Patio chic in Southern California
Area restaurants take advantage of the climate to make eating alfresco an event.
Funny, when I think about favorite restaurant meals, a good many of them have involved dining outdoors — dinner at Marie-Claude Gracias’ restaurant in southwestern France followed by coffee in the dark beside the river, a long, intricate lunch outside at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, savoring seafood pasta at a trattoria on a hillside overlooking the bay of Naples, lighted by the silvery moon.
For anyone who relishes eating out of doors in summer and any other time, L.A. has some great spots. It could be a tiny sidewalk table with prime people-watching possibilities, a romantic garden perfumed with jasmine and roses, a walled patio furnished like home with vintage finds and table lamps, or a cabana with a view of city skyscrapers.
What is it about eating outside that’s so captivating? I think it’s the play of the breeze, the lack of formality, the essential pleasure of communing with a patch of nature, however small. Telling stories across a candlelit table has something to do with it too. A meal alfresco at a restaurant is a civilized picnic complete with wineglasses, silverware and server — and chairs.
Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites.
Only spelling bee champions can remember (or spell) the name. There’s no sign on the door or valet out front, yet Gjelina in Venice is enviably packed. But if you want to actually hear what your dining companions are saying, opt for the enclosed patio in back. The wait is worth it for the chance to dine ensconced on low sofas or at vintage garden tables under the Venice night sky. Even without the industrial chic space, people would be lined up to feast on chef Travis Lett’s thin-crusted pizza blanketed with Taleggio and wild mushrooms, grilled white prawns in a fiery romesco, flat iron steak smeared with smoked tomato butter or a fetching salad of nectarines with arugula, burrata and speck. The menu offers plenty for vegetarians to love, including wood oven-roasted sunchokes set off with salsa verde or baby artichokes with a perky gremolata. At lunch, umbrellas fend off the sun. And after you’ve had your fill of Lett’s rustic Mediterranean cooking, stroll down Abbot Kinney for a coffee at Intelligentsia.
Gjelina, 1429 Abbott Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 450-1429; https://www.gjelina.com.
Studio at Montage Laguna Beach
The setting couldn’t be more perfect: a Craftsman-style cottage, albeit a grandly proportioned one, on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Pacific at Laguna Beach. At Studio, the restaurant at Montage Laguna Beach, you can sit inside next to tall French doors thrown open to the view. But why, when you can eat outside on the terrace with a wraparound view of sunset and sea? (Should it get too chilly, blankets are provided.) The food is as extraordinary as the setting and the service at this luxury resort. With quiet confidence, chef Craig Strong turns out a sophisticated, elegant menu of French-California cuisine with a few Catalan touches from his time in Barcelona. He’s especially good with seafood. Try his succulent roasted lobster tail with fideo noodles cooked like risotto, or the salmon with rhubarb. Or, for a great bottle of red from the vast wine list, grilled beef with a ragout of short ribs in Bordelaise sauce. Whatever he’s cooking (the menu changes often), dinner at Studio can be as restorative as a weekend away. Come early to enjoy the beach beforehand.
Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, 30801 South Coast Highway, Laguna Beach; (949) 715-6420; https://www.studiolagunabeach.com.
The Hungry Cat
When Suzanne Goin and hubby David Lentz expanded their tiny seafood bistro a couple of years ago, the patio in front, which faces the back of Borders at Sunset and Vine, got bigger too. Now there are several tall communal tables outside with a view of the action at the raw bar. The older part of the patio, with its benches and tables packed close together, is still dark enough that nobody will notice if you impulsively lick your fingers while devouring a pound of the peel ‘n’ eat shrimp steamed in beer or disassembling a softshell crab or two. There are beautiful salads too, oysters and clams on the half shell, lobster rolls and a justly famous Pug burger. The cocktails are deeply delicious, especially the signature “kumquatini.” The food is always simple and great. What’s not to like? Maybe how hard it is to get a reservation. And now they’ve got three desserts, not just one, though I’m still voting for that chocolate bread-and-butter pudding.
The Hungry Cat, 1535 N. Vine St., Los Angeles; (323) 462-2155; https://www.thehungrycat.com.
Joan’s on Third
From the moment the first folding French garden tables are set up in front of Joan’s on Third, the regulars — and they are legion — show up to enjoy a leisurely breakfast of Joan’s crumbly mixed berry scones, fluffy brioche or the French breakfast muffin, which is something like a delicious cake doughnut without a hole, and bowls of cafe au lait. The pastries piled on vintage cake stands are hard to resist, but so are the generous sandwiches, especially the chicken salad. Joan’s has all the makings too — charcuterie, cheeses, breads — for enjoying an alfresco pique nique at one of the sidewalk tables strung out in front. Take home some extra gourmet goodies — maybe some exotic mustard or jams, and a chevre or two. And while you’re soaking up the sunlight over breakfast or lunch, plan out your next voyage somewhere, sometime. The Traveler’s Bookcase is just across the street.
Joan’s on Third, 8350 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 655-2285; https://www.joansonthird.com.
Small wonder Chateau Marmont attracts a fashion and rock ‘n’ roll crowd: Is there anyplace on the Sunset Strip as inviting as the lavish garden in back carpeted with soft grass and lighted with flaming tiki torches? It’s so dark you can’t really make out who is or isn’t or might be at the next table. Never mind. The night is fragrant with the scents of jasmine and roses. This much romance doesn’t come cheap. Take a deep breath, order a good bottle of wine and then something simple from the kitchen, like fried squid in a light batter, deep-fried baby artichokes or a beet salad, and then maybe the thyme-roasted chicken. Chef Carolynn Spence ran the kitchen at the Spotted Pig in New York before taking on the Marmont. I’m always wishing the food could be better (it is at Bar Marmont down the hill), but it’s a small tradeoff for the chance to enjoy the magical setting without the sticker shock of a stay at the fabled 1929 hotel.
Chateau Marmont, 8221 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 656-6123; https://www.chateaumarmont.com.
When Wolfgang Puck moved his iconic restaurant Spago from the Sunset Strip to Beverly Hills in 1997, nobody could understand it. Why give up such a successful spot to move to sleepy Canon Drive? In order to get that fabulous garden, which would make Spago a truly emblematic California restaurant. Of course, it’s a garden with its hierarchies. Regulars count on certain tables, that one under the deep slant of an olive tree twined with fairy lights, for example. But even tables at the edge of the garden enjoy the balmy air. A table deep in the interior just doesn’t have the same cachet. And, I dare say, the polished cuisine tastes more delicious out of doors. The à la carte menu is fine, but if you really want to experience the synergy of Puck, executive chef Lee Hefter and chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi’s menu, go for the tasting menu at least once. They can produce some pretty amazing food when given free rein. Just don’t eat two days before: The hors d’oeuvres would make a meal on their own.
Spago Beverly Hills, 176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 385-0880; https://www.wolfgangpuck.com.
The sprawling garden at Wilshire is a treasure that the Black Forest Inn, which had the space for years, never fully took advantage of. It took designer Thomas Schoos to glam it up with flotillas of candles, lights floating from the trees and, at the far end, a dramatic outdoor bar. The kitchen has had its ups and downs, but since Andrew Kirschner took the helm two years ago, it’s been mostly ups. Go for his relaxed California cuisine made with impeccably sourced ingredients from small farms and the farmers market. He does gracefully composed salads and some fine Asian-inflected dishes. The main courses are as strong as the first courses, especially for items such as roast leg of lamb with curried quinoa or whole fried Thai snapper. And if you want just a glass of wine and a quick bite, consider the ample bar menu, which includes Asian lobster rolls, pizza and a Chimay ale-marinated skirt steak. Me, I’m still missing former pastry chef Danielle Keene’s desserts and especially her ice cream evenings.
Wilshire Restaurant, 2454 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 586-1707; https://www.wilshirerestaurant.com.
Owner Joe Pytka and French design doyenne Andrée Putman did a beautiful job when they curated the garden at Bastide in West Hollywood. With a handful of Turkish marble tables set out under a pair of artfully pruned old olive trees and masses of potted lavender, it feels very private. The sound of water running into a stone basin drowns out everything beyond the garden gate. Beeswax candles cast a wavery gold light. It’s heaven sitting here on a summer night. And with this latest iteration under chef Joseph Mahon, Bastide is more accessible than before, with a simpler, more casual à la carte menu that’s pure California. His cooking is graceful and precise, each main ingredient set off by quirky — and delicious — accompaniments. Squid might come with cranberry beans and chorizo butter, halibut with morels and fiddlehead fern tips. The wine list is filled with well-priced treasures, your chance to drink a fabled Bordeaux or Burgundy or try something new and exotic without having to check your bank balance. The garden is just as inviting at lunch. A great summer restaurant.
Bastide, 8475 Melrose Place, Los Angeles; (323) 651-5950; https://www.bastidela.com.
Rick Bayless does his first restaurant outside of Chicago in the old Moustache space, which is virtually unrecognizable. A velvet rope out front and a suit who checks your name off the reservation list? Inside, it feels more like a glitzy lounge than a restaurant, with the crowd sipping premium tequila and pedigreed margaritas in hopes of nabbing a free table in the front room, which has a retractable roof and garage doors that roll up to bring the outdoors in. The better to enjoy the Chicago restaurateur and cookbook author’s rigorously regional Mexican cuisine. He grinds his own masa for the tortillas. Guacamole is as good as it gets. But there are so many enticing dishes from Bayless, such as his albondigas al chipotle (meatballs), Mazatlan blue shrimp ceviche, sopes with sweet plantains or pork belly and black beans, chicken tamales with yellow mole. His menu is big and exuberant, one that I’ll be happy to explore all summer long.
Red O, 8155 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (323) 655-5009; https://www.redorestaurant.com.
The old Rat Pack hangout across from Cedars-Sinai hospital has a secluded patio garden in back. The brick walls are hung with pots of red geraniums, and it boasts not one but two fireplaces, an outdoor bar and a definite East Coast Italian look. Dominick’s food has a similar red sauce bias, and there’s not a single “Tuscan” dish on the menu, which also includes some New Orleans accents from chef Brandon Boudet. Prices are moderate. And if you come early you can almost always get a table. The hipsters don’t start arriving until after 9, probably later. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the outdoor room and order up a bottle of rosso or bianco with grilled artichokes, baked ricotta with prosciutto, crawfish fritters, spaghetti and meatballs or whitefish piccata. For dessert, go with the banana cream pie. Don’t forget its three-course Sunday supper at $15 with $10 bottles of red or white and $2 Moretti beers.
Dominick’s, 8715 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 652-2335; www.dominicksrestaurant.com.
The long-running Venice restaurant is tucked away on the end of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, before the street’s restaurant row really gets going. It’s always been a haven for locals, where the famous can go virtually unnoticed. The attire is beach casual, the food mostly organic and easygoing with plenty of vegetables for those who don’t eat much red meat or otherwise. But this summer, chef-owner Joanna Moore has just opened a spacious back garden planted with sages, rosemary, jasmine and fig. There’s a sweet little sofa area where you can wait for your table and the space to set up a long table for a birthday party. The food is as fresh and uncomplicated as ever. What’s good? Grilled big-eye tuna with wild octopus and sea island red beans, herb-marinated free-range chicken, Korean pa jeun pancake with shrimp and squid, and the farmers market plate of mixed vegetables. Nobody leaves this place without the day’s quota of vegetables. And that’s a very good thing.
Axe, 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; (310) 664-9787; https://www.axerestaurant.com.
Thomas Keller’s Bouchon comes to Beverly Hills via the Napa Valley, and this big, glam bistro just up the street from where Bistro Garden once ruled draws in Keller fans and Francophiles with its updated bistro fare. Inside, it’s nonstop action, especially at the horseshoe-shaped zinc bar. But there’s also an outdoor terrace, on the second floor, like the restaurant, where it’s quieter and less frenetic. Order a terrine of foie gras to start or the splendid chilled seafood platter. There are leeks showered with grated egg yolks, frisée salads, a quiche du jour and a marvelous chicken grand-mère. The menu hardly changes from day to day, so you can expect to find classics like boudin noir on a creamy potato purée, a flat iron steak with maitre d’hotel butter and a cone of golden fries, or roast leg of lamb with Swiss chard on every visit, supplemented with the plat du jour. And to finish, a puckery lemon tart eaten by the light of the Beverly Hills moon.
Bouchon, 235 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9910; https://www.bouchonbistro.com.