly Hills restaurant, designed by Adam Tihany, will feature extravagant Italian cooking (expect truffles) and--unlike Pomodoro--no pizza. Projected opening: mid-November.
Bikini: It's not that John Sedlar's food isn't fun--his Southwest inventions are clever and witty and, more important, they work . But his restaurant, St. Estephe, has always been considered a serious place, a kind of revered temple of food. (It was the first place in the country to serve haute Southwestern.) Now, it seems, Sedlar wants to loosen up. He and longtime partner Steve Garcia are hard at work on Bikini, a two-story showcase, more casual than St. Estephe, where Sedlar will serve what he calls a "multicultural" menu. Asked just what cultures he might be influenced by, Sedlar rattles off not just the usual Chinese-Japanese-French response, but squeezes in Bulgarian, Hungarian, Czech, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Thai, Mexican, even Singapore is not neglected. Keeping the peace among the nations, Sedlar says, will be strict French discipline. Projected opening: Early summer.
Bistro Garden: The power lunch . . . "doing" lunch . . . Ladies who Lunch. All of these social eating phenomena were practiced and perfected at the Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills long before they became throw-away cliches. Soon there will be a Bistro Garden annex . . . in Studio City. "I think we're in the position to capture the creme de la creme of this community," says Christopher Niklas, son of the Bistro and Bistro Garden founder Kurt Niklas. "We're at what I consider the gateway to West Los Angeles. It's where the San Fernando Valley meets the hub of where our normal business might be." Niklas' hub--the corner of Coldwater Canyon and Ventura Boulevard--also happens to be practically across the street from La Serre, considered the Valley's most serious restaurant (and potentially, Niklas' greatest competition). As the anchor of a brand-new shopping complex named after the restaurant, the new Bistro Garden will be hard to miss. And what will it look like? "We're doing a Bistro Garden theme but we'll also capture pieces of the original (Bistro)," Niklas says. He feels the key words are brasserie . . . French . . . and elegance--"while maintaining an open airiness," he says. "It will have the light, bright and casual feeling of a winter garden." That means, unlike the original Garden, this garden will be indoors. Projected opening: November.
Border Grill: When Mary Sue Miliken and Susan Feniger got fed up with the tiny size of the kitchen at their City Cafe on Melrose, they did the logical thing and opened a warehouse-sized restaurant (City on La Brea) and turned the Cafe into the Border Grill. But as City became more and more successful, the Border Grill kitchen remained the same frustrating size (one four-burner stove seems to hog all the room). "It's hard because we've gone to Mexico every year, or year and a half since the Border Grill opened," Miliken says, "but there's never really been space to cook a lot of what we've learned. I mean, when there's only one stove you can't make your own tortillas." That all changes at the beginning of the year when Feniger and Miliken open a second Border Grill in Santa Monica. (See Restaurant Notebook, page 106.) It's going into the huge space left vacant by the City of Angels Brewing Co., a restaurant that the City pair consulted for when it first opened. "Right now, we're changing the front to look like us," Feniger says. Architect Josh Schweitzer, who designed City and Campanile, is City-fying the space. Meanwhile, Feniger and Miliken are working on their tortilla-patting technique. Projected opening: late January.
Broadway Deli: Not merely deli, but international deli. That means Italian roasted peppers along with pastrami on rye, French Armagnac beside the cream sodas. Two huge wood-burning ovens and a rotisserie are being installed, and bread will be baked fresh daily. The idea is to create the sort of intense food shopping/eating environment that the legendary Balducci's provides for New York's food obsessed. The Santa Monica deli will even try to run on New York hours--it will be open from 6 a.m. until 2 in the morning--and lingering will be encouraged. Restaurateurs Michel Richard, Bruce Marder and frequent restaurant investor/hungry man Marvin Zeidler are the guiding partners behind the deli. Projected opening: March/April.
Chapman Market: From restoration czar Wayne Ratkovich, the man who saved the Wiltern, comes the Chapman Market. The Spanish Colonial Revival building, erected in 1929, is said to have been Los Angeles' first drive-in grocery store. If all goes according to plan, it will be a drive-in market again. This time, however, the Wilshire district market will be surrounded by several ethnic restaurants, including Coley's Kitchen (Jamaican), the Clay Pit (Indian), Farfalla (Italian) and the Danish Pastry, which is due to open ahead of the others at the end of this month. Still to be determined is the restaurant that will fill the anchor spot. Until two weeks ago, Rondo owner Graciella Checchini was set to open D.F., a haute Mexican restaurant, in the space, but she had to pull out of the venture. Projected opening: late January/February.
Chaya Venice: Chaya Brasserie, near the outskirts of Beverly Hills, is the sort of reliable restaurant that socialites feeling slightly naughty and agents letting off steam go to when they need a safe dose of hip. (A Japanese-influenced menu and a super stylish staff are the key exotic elements.) Now the formula moves west with Chaya Venice. Located on Main Street near Rose, the new Chaya will be similar, but not identical to the Brasserie. A separate sashimi-and-oyster bar is planned, and a vodka bar--actually, a larger-than-usual selection of specialty vodkas--will be incorporated into the regular bar. Perestroika , ho! Projected opening: December/January.
Eureka: When Wolfgang Puck first signed on to the Eureka brewery/restaurant project, he didn't expect to get all that involved in the venture--mostly, he said at the time, his name was being used to help raise money. But now that it's nearing completion, it seems that a great deal of Puck energy has gone into the Santa Monica brewpub. Puck's wife, Barbara Lazaroff, designed the interior, and Puck has tailored several menu items especially for Eureka (lots of sausage and salami made in-house, Thai-style sates , salads and, like Spago, pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven). The dining room is set in the middle of the brewery, which will produce the Los Angeles Brewing Company's Eureka California Lager (it should be available this month). Projected opening: December.
Noa Noa: Nouvelle Polynesian was the original concept for Noa Noa in Beverly Hills. "We researched the food in Tahiti and did a lot of experimenting," owner Kenji Seki says. "But the results were too weird . . . new doesn't necessarily mean good, right?" Now Seki uses words like simple and fresh and light to describe the food chefs Ralf Marhenke and Alex Couly are planning to serve. (Chef Masayuki Ishikawa, who used to run Ishi's Grill, worked with Seki for 14 months, but is no longer involved in the project.) But while the kitchen may have been tamed, the dining room is as devoted to the Polynesian theme as ever. Steel palm trees, lighted onyx posts and a ceiling full of painted clouds are some of the elements of the Larry Tota design. As one person described it, Noa Noa is what Gauguin might have come up with if he were alive and working as an architect. Projected opening: November/December.
Primi: At Valentino, Italian cuisine is presented at its most extravagant. Its sister restaurant, Primi, sticks to simpler food: only primi piatti , or appetizers, are served (soups, salads, pastas, antipasti). Next year, a second Primi opens with a concept owner Piero Selvaggio calls "Primi revisited." "We have new ideas about primi piatti ," Selvaggio says. "This would include small versions of main courses--you know, smaller pieces of meat." He also mentions frittatas and "quick-result" meals, food that could be served almost as soon as customers are seated. The location is still being negotiated, though Selvaggio is saying he wants to open in L.A.'s downtown area. He also hopes to install a third Primi in Newport Beach. Projected opening: 1990.
Red Car Grill: Back when the city of West Hollywood was known as Sherman, the site of the legendary (and now demolished) Tropicana Hotel held a Red Car railyard (the Sherman line came to an end there). By summer, the Santa Monica Boulevard location will be home to the Red Car Grill, the second restaurant from the people who opened downtown's Engine Co. No. 28 (a firehouse-turned-restaurant). The design by Pat Kuleto (Postrio) will have a Red Car motif, and the food will be similar to the American grill cooking served at Engine Co. No. 28--no recipes from firemen, though. Projected opening: early June.
Remi L.A.: "A classic restaurant is a restaurant first and a social club after . . . In Italy, people don't go to restaurants to admire the architecture or the owner's art collection." What Remi L.A. general partner Jivan Tabibian is trying to say is that the West Coast version of New York's Remi (it's on Third and Broadway in Santa Monica) will emphasize cuisine over scene. "It will be a clearly understated room," he says. But it's hard to believe that Remi's architecture will really be overlooked . . . Adam Tihany--he's to New York restaurant design what David Hockney is to L.A. art--is both the restaurant's architect and a partner in the project. Indeed, the New York Remi has a rep for being loud, busy and trendy . . . a scene. It's also known for its excellent food: Italian, with heavy emphasis on Venetian specialties. The food at Remi L.A. should be similar; chef/co-owner Francesco Antonucci is heading West to take charge of the project. One thing to look for is Antonucci's goose carpaccio served with dark bread and drizzled with walnut oil. And, according to Tabibian, Remi L.A. will serve more Venetian cooking than its predecessor. "What Venice seems to have initiated," he says, "is not too far from California preferences." Projected opening: January/February.
Speedway, Ltd.: Bruce Marder (see also Broadway Deli) seems to be taking the 4-Day Tire Store approach with his latest project. Speedway, Ltd. will only be open for dinner Wednesdays through Sundays, and the Italian family-style menu will be, as the name implies, limited. "The place has to be kind of camp if it's is going to work," Marder says. "I don't want it to be too chi chi or spiffy." Marder is depending on artist Chuck Arnoldi (he designed the interior of Marder's DC 3) to carry out his vision. Projected opening: Spring, 1989.
Truffles: Last year, Elmer Azuma was cooking French-Japanese food in a tiny one-time sushi bar on First Street, a couple of miles from downtown (C'est Fan Fan currently occupies the space). His place was called Chabuya and it was nearly always packed. (He also was the original chef at Cafe Katsu and has cooked at Petite Chaya, the Bel Age and several restaurants in France.) But with only a single counter and no tables, there was no room to hold the growing number of customers. The roomier Truffles is the result. It's in a seemingly risky location, however--the third floor of a 10-story tower in the Trident-Holden Center on Olympic, west of Sawtelle in West L.A. Projected opening: late November.
Still in the works is Ken Frank's Fenix--a more casual, less pricey version of his La Toque restaurant, that will remain open until construction begins on the new place. . . . Further down the line, restaurateur Mauro Vincenti (Rex, Pazzia, Fennel) is plotting a new restaurant that he is tentatively calling Brasseria. . . . Meanwhile, Michael McCarty's Santa Monica beach hotel project is still planned for 1991, though McCarty is in New York opening the hotly anticipated branch of Michael's. . . . And the word on the street is that Len Allison of the widely acclaimed Hubert's in New York was in town last week to scout locations for a new West Coast project. Adam Tihany, who designed the New York Hubert's (and is becoming an L.A. restaurant-world regular--see Bice and Remi) is also expected to be involved.