Koreatown’s Here’s Looking at You announces a surprising return
When Here’s Looking at You closed 16 months ago, it prompted an outpouring of remembrances on social media and radio and in articles throughout the summer of 2020, all mourning the eclectic Koreatown restaurant heralded for its creativity and genre-defying cuisine. Regulars were grieving. But this week, the owners announced they’re planning to reopen by the end of the year.
Their journey has been fraught with challenges and risks and illustrates the grim reality of trying to do business during a pandemic. Managing partner Lien Ta and chef-partner Jonathan Whitener are hoping their fundraising efforts and the goodwill of customers who yearn for the doors to reopen will let them rewrite their ending.
Slow sales, limited outdoor seating and a struggle to make rent during the pandemic led to the original decision to close the restaurant, which first opened in 2016. When Ta and Whitener shared news of the closure last July, the mood was hopeful: “On paper, this is temporary,” Ta wrote on Instagram. “But, of course, you don’t need us to tell you that life is super-duper uncertain right now.”
Sixteen months later, faced with mounting back rent that only increases each month, the owners are hoping to recoup some of their costs — any money coming in from customers is better than none, even if it’s only $5 in profit, Ta said.
“We’re gonna reopen this restaurant as soon as possible because the bills keep piling on and on and on,” Ta said this week. “Essentially, I find myself shocked to be in this place, because well over a year ago, this time last year, we had put the restaurant on the market, not because we wanted to but because we were asked to do so by our landlords.”
Ta and Whitener felt it was a fair request. Some days, they would get only one or two takeout orders. Occasionally there would be a day with no orders. Even with a first round of PPP funding to keep their staff paid, the owners couldn’t sustain their broader operating costs. Ta said they faced tens of thousands of dollars in vendor bills when dine-in service shuttered in March 2020. A series of weekly pop-ups, such as taco stands and tiki nights, proved to be popular but unsustainable in the long run, and Ta and Whitener decided to cut their losses and focus efforts on their other restaurant, All Day Baby. Instead of watching their debt grow monthly and inching toward the end of California’s eviction moratorium, which lifts in March 2022, they decided to recoup some of their losses by selling the restaurant.
Last summer, they put Here’s Looking at You up for sale, which included everything within the restaurant, as well as city and county permits, which can be valuable to a buyer — especially if a liquor license is included, as was the case here. As they cleared some of their belongings from the space — like Whitener’s 100 or so cookbooks from the shelf above the bar — they also gave tours to prospective buyers. Eventually they found one, though Ta said the sale of the business sat in limbo and escrow for months. Rent continued to accrue.
“At this point, when you hear from your landlord every week like, ‘What’s the update? What’s going on?’ it’s essentially very stressful,” she said. After months of a stalled sale, they were allowed to exit that arrangement and, instead of listing the restaurant for sale again, decided to try their hand at bringing it back themselves. “[We] can always put the restaurant back up for sale,” she said, “but we’re taking this risk to get back our restaurant, and we never wanted to give it up in the first place.”
Whitener has been readying the kitchen and the space again, while Ta deals with the outside world — reconnecting utilities, renewing business licenses, figuring out some of the logistics of reopening a restaurant they thought would be closed forever. Months ago, she sold the dining room chandelier, so now she has to figure out how to light the space again, and on a shoestring budget.
The reopening will require dozens of thousands of dollars, including the cost of hiring a new staff. At least five former employees have agreed to return, but Ta estimates they’ll need around three times that number to open, even on a smaller scale: probably five nights a week, as opposed to their pre-closure seven, and no brunch service.
Whitener and Ta still need to pay back rent to their landlords, and they’ll need money to purchase food and to stock the bar. If they’re scrappy, Ta thinks they can start slim on food, alcohol and wine at a cost of $15,000 to get up and running again.
To help, they’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign; as of Friday morning, they’ve raised more than $56,000 of their $100,000 goal. If they don’t reach the funding, Ta said the restaurant will still open, though for how long she can’t say.
“It made me very uncomfortable,” she said. “I feel a little bit better about it today, having done it, but it was such an uncomfortable decision to have to make. It’s hard to ask for help for your business. But when enough people talk to you about that restaurant, which to me was daily — I’d be crouched on the sidewalk trying to adjust the wobbliness of my tables at All Day Baby, and someone would just holler by, ‘I really miss Here’s Looking at You!’ And I’ve already worked like nine hours that day, but I’m just looking at him like, ‘Me too.’”
They’ll be able to scrape by for at least a few months without any more donations and are at least hoping to restart service if only to break even on rent by the time it comes due in 2022. More donations can help the restaurant recover more permanently, as will a stream of visitors. The owners plan to reopen sometime in December — at the latest by New Year’s Eve, “so we can throw a party,” Ta said.
The reopened Here’s Looking at You will feature a pared-down menu, a return to some of its greatest hits: the shishito peppers with tonnato sauce, the heirloom tomato dish with the crispy Chinese sausage crumble, the frog legs with salsa negra — and possibly the beef tartare with the onikasu and grilled Bub and Grandma’s bread on the side.
It’s a gamble, but they can’t wait to see the space humming again, even if it isn’t as full or busy as it was in pre-pandemic form. If it doesn’t succeed in the long run, Ta said, at least they can eventually give it the farewell they feel it deserves.
“This possibility of taking back the space and reopening at least [gives us] a better chance of being a little bit more in control of the restaurant that was our baby,” Ta said. “The ending that it had was, in our heart of hearts, not the ending it was supposed to have.”
Here’s Looking at You, 3901 W. 6th St., Los Angeles. Follow @hereslookingatyoula on Instagram, and check hereslookingatyoula.com for reopening updates.
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