The names snake off the page, scrawled in the margins, crossed out, written in again, as I come across scraps of paper where I've scribbled an address or phone number, real or rumored. For the first time in years, I can't keep up with all the alluring restaurants opening. Neither can anybody else. Suddenly everybody -- my dentist, my mechanic, the postman, the bookstore clerk, the piano tuner -- wants to talk restaurants.
Giddy with possibilities, L.A.'s restaurant scene is sparkling with an effervescence we haven't seen since the mid '80s when Citrus, Spago, Michael's, Max au Triangle, St. Estephe, City Restaurant and Trumps were showing the rest of the country how it's done. Those were the days when Wolfgang Puck put casual and gourmet in the same sentence at Spago and Michael McCarty parried with his crew of irreverent young Turks at Michael's. There was no going back. Or so it seemed. But that delicious moment when each new restaurant tried to trump the next with daring design and even bolder dishes was almost 20 years ago, I hate to say.
L.A. was riding high. And then suddenly it wasn't.
Once the economy slipped its gears into reverse, many of the brave new places weren't deeply rooted enough to hold on. Then came a long dry spell when restaurateurs got conservative and innovation took a nap. Not so long ago I used to scramble to find a new -- any new -- restaurant worth celebrating. Some months -- and even some entire years -- the pickings were embarrassingly slim.
What a difference now. While New York and San Francisco languish, with few new exciting restaurants this year, the Los Angeles dining scene is alive and well. It's hard to pinpoint when the sea change came. It might have been when Gino Angelini caught the city's imagination with his casual, authentic Italian cooking at Angelini Osteria or when Alain Giraud debuted his sensational Provencal-California cuisine at Bastide a year later. But the restaurant scene has been picking up momentum for at least the last couple of years: 2002 brought us A.O.C., Alex, Jar, Paladar, Bistro Em, Nishimura and Sona, among others. Through most of the '90s, that might have been three years' worth of worthy restaurants.
This year, the pace has picked up even more. The renewal of Patina, which had been sleeping on its laurels while Joachim Splichal concentrated on his ever-growing restaurant empire, is nothing short of astonishing. Just last week it pulled up stakes and moved into the new Walt Disney Concert Hall with a new chef and a new sommelier. And four days into a completely new menu, a dinner there outshone every other meal I've ever had at Patina. The setting is spectacular, and at 10 p.m., when everyone poured into the room after the concert, the atmosphere was electric. This is a bona fide late-night restaurant. And in downtown L.A.
Farther west, you'd have to be blind not to notice all the new places cropping up on Beverly Boulevard, West 3rd Street, Melrose Avenue, and Sunset and Hollywood boulevards like mushrooms after a deep rain -- Table 8, Grace, Opaline, Citrine, Dolce, Cinch and a long string of others.
Against all odds, which may or may not include the economy, war, the state of politics and raging firestorms, L.A. is back. There's a new generation of chefs breaking out, and they didn't come from nowhere. Some have worked all over town, waiting for the right moment and the right space to launch the restaurant they've been designing in their minds for years. In an uncertain economy, most stayed put, but now that the pressure is gradually lifting, it's time to move. As money has come out of the stock market, some investors are looking to restaurants. The usual backers have been joined by some younger investors intrigued by being part of something so creative and glamorous.
The restaurant scene is spreading too, beyond West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, to Los Feliz, Silver Lake, the Fairfax District, even Playa del Rey where rents are more affordable. It's bubbling up in far-flung corners of the city. Restaurant row is a thing of the past. And so is the dominance of French cuisine at the best tables. The food is all over the map as more chefs travel and study all over the globe. Dishes inspired by street food in Singapore or Umbria, Indian spices, Australian fusion or the extraterrestrial cuisine of Spain's explorer-chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli are popping up on menus all over town. The mood is experimental, the atmosphere urban and casual. L.A. is busy forging a new sort of restaurant scene, eclectic enough to defy easy categorization. The wow factor is less than it was in the mid-'80s. Diners today are more sophisticated, more sure of their own tastes.
That generalizing is difficult may be the most encouraging sign. At Sona, David and Michelle Myers, both Patina alums, are proposing intricate tasting menus in a chic, minimalist setting. Chloe in Playa del Rey is a little neighborhood place where two young chefs decided to go it on their own, with a short, seasonal menu and plenty of heart. With Grace, Neal Fraser has created a stylish contemporary bistro where a young Hollywood crowd is discovering his brand of contemporary cooking.
Restaurants are changing the way we eat too. In the newer places, it's less about the autocratic chef who insists on showing you what he can do to the tune of 20 courses, and more about the way you want to eat. Part of the strategy of catering to a younger diner is a more flexible format where prix fixe coexists with a la carte. Food at the bar has gotten more extensive and more appealing. And many restaurants are pushing little dishes to share as opposed to full-featured tasting menus. You can eat early. You can eat late. You can eat in the lounge. And meanwhile the bar is making out like a bandit with pricy cocktails and tempting snacks -- everything from homemade potato chips and miniature pizzas to baby lamb chops, spaghetti carbonara and astute cheese plates.
Waiting in the bar for a table, it's easy to strike up a conversation. Some places feature communal tables. And taking a note from sushi bars, many have a convivial counter where lone diners can eat happily. In fact, A.O.C.'s eight-seat charcuterie bar is the hottest place in town. If seclusion is preferred, at Firefly in Studio City or Oasis on La Brea Avenue, the choice tables are a handful of capacious booths draped in muslin or chain mail that give the illusion of privacy.
After years of dull restaurant design, restaurateurs are finally realizing what an asset an exciting room can be. It may be even more important in a city like L.A. where location isn't everything, but ambience is. If a restaurant can make you forget that Domino's pizza is across the street, and HoneyBaked Ham is next door, it's a big plus. You no longer feel like you're sitting in just another restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, but somewhere alluring and sophisticated. Going out to eat becomes, once more, an event.
The best cooks of the new generation are creating restaurants that are very personal. Not everybody is going for haute. Some exceptionally talented chefs are opening restaurants that are serious, but not stiff, the kind of places where they themselves would like to hang out.
At Table 8 in a sleazy section of Melrose Avenue, beneath a body-piercing parlor, Govind Armstrong is making a statement with his smart, seasonal menu based on whatever he finds at the farmers market. At Santa Monica's Rocca, Don Dickman is cooking gutsy, regional Italian food in a low-key setting. I'd add Christian Shaffer and Jeff Osaka of Chloe to this short list, too.
Orange County's talented Tim Goodell came up with Red Pearl Kitchen, a quirky Asian boite in Huntington Beach. Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne of Lucques broke out with A.O.C., a chic wine and cheese bar with a resident charcutier and 50 eclectic wines by the glass. At Amuse Cafe in Venice, Brooke Williamson and partner Nick Roberts are turning out appealing casual food from a funky house painted egg-yolk yellow. Then there's Clementine from Annie Miler, a beguiling little cafe with terrific morning pastries and sandwiches, not to mention her world-class cookies. Joan's on Third takes the art of the sandwich just as seriously. Even Celestino Drago is getting into the act with an Italian wine bar in the works called Enoteca Drago.
Of course, we'll always have places that are more scene than anything else, but in an astonishing development, some of them are stepping up to the plate as well with food that's much better than it needs to be. The prime example is Paladar, a Cuban bistro next door to the club Nacional, where Joseph Herrera does a delicious modern turn on Cuban food. The Euro-Asian menu at White Lotus in Hollywood is quite respectable too, but the updated continental fare at the Falls on the Sunset Strip may be the best of the lot.
A new breed
The fierce competition is nudging veteran restaurateurs to rethink or at least renovate the old standbys. In recent months we've seen an unprecedented changing of the guard. Eric Klein, fresh from Spago's kitchen, is re-energizing Maple Drive with his sensitive French-California cooking. Le Dome has a new look (Gothic meets post-modern log cabin), a new chef and a new menu. And just before moving to New York, sushi master Masa Takayama passed the mantle to his younger co-worker Hiro Urasawa, who renamed the minuscule Ginza-Sushiko "Urasawa." When Valentino's longtime chef, Angelo Auriana, left recently, owner Piero Selvaggio replaced him with a triumvirate of chefs -- one American, two Italians.
What's exciting is that dining in L.A. has gotten better at every level -- from Cheebo, the new Hollywood pizza place with pies by the yard, all the way up to exclusive hotel dining rooms. While most of the interesting new hotel restaurants seem to have come from boutique establishments, Noe, where seasoned chef Robert Gadsby has created a sophisticated French-Asian restaurant in the monolithic Omni Los Angeles Hotel downtown, is the exception. The Grafton on Sunset can boast Balboa, a wildly with-it steakhouse where you can feast on a prime New York cut aged 40 days. The Viceroy in Santa Monica made a big splash with Whist, a modern American restaurant from Aubergine's Tim Goodell, but lately it's faltered and now the chef has left. But the Crescent in Beverly Hills has bet on the small-dish craze with its eclectic restaurant, Boe. And the elegant Raffles L'Ermitage has retooled its Writer's Bar to offer chef Bruno Lopez's polished little dishes.
Where to eat becomes a delightful dilemma. But there's more to come:
A Sunset Strip restaurant from Miami's Norman Van Aken in the spring, plus a new, slightly more upscale restaurant from Gino Angelini on West Third.
How did we get so lucky?
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Addresses of the moment
Suddenly L.A. is filled with compelling new restaurants and classics that have reinvented themselves in surprising ways. Here are some of the most exciting places right now:
Amuse Cafe, 796 Main St., Venice; (310) 450-1956. Entrees, $13 to $18.
Angelini Osteria, 7313 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 297-0070. Entrees, $20 to $34.
A.O.C., 8022 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 653-6359. Small plates, $6 to $13.
Balboa, the Grafton Hotel, 8462 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 650-8383. Entrees, $16 to $39.
Bastide, 8475 Melrose Place, West Hollywood; (323) 651-5950. Prix fixe five-course traditional menu, $80 per person; seven-course seasonal menu, $90; nine-course Bastide menu, $100.
Chloe, 333 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey; (310) 305-4505. Entrees, $18 to $27.
Cinch Restaurant, 1519 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 395-4139. Entrees, $8 to $24.
Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave., Los Angeles; (310) 552-1080. Sandwiches, $7.25 to $9.25.
Dolce Enoteca e Ristorante, 8284 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; (323) 852-7174. Entrees, $24 to $36.
EM Bistro, 8256 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 658-6004. Entrees, $14 to $29.
Falcon, 7213 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 850-5350. Entrees, $13 to $28.
Firefly, 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 762-1833. Entrees, $13 to $24.
Grace, 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 934-4400. Entrees, $16 to $30.
Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Center; (323) 655-6566. Entrees, $18 to $30.
Joan's on Third, 8350 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 655-2285. Sandwiches, $7.95 to $9.95.
Le Dome, 8720 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 659-6919. Entrees, $22 to $60.
Maple Drive, 345 N. Maple Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 274-9800. Entrees, $15 to $31.
Noe, Omni Los Angeles Hotel, 251 S. Olive St., Los Angeles; (213) 356-4100. Entrees, $18 to $32; six-course tasting menu, $65; nine-course tasting menu, $95.
Opaline, 7450 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 857-6725. Entrees, $16 to $28.
Paladar, 1651 Wilcox Ave., Hollywood; (323) 465-7500. Entrees, $16 to $23.
Patina, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 141 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 972-3331. Entrees, $30 to $40. Chef's table, $100 per person; four-course early seating, $85; ocean menu, $85.
Rocca, 1432-A 4th St., Santa Monica; (310) 395-6765. Entrees, $11 to $19.
Sona, 401 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 659-7708. Entrees, $20 to $36; six-course tasting menu, $69; nine-course menu spontane, $99.
Table 8, 7661 Melrose Ave., Hollywood; (323) 782-8258. Entrees, $18 to $27.
Urasawa, 218 Via Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 247-8939. Minimum $250 per person. Reservations required.
Valentino, 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 829-4313. Entrees, $18 to $34; chef's tasting menu, $85.