When I came here 20 years ago, a pair of well-known foodies insisted on meeting to bemoan the death of fine dining in Los Angeles. But fine dining wasn't dead then and it's not dying now, at least no more than it always has been. Maybe it's just sleeping.
Granted, the category has taken some hits recently as some of our best and most ambitious restaurants have slipped away over the last few years. Just last month, both Rivera and Hatfield's closed without much of an outcry. Ludo Lefebvre is doing the most ambitious cooking of his career in a strip mall spot disguised with a Raffallo's Pizza sign. Orsa & Winston is taking a sabbatical from its ambitious tasting menu to serve yakitori for a couple of months. Even hotel restaurants, the last bastion of formal dining, are reinventing themselves as hip, small-plate destinations with pounding soundtracks.
One could argue that Los Angeles has never been much of a fine-dining town — if by that term you mean polished, impeccably prepared food, superb service, white tablecloths and expensive china, silver and glassware, along with elegant decor and a meticulous attention to detail.
After all, a one-time chili shack was once the place to dine (Chasen's), along with a restaurant shaped like a hat (The Brown Derby), a continental establishment run by a fake prince (Romanoff's) and a Wilshire Boulevard Italian frequented by wise guys (Perino's).
The food improved, but the setting became ever more casual in the '70s. Patio dining became a thing. Ma Maison, perhaps the finest French restaurant of its day, even boasted Astroturf carpeting.
And when its owner, Patrick Terrail, hired a shy, impossibly young Austrian chef trained in France, he couldn't have foreseen the shift coming to the restaurant scene. Not right away, but in 1982, when Wolfgang Puck's soon-to-be wife, Barbara Lazaroff, persuaded Puck to open a little place called Spago, it was like setting off a bomb. Entertainment moguls could dine sans tie or jacket, even wear jeans, but no shorts (at least at first). The food was just what everyone wanted to eat — and maybe even more important, it was fun.
The revolution, though, had really started a few years before in 1979, when 25-year-old Michael McCarty broke the mold of fine dining with a restaurant that not only was American but also dispensed with waiters' tuxedoes in favor of preppy duds from a young designer named Ralph Lauren. He did away with the old captain system in the dining room too and introduced the less-formal waiter-runner buddy system used almost everywhere today. But there were still thick white tablecloths, a deep wine list, important modern art on the walls and fine-dining prices.
These days, McCarty has gone even more casual, pulling back his ambitions with even less formal service and a less-expensive menu. He now defines Michael's as a neighborhood restaurant. "It's a cycle," says McCarty. "This is the way not just young people want to eat, but the way everybody wants to eat right now."
Chefs have learned that you don't need to spend $4 million (or even $1 million) to open a restaurant in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood to get noticed. You find a storefront in an up-and-coming neighborhood, slap some paint on, install a minimal kitchen, find tables and chairs or benches somewhere and you're good to go. Put out the word on social media and people come. That's how Alma and Alimento started.
Menus are shorter and more flexible. Wine lists too. An iPod provides the music. And if your first concept doesn't work, change and change again. A food truck or a pop-up can morph into a brick-and-mortar. A restaurant can be one thing during the week, another on the weekends and yet another after hours.
The restaurant scene is so diverse today that it can't be pinned down to just one trend. Call the current state "omnivorous." The same food lovers catch breakfast at the Grand Central Market or Sqirl, rustle up a taco or po' boy sandwich from their favorite food truck and dine at far-flung ethnic joints, go out for sushi or ramen, or to a savvy pop-up or the latest hot spot for Mediterranean or Southern or Asian fusion food.
Fine dining doesn't often enter into the equation, except for anniversaries or other special occasions. It's a splurge, and for many, going out to a fancy restaurant just doesn't sound like fun.
But everything eventually comes around again. And I'm betting that it won't be long before diners tired of shouting to be heard across the table and of queuing for a table at a place that doesn't take reservations will rediscover the pleasures of sitting down to a beautiful meal in a comfortable restaurant.
Take a place like Providence, for example. Donato Poto, who co-owns the extraordinary seafood restaurant with chef Michael Cimarusti, says 2014 was their biggest year ever. "Every year we've done better than the year before, so if anyone says fine dining is dead, it's totally not true."
Angelenos eat eclectically, and fine dining is just part of the mix. Sooner or later, luxurious, comfortable restaurants will seem desirable. Dressing up for dinner, linen napkins, velvet chairs, Bernaudaud china, beautiful surroundings? How exotic. How fun. How new.
A timeline of six iconic L.A. restaurants
Los Angeles has been home to many "fancy" restaurants in the last 100 years. Would they fall under the "fine dining" banner? Maybe, but at the very least they have been the places to see and be seen. Here we take a look at six iconic restaurants — why they mattered and what has happened to them.
1926: The Brown Derby opens on Wilshire Boulevard. The menu includes pan-fried corned beef hash, grapefruit cake with cream cheese frosting, and Cobb salad. It moves in 1937, passes through several hands and closes in 1985. There is now a two-story Brown Derby strip mall on the site.
1936: Vaudeville entertainer Dave Chasen sets up the barbecue stand Chasen's Southern Pit in a cornfield at Doheny Drive and Beverly Boulevard, later becoming a restaurant serving hobo steak, banana shortcake, chicken pot pie — and chili. In 1962, Elizabeth Taylor, filming "Cleopatra" in Rome, has 10 quarts of Chasen's chili shipped to her. It closes in 1995, and the facade is now part of a Bristol Farms grocery store.
1947: Ken Hansen opens Scandia on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, serving nominally Scandinavian, cruise ship continental cuisine. It is famed for it's army of attentive tuxedoed waiters. It closes in 1989. The site is in redevelopment as an Ian Schrager-designed Marriott Edition hotel.
1977: Frenchman Gerard Ferry opens L'Orangerie on La Cienega Boulevard with floral arrangements that reach the ceilings, potted orange trees and the name in giant gold letters out front. Every three years, it seems he brings another French chef to town, the last being Ludo Lefebvre. The site is now Nobu Los Angeles.
1979: Le Cordon Bleu graduate Michael McCarty opens Michael's in Santa Monica. In the kitchen, a crew of young chefs includes Ken Frank (now at La Toque in Napa, Calif.), Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto in New York), Nancy Silverton (Mozza-plex) and Roy Yamaguchi (Roy's restaurants). It's still operating.
1982: On a hill at the edge of the Sunset Strip, Wolfgang Puck and soon-to-be wife Barbara Lazaroff open Spago. Nothing will ever be the same. On any given night, you could find Billy Wilder, James Stewart or any number of celebrities eating pizza. In 1997 he moves to then-dull Beverly Hills, opening at the old Bistro Garden with grander ambitions. The original site stands vacant.