Auburn, the lauded fine-dining restaurant that opened 13 months ago on Melrose Avenue, is the latest casualty of the coronavirus shutdown.
Chef-owner Eric Bost had tried to keep things afloat during L.A.’s ban on dine-in service, offering family-style meals, produce boxes from local farms and bake-at-home croissant kits.
But after weeks of pulling in just a small fraction of the restaurant’s usual revenue, “it boiled down to economics,” Bost said in an interview Thursday morning.
“Unfortunately it was just not possible,” he said. “Restaurants already work with such slim margins, and really no room for error, that it was just too much risk to continue to try to finance something when there’s really no clarity.”
With no firm end date for safer-at-home rules, little financial relief provided by the government and the prospect of rigid restrictions to follow once they are allowed to reopen, a wave of restaurant closures is expected. Independent restaurants, particularly new businesses still freighted with the debt of opening and with few if any cash reserves, are likely to be the hardest hit.
“As a young restaurant you’re still developing your clientele base,” Bost said. “I mean, we were still trying to yell at the world that we existed this week, when we were closing.”
Just one day before, Bon Temps, another 2019 star newcomer, announced that it had closed for good. Chef-owner Lincoln Carson said the Arts District restaurant had been barely breaking even before the pandemic, and the lengthy shutdown plus a bleak outlook for the industry in the months after was financially untenable.
Auburn opened in March 2019 in a stunning modernist-minimalist space full of blond wood and natural light. Its fine-dining-with-flexibility model allowed diners to build their own four-, six- or nine-course tasting menus by mixing and matching among 12 dishes. It earned a strong review from Times critic Bill Addison, who called it “the most exhilarating splurge-worthy restaurant to open in Los Angeles so far this year.”
That one-year milestone was a huge mark for us. We were on the road to making it sustainable and this just crippled that.
In November, the restaurant introduced a weekend brunch that immediately drew raves for its unique dishes. Instead of staples like omelettes and waffles, the menu featured a billowing pillow-soft pan-roasted brioche with caramel, smoked eel, prawns roasted over coals with bone marrow, and spectacular cinnamon croissants.
After Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the citywide ban on dine-in service on March 15, Bost was forced to let go of most of his staff of 58, keeping just three employees. Takeout sales were steadily increasing each week, but were “nowhere in the ballpark” of what the restaurant was pulling in when fully operational.
“For a week’s worth of revenue, we were doing less than a Thursday night,” he said.
Auburn was Bost’s first solo project after working at Republique and for chefs including Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy.
“I didn’t go to a hotel to open a restaurant; I didn’t open this for someone else,” he said. “This was my first one, so it’s tough.”
Things had been going well, with strong business in January and February, Bost said. But in the week before the shutdown, reservations plummeted to 10% of usual levels.
“That one-year milestone was a huge mark for us. But when we hit one year it was basically the same week that we had to shut down because of the mandate,” he said. “So this whole process has been the extremes of both worlds. We were on the road to making it sustainable and this just crippled that.”
Bost said he plans to take some time to regroup before thinking about what’s next. Hopefully another Los Angeles restaurant?
“That’s absolutely the goal,” he said. “Every experience is a learning experience, so I’m going to try to find what I can take from this and then I’ll look into what is that next project. Uncertainty and opportunity are co-existing right now, in balance.”