A new restaurant for the Natural History Museum to amplify Black voices

A small pile of rockfish nuggets atop arugula on a white plate against a green wall
Rockfish nuggets from Neighborhood Grill at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, chef John Cleveland’s spin on the catfish nuggets at his other restaurant, Post & Beam.
(Oscar Mendoza / For The Los Angeles Times)

The history, dinosaurs, insects and horticulture won’t be the only main draws at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles as of March 17. A new restaurant from the team behind Post & Beam, one of L.A.’s most lauded Southern restaurants, is set to open that day, bringing a blend of cross-cultural street food and comfort food.

Neighborhood Grill by Post & Beam is a more casual sequel to the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw restaurant from John and Roni Cleveland, a Los Angeles Times 101 Best Restaurants awardee, recipient of the L.A. Times Gold Award and a community staple. The Clevelands also will launch grab-and-go items that spotlight Black- and brown-owned food companies, part of an expansive culinary revamp overseen by South LA Cafe Hospitality, founded by Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace.

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The partnership between the Clevelands and South LA Cafe Hospitality will make possible the curation of to-go juices, salads, charcuterie and other items from Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen, Prins Wellness, Hotville Chicken, Southern Girls Desserts and others in addition to their own house-made items in a refrigerated grab-and-go case within Neighborhood Grill.

According to museum officials, this marks the first time the Natural History Museum has worked so closely with local chefs and restaurants to head its food program.


“I’m really excited about being able to play,” said chef John Cleveland. “This will be a lot of exposure.”

Over the last few months, he’s been playing in the kitchen a lot.

A gif of chef John Cleveland preparing dishes, plus a few of his items, such as a flatbread
(Oscar Mendoza / For The Los Angeles Times)

Whereas Post & Beam’s cuisine centers on Southern culinary tradition with a California twist, the chef sees Neighborhood Grill as more representative of the fusion of L.A. street food with Southern food, and inspired by the museum’s edible garden. His new take on the reuben subs collards for sauerkraut, remoulade for Russian dressing, and smoked gouda for Swiss, while he’s simultaneously griddling up jerked wild-mushroom tacos, frying cornmeal-crusted rockfish bites, baking seasonal flatbreads, and griddling short rib quesadillas. It’s also a new opportunity for catering to families and children, including his own.

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Recently the Clevelands learned that their 6-year-old, Miles, requires a special diet that eliminates gluten, soy and egg. The chef has devised gluten-free options for nearly every item on the menu, including flatbreads. Outside of the pastrami sandwich’s rye bread, Miles Cleveland will be able to eat everything on the menu.

Much of the beer and wine menu will echo Post & Beam’s, with a spotlight on local makers such as South L.A.’s Black-owned craft beer company Crowns & Hops. SLAC Hospitality’s contract, which began Feb. 1, also includes catering and culinary options beyond the restaurant and to-go kiosks, such as food trucks for events, which will also involve area mom-and-pop restaurants and products.

Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace and Roni and John Cleveland stand inside their new restaurant against a beige and green wall
The team behind Neighborhood Grill by Post & Beam: Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace of South LA Cafe Hospitality, left, and Roni and John Cleveland of Post & Beam.
(Oscar Mendoza / For The Los Angeles Times)

“We wanted to double down on our of-for-and-with-Los Angeles approach and community partnerships, and make the food-service program speak to our hyperlocal community in a way that we haven’t in the past,” said Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, the president and director of the museum.

For the last six years, Bettison-Varga says the museum has sought to showcase the neighborhood’s talents, makers and businesses, spotlighting the cultural richness and diversity of South L.A. in a way that hasn’t historically existed for the 110-year-old institution. Some of its initiatives for executing this goal included forming a community engagement office to reach out to businesses and residents of the area and engage in discussions about their needs and concerns; another included more diverse programming, such as last year’s series on the cross-cultural intersection of bread and baking across Los Angeles.


“When the request for proposals went out, we were really excited that Joe and Celia responded to it with such innovative ideas for really curating local, South L.A. food vendors — and including them when the NHM Commons opens,” said Bettison-Varga.

The Ward-Wallaces reached out to some of their favorite South L.A. chefs and businesses, including Post & Beam’s Clevelands, whose community-forward ethos aligned with theirs.

South LA Cafe will also operate its own outpost on the south side of the NHM Commons, which is expected to debut in mid-2024.

By showcasing more Black chefs and food products, the museum aims to connect to the communities in its immediate surroundings and to be more representative of the fabric and visitorship of Los Angeles as a whole.

“We’re hoping to really tap into the creativity of Joe and Celia and John and Roni,” said Bettison-Varga, “and the other local food services to build out opportunities in the future that we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own by any stretch of the imagination.”

A pastrami sandwich on marbled rye against a green wall
Neighborhood Grill’s forthcoming signature sandwich is a Southern take on a reuben with hot pastrami, rye bread, remoulade, “collard kraut” and smoked gouda.
(Oscar Mendoza / For The Los Angeles Times)

Neighborhood Grill will fill the space formerly occupied by NHM Grill, which closed at the end of January. In preparation for the March 17 opening, the dining room is being painted with a mural. Digital kiosks in the hallway could help expedite the ordering process, especially when hundreds of guests surge through simultaneously. New furniture including a communal table will also help to accommodate large groups.

In the calm before the storm, John Cleveland views Neighborhood Grill as an evolution for Post & Beam — which as a restaurant of its own appears in a state of growth. During the pandemic the Clevelands’ restaurant began hosting farm dinners, appearing at more festivals, and throwing history-minded culinary events, the latter of which was spurred by chef Martin Draluck, who hosts the Black Pot Supper Club at Post & Beam in honor of enslaved chefs’ legacies. To continue the discussion Draluck is currently planning with the museum to bring history-minded meals to NHMLA’s grounds and pull from its archives to tell the story of Los Angeles and the Great Migration, among other voices and eras through history.

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But Neighborhood Cafe is also an evolution of friendship and mutual respect — and a partnership that its team says is just getting started.

“One of the cool things about running a business in South L.A. is that the business community is pretty tight, and we all patronize each other’s businesses,” said John Cleveland. After years of chatting with the Ward-Wallaces over social media and during their meals at Post & Beam, and respecting South LA Cafe’s community grocery giveaways for those in need, the opportunity to work together was one the Clevelands couldn’t jump at soon enough. The Ward-Wallaces felt the same.

“We felt that this was like a part of our destiny,” said Celia Ward-Wallace. “We live five minutes away, [the Clevelands] live like eight minutes away, and [Joe and I] have had a family membership since our kids were born. This place means a lot to us; it’s not just an opportunity. It actually feels like a divine assignment or that we were all coming up to this moment.”

Joe and Celia Ward-Wallace hope that this new partnership and business foundation will one day grow beyond Exposition Park, and that other restaurants and curated programs aren’t just the future for SLAC Hospitality but also the rest of the country; maybe, they say, when it comes to amplifying Black voices and products at such an institutional scale, this isn’t the one-off opening of a restaurant but the start of a movement.

A  margherita and garden-inspired flatbread on a cutting board
Margherita and garden-inspired varieties are two of the menu’s flatbreads, which can also be ordered gluten-free.
(Oscar Mendoza / For The Los Angeles Times)