THE lights are low, it's three deep at the bar and DJ Sami Rayman is spinning Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" for a good-lifer crowd that's tucking into filet mignon au poivre and roasted prawns on a Sunday night at Citizen Smith in Hollywood. By the time the desserts come out, so has the cheesecake -- a wavy-haired brunet in pink panties and black corset shaking her hips in a burlesque performance accompanied by the Miles Mosley jazz band.
DJs, burlesque shows, live bands, dancing, drinking games, after-parties. In the last few months, L.A. has seen an explosion of restaurant-slash-clubs. Just in time for New Year's Eve, restaurants are offering almost any kind of night-life experience you want, competing with not just other restaurants and bars but new ultra-lounges such as Hyde Lounge and Les Deux Cafe and clubs such as Area or Shag.
With rare and notable exceptions, the latest spate of openings are restaurant-lounges, with multiple dining areas, bars and some combination of low-slung sofas, dance floors, cigar rooms, game rooms, VIP rooms and coed bathrooms. Instead of seating 40 or 50, some can easily seat four or five times as many. Newly opened J Restaurant & Lounge downtown has expansive patios with cabanas and a fire pit, several VIP areas and a 300-person-capacity dance floor with a set of JBL subwoofers that can shake the entire place.
Swanky Blue Velvet, also downtown, opened this month, with a poolside view, a weekend DJ and a 17-foot granite communal table built low to the floor with pillow seating.
Eleven, a restaurant from "H.R. Pufnstuf" and "Land of the Lost" creator Sid Krofft and gym owner Richard Grossi, is expected to open next month in West Hollywood, complete with tables that can be hydraulically lowered with the push of a button to transform the 6,000-square-foot space into a lounge.
"With anything you open in this town," Krofft says, "it's all about show business." He waxes poetic about stage performances that will occur every 15 minutes and the prospect of a violinist who wanders through the restaurant and coed bathrooms.
Attention to menus
AND the food? If "scene over cuisine" is the widely held perception of restaurant-lounges, at least some of the latest are taking food seriously and not focused solely on burgers and tuna tartare.
"We're serious about the restaurant," Grossi says. He and Krofft have hired as executive chef Vincent Manna, formerly of Spago, Melisse and Maple Drive.
From the kitchen at Blue Velvet, whose executive chef Kris Morningstar is an alumnus of Patina and Meson G, comes hamachi with marinated eggplant, hon shimeji mushrooms, garlic chips and blood orange; duck confit salad with roasted pumpkin and a sunny-side-up egg; and loin of venison with turnip gnocchi, glazed apples and bacon onion puree.
At J Restaurant & Lounge, executive chef and general manager Ryan McKay, formerly of L'Orangerie, has slow-roasted Alaskan halibut with artichoke confit and Champagne emulsion, and braised lamb shank with saffron couscous and crispy artichokes on the menu.
"It's really reflective of a lifestyle shift," says restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau, who is helping to open the Penthouse, a restaurant-lounge set to debut in February in the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica. "There are many people of all ages that are not looking to go to a club but they're not looking to just go out to dinner, so a restaurant and lounge gives you the option of creating a whole night out. It expands the whole dining experience. It's not just let's get in there, eat, then go to a movie."
For restaurant owners, there are obvious benefits to getting people to stay after dinner and spend $15 apiece for mojitos or $20 apiece for Champagne cocktails.
For diners, it means not having to drive across town to go from a restaurant to another bar or club. "I'm not a club-hopper. What's appealing is that you can have it all in one venue without having to get in the car and think about, 'Where should we go next?' And then have to valet again, and stand in line," says Karen Lowe, a global account executive for Nissan and Infiniti, who adds that she likes to take out-of-towners and clients to Social Hollywood, Citizen Smith or Republic to "get a taste of the L.A. scene."
The term "lounge" ("lounge-y" also has entered the vernacular) is used loosely; for some restaurateurs, the definition seems to be moving closer to nightclub, but others spin it as something more intimate.
"I'm all about the lounge," says Table 8 executive chef Govind Armstrong. "It's a fun environment to be in, not as stuffy. You can yell and scream and have a good ol' time without any frowns from the table next to you."
To that end, Table 8 in Los Angeles is undergoing a renovation headed by designer Thomas Schoos, who also designed Citizen Smith. The restaurant is expected to reopen in January with an expanded lounge area. Armstrong also just opened Table 8 in Miami with a 150-seat lounge and 60-seat dining area; his idea of a lounge includes custom music, comfortable seating, bottle service and a menu that includes grilled cheese with pulled short rib and onion marmalade, fried olives stuffed with spicy lamb sausage, Scotch quail eggs and truffled Gruyere fondue.
Not always pretty
"I think people in L.A. who go out to dine are looking for an experience that is all-encompassing," says Robert Hartstein, managing partner at Blue Velvet. "I think the challenge is ultimately having the guest experience be a positive one ... with a combination of good ambience, food and service."
Not necessarily in that order. But when dining and the urge to party come up against each other, it isn't always pretty.
In fact, club land is fraught with the annoying: not enough light to read a menu, or "Smack That," the mid-October hit that has survived too far into December, playing so loud that you can't hear anyone but the person sitting next to you. (OK, we all secretly like the lyric "Maybe go to my place and just kick it like Tae Bo.")
On a recent visit to Citizen Smith, I looked up from my plate and saw not the smile on my server's face but the embroidery on the back pocket of a pair of Seven jeans. At Aqua Restaurant and Lounge, a newish Beverly Hills hot spot, I was halfway through my salmon with ponzu sauce when I stood briefly to get a better of view of the burlesque dancers onstage. I turned back around and someone was standing in my chair.
But at least some of the restaurateurs have an impulse to create a seamless experience for diners. At Bridge and Citizen Smith, I was surprised that the servers came over numerous times to make sure we were comfortable.
"At least 15 minutes before the girls go up, people have an idea that this is going to take place," Citizen Smith general manager David Osokow says of the weekly burlesque show. "I make sure people are aware of it. Otherwise, it could get dicey."
It might get dicey anyway. If you're sitting at a table at the end of the bar, you're one dance move away from a high heel in your eye. Such are the hazards of night life.
Pick a scene
MEANWHILE, restaurateurs with sprawling, elaborate venues have teamed with an ever-changing roster of DJs and promoters so that on any night of the week, diners can tap into a different scene: DJs are at Bridge on Friday and Saturday nights and downstairs at Social Hollywood, Wednesday through Saturday. Promoters host events such as at Social on Wednesdays and Thursdays and at M Lounge at Republic on Saturday nights. These, however, require being on a guest list, and you might face the back of a clipboard that reads, "IS YOUR NAME REALLY ON THIS LIST?"
"We wanted to generate a little bit more buzz and get more exposure to different groups of people," says Social co-owner Michelle Richardson. "You get exposure, and the hope is that people would come back, for dinner or to the bar or for private parties. The restaurant is still the focus."
But is it not enough anymore to have just a restaurant?
"You need all five senses going nuts on you, then you have a good space," says designer Schoos, who also has left his imprint on restaurants such as Koi and is at work on the Penthouse (plans include cabanas on rollers). "You can't just hang a glitter ball in the middle of the room, flip a switch and that's it. People are hungry for new things."