The taste-maker behind Joan’s on Third
The crowd is shoulder to shoulder on a recent Friday at Joan’s on Third. Power couples buy their toddlers “babyccinos” (steamed milk in demitasse cups sprinkled with cocoa), and lithe women with “it” bags dangle their forks over mounds of Chinese chicken salad. A voice over the loudspeaker interrupts the thrum: “If you are driving a white Jaguar parked in the back behind another car, please move your vehicle.”
Just another morning at Joan’s. What started as a tiny catering kitchen on once-sleepy 3rd Street, is, 14 years later, an L.A. institution. Former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl breakfasts here when she’s in town. So does Vogue’s Andre Leon Talley. Actor Alexander Skarsgard reportedly comes for the meatloaf sandwiches, Amanda Seyfried for the oatmeal and Kate Bosworth for the salads.
The 3,000-square-foot spic-and-span cafe is outfitted with a bakery, gelato bar, olive bar, deli, cheese counter and a small kitchen for hot breakfast and lunch items. It is as thick with foodies as it is models, angling for lattes, chocolate chip cookies, short rib sandwiches, chicken Milanese or, really, any of the 1,200 dishes that are part of the cafe’s repertoire. More than 2,000 customers a day come through the doors.
The woman behind it all is Joan McNamara, a hip, cherubic, black-clad grandmother who drives a black-and-white Mini Cooper and lives in a nearby loft on Melrose Avenue. On the cusp of expanding to a second location, she’s still working the hot line making omelets. She’s also the creative mastermind whose vision is manifested in every detail: the baby fig trees, vintage dolly tubs overflowing with bags of popcorn or brittle, decked-out holiday displays, private-label sauces.
The $13 boxes of dried pasta? She originally spotted those at a market in Bologna. The chandeliers are from London. The shelves along the back deli are from an 18th century convent in Albany, N.Y. A carpenter drove them out from New York, then drove back to L.A. again when McNamara wanted more, then custom-fitted them into an otherwise too-tight space. “If I love something, I have to have it.”
A glimpse into McNamara’s kitchens, offices and home reveal the inner workings of an obsessive who has steadfastly grown a company that now employs 110 people, though she claims “it just grew on its own.”
“I always say, it’s not a restaurant, it’s a market,” she says. Whatever it is, it’s obviously working — and there’s nothing else like it in Los Angeles. That is, until McNamara expands to a former post office on Ventura Place in Studio City. “I just fell in love with the place,” McNamara says of the new space — a building with lots of brick and a bow truss ceiling. If all goes as planned, a Joan’s on Third will open just over the hill from the original via Crescent Heights Avenue this year. (She’s also looking for a Westside location, she says.) If the opening of another Joan’s on Third has been a while coming, it’s because McNamara is so meticulous.
The daughter of Czech immigrants, she grew up in New Jersey, moved to Manhattan in her early 20s and worked for industrial designer Paul McCobb, then with chef Dione Lucas running her cooking school. Together they opened the Egg Basket near Bloomingdale’s, which McNamara eventually bought and ran with a friend, until the landlord sold the building.
After moving to L.A. with her late husband, a management consultant, McNamara stayed home with her two daughters, Carol and Susie, who have helped her run Joan’s on Third since they graduated from college. Carol runs the catering operation, and Susie the marketplace. “I always knew I’d want another business at some point,” McNamara says. By the time she was 10, “Carol and I would have discussions after school over cappuccinos” about what kind of business.
It was her daughters’ idea to call it Joan’s on Third. “I always wanted something clever,” McNamara says. “I would read the dictionary every night to find the one right word....”
Despite all the traffic, nothing’s ever out of place, largely due to McNamara’s vigilance. “Oh, that drives me crazy,” she says of a kaput light bulb she sees in one of the chandeliers. She can tell by looking who among the staff has arranged the cupcakes, cookies, muffins and scones that sit on tiered cake stands in the bakery case.
By all accounts she’s a dynamo but no tyrant. Employees say they take the lead of McNamara, who straightens out-of-place bottles of imported olive oil, makes sure the platters in the deli cases are always full, picks up trash, constantly checks the bathrooms for tidiness. She takes no days off unless she is traveling. “We try to maintain her vision,” says Irma Shillingford, the cafe’s first employee, who still remembers the exact date she started: Feb. 9, 1998.
The customers love McNamara too. “We come here No. 1 because of Joan,” says Richard Ingold, a Madras-shirt-wearing regular who meets a cadre of friends for breakfast every day at one of the two communal tables. They talk about one another, other customers, even McNamara. “She was married to a French chef for a few years, you know....” (Which is, by the way, true.) Ingold is one of only two people for whom Joan’s has allowed an on-the-premises party, the other being Donna Karan. But one couple did get married here, a discreet ceremony at a back table during business hours to commemorate the place where they met.
The cafe’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the commercial kitchen next door runs from 5 a.m. to midnight. It’s divided into “Joel’s side” (referring to kitchen manager Joel Guevara) for the deli salads and catering and “Javier’s side” (bakery manager Javier Sanchez) for the baked goods. Joel’s side turns out several hundred pounds a week of Joan’s popular salads, such as Brussels sprouts with Manchego; farro and butternut squash; or sea beans with edamame and yellow wax beans. Javier’s side bakes, among other things, 400 to 500 cupcakes a day.
On the door to McNamara’s office hangs a sign that says “Bureau de Chef.” A bulletin board above her desk is covered with Polaroids of each of the kitchen employees (McNamara’s photo hangs in Susie’s office with the rest of the front-of-the-house staff). The wall behind her is lined with shelves filled with hundreds of cookbooks. When Yotam Ottolenghi, owner of McNamara’s favorite cafe in London, stopped by Joan’s for a book signing, he turned her on to a website called Eatyourbooks.com, which indexes recipes from her cookbooks, favorite blogs and magazines. She has 69,477 recipes from seven blogs, 315 magazines and 468 cookbooks.
And those are just from her office. Her high-ceilinged Melrose loft is filled with cookbooks too. Along with particulars collected from Europe and antiques stores: Cherner chairs, more chandeliers from London, an Italian credenza, a marble-topped candy-making table, her mother’s silver, dishes from the South of France. In her closet are her all-black clothes, especially the long black skirts she likes to wear. “A friend said I should number them,” she says.
Eat your way across L.A.
Get our weekly Tasting Notes newsletter for reviews, news and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.