My year in Los Angeles began shakily. I rolled into town just hours before the Jan. 17 earthquake. As soon as the dust settled and I could more or less get around, I began working--that is, eating out six or seven nights a week. I had an entire city to learn, but this has always seemed to me the best part about moving: that brief moment when everything is still unfamiliar, when habits haven't yet had a chance to hijack my sense of adventure.
The days just after the earthquake were filled with possibility. Everyone was in the streets. The city was wide open. But most people were not eating out. That's why I could waltz into Spago without a reservation or get a table at Patina and Citrus on a moment's notice. By the following week, restaurants started to fill up again. That's when I began my real eating odyssey.
I checked out the old places (Musso & Frank, Dan Tana's, Nate n' Al). I tried out the gold standards (Valentino, the Grill, La Serenata de Garibaldi). I had lunch at the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles (Ginza Sushi-Ko) and found it worth every penny. I dined in strip-mall restaurants (Bombay Cafe, Marouch) and noshed on French-dip sandwiches (Philippe the Original and Cole's) and steaming tacos folded around chile-doused meats (Yuca's Hut and El Taurino) and some of the greatest barbecue ever (Phillip's). Not only did I need to do a great deal of remedial eating, I also tracked restaurant openings in what was a slow, recessionary year for restaurants.
The difficulties of commuting while the freeways were down did have one positive effect. People began to discover chefs and places in their own neighborhoods, such as Louise Branch at Woodside in Brentwood, Josiah Citrin and Raphael Lunetta at Jackson's in West Hollywood. Sitting down to a friendly place with a small menu just around the corner seemed appealing, and to satisfy this new urge, young chefs opened modest venues. I'm thinking of promising cooks like Russell Jackson of Russell's and Fred Eric's wacky Vida. Or the Beverly Hills reincarnation of Tommy Harase's Franco-Japanese Cafe Blanc, this time with Nouveau in front of the name. Even if you are willing to drive, moderately priced restaurants are in. Restaurant-goers are looking for value (along with a doggie bag).
No new restaurant has broken into the slim ranks of the top restaurants, not this year, not even in the past few years. Valentino, Rex, Patina, Citrus, Chinois on Main, Drago and Campanile are beginning to look just a bit lonely up there. It says a great deal about the state of fine dining in L.A. when the owners of every one of these restaurants (with the exception of Campanile, which owns the thriving La Brea Bakery) has opened more informal, less expensive places. Piero Selvaggio's moderately priced Posto is in its third year in Sherman Oaks; in 1993, Puck launched his chain of Wolfgang Puck's Cafes at Universal City's Citywalk. This year, Michel Richard divided Citrus in two to create a bargain-priced bistro sidekick to his more expensive California-French flagship. Joachim Splichal opted for a classy little lunch room called Patinette in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Downtown. Another top restaurateur, John Sedlar, closed his high-flying Bikini and put the more casual Abiquiu in the same stylish space with prices about half those of Bikini's. Trumps' Michael Roberts created a menu at Twin Palms, a 400-plus-seat restaurant under two palm trees and a tent in Pasadena (with another set for Orange County next year), that just about anyone can afford. Appetizers for only $3.75 from a name chef? Who would've thought we'd see the day?
In Beverly Hills, Celestino Drago cut costs by eliminating main courses and concentrating on more inexpensive antipasti, pasta and risotto dishes at Il Pastaio. And Mauro Vincenti, who owns the exclusive Rex il Ristorante downtown, changed gears entirely when he finally reopened his old Pazzia space in West Hollywood as Alto Palato, an earthy trattoria with pasta dishes under $10.
Even the Bistro Garden, a perennial favorite with the ladies who lunch, has stooped to lower prices with their BG to Go in Studio City. But fast food, as in BG Souffle in the food court at the Century City Market Place? Amazing.
But one thing hasn't changed. Most readers, I've found, still want to know what's trendy or hot. There have been a few splashy openings: House of Blues (the tin shack goes palatial), Dive! (the designer submarine sandwich), Country Star Restaurant in Universal City (Reba, Winona and Vince Gill bring in the fans for some country ribs and chicken). But at these high-concept restaurants, it's mostly form over content, much ado about nothing much.