Il Covo’s brain trust forges a classic neighborhood trattoria


Sean MacPherson doesn’t look like one of New York City’s most successful boutique hoteliers, one who draws comparisons to Studio 54 co-owner Ian Schrager. Nor does he look like the kind of guy who, when in his 20s, opened some of L.A.’s most vaunted bohemian-celebrity hangouts, including the Olive and Smalls K.O. and who dated models and actresses, including Gina Gershon and Daryl Hannah.

Sitting with business partner Jared Meisler on the lush, candle-lit garden patio of their new 3rd Street restaurant, Il Covo, dressed in dark blue jeans with an untucked shirt and sporting longish sandy-brown hair, a secretive smile and introspective manner, MacPherson looks like just another guy enjoying a glass of white wine and a plate of octopus carpaccio.

Only the way his eyes move around the restaurant, catching every detail — the movement of a server, the design on a plate — betrays his vested interest in the place. Il Covo, which is located in the once red-hot Orso trattoria space, is the night life impresario’s first West Coast restaurant in nearly 20 years, and as such reflects a more mature sensibility, one seasoned by his East Coast experience.


Before this came Swingers Diner, Jones, Good Luck Bar, El Carmen and, most recently with Meisler, Bar Lubitsch and the Roger Room. But Il Covo is different, with its mix of old-school street cred, intricate Old World design, Italian fare and new-school cool; it feels a bit like a Dan Tana’s for the digital age.

And if it succeeds, L.A. just might start seeing more of its runaway son, who graduated from Santa Monica High and attended USC but seven years ago was named one of New York magazine’s most beautiful New Yorkers. Perhaps a new hotel or another restaurant. But for now, Il Covo is all that’s on his mind.

“I was really obsessed with this place,” says MacPherson, 47, who recently played a character based on himself on the TV show “Gossip Girl” and owns or partners in New York’s Bowery Hotel, the Waverly Inn, the Maritime Hotel, the Jane hotel, Lafayette House, the Park restaurant and in Montauk, N.Y., the Crow’s Nest Inn & Restaurant. “The last real restaurant I did in L.A. was Jones and that 20 years ago. I’m very proud of Jones and its success and I still love going there, but hopefully one matures or evolves, so I wanted to build a place with the same love and attention, just after gathering more experience.”

It’s experience he’s shared with Meisler, 35, who managed the Bar Marmont when MacPherson was running it in the early aughts. Meisler also graduated from Santa Monica High but opted out of college to pursue his dream of rock stardom, a path that led him through jobs at a variety of bars and restaurants. Tall, lanky and witty, Meisler has been called the “stealth bomber of comedy,” a name he lives up to with out-of-nowhere, one-off jokes that never cease to amuse MacPherson.

It was Meisler’s ability to pack a room with talented, unusual and famous people that first caught MacPherson’s eye and made him want to partner with the younger man, whom he jokingly calls “grasshopper.” They say they share a similar vision when it comes to the hospitality business, one marked by almost maniacal attention to detail.

At Il Covo, for example, MacPherson flew in a friend from New York to paint the dining room’s salvaged wood rafters. The pair also tasted more than 30 kinds of espresso with general manager Eric Rosenfeld, whom they transferred here from the Waverly Inn, and Milan-born chef Roberto Maggioni, before settling on a proprietary blend by a “top secret” Westside roaster.


For now getting a table at Il Covo isn’t a challenge, but MacPherson and Meisler, who opened the restaurant over the summer, say they worked hard to keep their new endeavor out of the blogosphere’s relentless churn. The idea, they say, is to build something that will last. It’s an increasingly novel idea in a night life and restaurant landscape dominated by flash-in-the-pan hot spots.

“What they do is such a rarity,” says Meisler’s friend and Il Covo regular Viranda Tantula, who co-founded a creative management consultancy called FoundTrack. “L.A. is about smoke and mirrors and the next big thing. When you look at [behemoth hospitality group] SBE, they’ve built it into their business model to become self-antiquated and to rebrand themselves every six months. I love that these guys build the neighborhood places that are lasting in L.A.”

These details set the scene for the restaurant and the food, which is simple, warm and hearty, made according to Maggioni’s mother’s recipes. Dishes include osso buco with saffron risotto; buttery black cod alla livornese with tomatoes, olives, capers and anchovies; pizza with prosciutto di Parma and spicy arugula; and panna cotta with an aged balsamic vinegar reduction.

The restaurant itself is dim and classic-looking, the kind of place that MacPherson says he would like to eat in every day. Low, wood ceilings, brick arches, intimate banquettes ringed by brass railings and worn, wooden tables are among MacPherson’s hand-picked touches, which include an ornate mantel from Belgium, painted tiles from Argentina and chairs from Paris.

“The idea was to make it appear as if it had been here forever,” MacPherson says. “A cafe-society place, without being too precious. The great rooms throughout history were where different types and social classes came together — ideally we’ll fall into that place.”

In fact, they kind of already have, Meisler says, recounting one night when he saw Don Rickles dining on the patio beneath its two giant ficus trees next to a table of dyed-in-the-skinny-jean hipsters.


Plus, the two partners have lots of friends.

“My friends all have really good taste,” Meisler says, looking at MacPherson with a wry smile.

“That’s why Jared and I are partners,” MacPherson says, grinning. “Because we’re the opposite. My friends have really bad taste, but it’s the right bad taste.”