I could practically hear the gentleman reader spluttering as he typed out his e-mail to me, complaining that a restaurant I’d recommended wasn’t up to his idea of fine dining. No captain, he lamented. Rock music pounding! And the sommelier looked too young to have even been to college!
I wanted to write back, à la Dylan, “Something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?” He’s not alone. I get letters, e-mails and calls from readers who’ve lost their bearings in the new world of restaurants. Where can I find a buffet brunch? A Monte Cristo sandwich? (Answer: Disneyland.) A quiet, romantic restaurant for my anniversary? A new fine-dining restaurant for my birthday?
If I send them to Hatfield’s, which is both new and fine dining, they’ll complain that the décor is too stark, the service not fast enough. Send them to Bouchon for Thomas Keller’s updated French bistro fare and the food can never live up to the memory of the late icon for the ladies who lunch: Bistro Garden.
Remember how Oscar de la Renta and old-guard American designers huffed and puffed when Michelle Obama didn’t ask one of them to dress her and instead embraced younger, edgier designers, such as Jason Wu or Thakoon? The first lady likes to mix it up, even, gasp, introducing J. Crew into her closet.
That same impulse to mix it up is exactly what’s happening with the Southern California restaurant scene too. And it’s much more than noshing at Tommy’s or Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles in an evening gown after the opera. Angelenos are eating all over the greater city, in all sorts of neighborhoods. It could be the tasting menu from a top chef one night, supper at a downtown dive or a pop-up restaurant the next or dinner at a secret address open only certain nights and by reservation only.
I love it all.
That includes the way people are standing in line for Let’s Be Frank’s grass-fed beef hot dogs, LudoTruck’s fried chicken or an ice cream sandwich from the rolling CoolHaus.
In Culver City, Roy Choi’s fans bundled in blankets sit around the fire pit under petticoat lampshades munching on kettle corn dosed with nori hoping for a table at his new A-Frame. (He’s the guy who started the truck food craze with a kimchi taco and a Twitter account.) Next door is the gastropub Waterloo & City, with sumptuous house-made terrines and pâtés and a terrific shepherd’s pie.
WeHo’s got its cozy meat-crazed joint in Salt’s Cure, where just about everything is made in-house, including bacon, merguez sausage, smoked fish, bread and some killer pickles. And in Venice, the Tasting Kitchen is keeping the faith with an enticing, ever-changing menu of rustic small plates. Mozza has expanded with Mozza2Go and Scuola di Pizza next door, which hosts an all-pig fest on Saturday nights at the communal table.
The wine scene
Wine bars are popping up like mushrooms after rain — downtown, on the Eastside, in Santa Monica and elsewhere. And this time around, they’re the real things, with well-curated lists and good food. Where to find the best croque-monsieur in town? Covell’s Wine Bar in Los Feliz. Pig candy and Monday night wine suppers? Lou in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, hotel restaurants, heretofore always safe standbys, are being turned into boîtes with casual seating and bare tables. Reliable old-guard restaurants are being forgotten as the newly converted seek out extreme eating, follow “Top Chef” contestants to their latest job and rush out to meet the newest food truck to hit the streets, tweeting and blogging all the way. Flashes burst over otherwise dark tables as guests mug before the camera, food on fork, photographing dishes even before they’re tasted.
The L.A. restaurant scene has busted wide open. It’s a revolution. Elite formal dining rooms no longer dominate top restaurant lists, which are just as likely to include a high-concept spot with a pounding rock soundtrack, tattooed servers, a savvy wine list and a star mixologist — or even a hole in the wall that doesn’t take reservations — as they are an elegant French restaurant with extravagant flowers and a pedigreed chef.
Mister Jones may not be all that happy, but if you’re wide open to experience, eating in L.A. right now is more exciting than it’s been in a long, long while.
Josef Centeno, for example, is doing the best cooking of his career at the sassy Lazy Ox Canteen in Little Tokyo. The chef-couple Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat are bringing Ammo’s kitchen into the limelight, while Mark Gold is holding down Eva Restaurant on Beverly Boulevard with deft American cooking at affordable prices. The Test Kitchen had a brilliant run as a place where chefs could try out menus and concepts over a few days. LudoBites 6.0 has come and gone, but 7.0 will be back in 2011 and let’s hope this time OpenTable will be ready for it. At this writing, Gjelina is days away from opening an offshoot, a take-out pizza place on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and “Top Chef’s” Michael Voltaggio has staked his claim to L.A. by nabbing a Melrose Avenue space.
On the fine-dining front, Patina is back on top with Tony Esnault at the stoves, and at Providence, Michael Cimarusti, everybody’s favorite seafood chef, is continuing to pay homage to all the fish in the sea. This year, Wolfgang Puck debuted a stunning new Chinese restaurant called WP24 at the Ritz-Carlton downtown. But for nonstop pyrotechnics, check out what José Andrés is doing at Saam, the semi-private dining room hidden behind the bar at the Bazaar, or the way John Sedlar is upping his game at Rivera, his sophisticated and entertaining ode to Latin food. Sedlar also plans to open another restaurant, Playa, on Beverly Boulevard.
We used to have great food at the high and the low ends, but not much in the middle. This year, with established restaurateurs rethinking business as usual, and new ones throwing stardust, creativity and talent into the ring in the underserved middle range, we’ve got it all.