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ON THE TOWN

SLIMMER PICKIN'S : If L.A's Eating Places Serve as Clues to the Current State of the City, It's a Grim Bill of Fare.

November 05, 1995|Jonathan Gold

I confuse restaurants with life sometimes--it may be an occupational hazard--but I believe that you can learn a lot about a community by hanging out over a plate of oxtails. If you pay attention to the flow of restaurants, the rhythm of meals, who's sitting where and why, you can glean more about a city than you might from a dozen books. Lines of class make themselves clear; passions mingle freely or don't. Subcultures meld and flourish and ooze into one another in ways that foreshadow next month's news. Restaurants can be fairly true, if smudged, windows into the rituals of civic lives.

"Tell me what you eat," said the culinary philosopher Brillat-Savarin, 200 years before the invention of Peking Duck pizza, "and I shall tell you what you are." A college student I ran into last week put the challenge to me this way: "If you can tell so much about a city from its restaurants," he smirked, "what is going on in L.A.?"

The answer depressed me for days. Through most of the '80s, the best restaurants in Los Angeles were democratic public spaces, at least compared to the snootier places of just a few years earlier, creative enough to share arts pages with sculptors and performance artists, and accessible to anybody with a functioning credit card. (It's not like the places were cheap--a restaurant owner of my acquaintance was not amused when I suggested that she change her slogan to "You Can't Pay More for Toast.") The easy informality, the pizza, the spirit of a back-yard barbecue, seemed almost revolutionary in a restaurant world still commanded by tuxedo'd maitre d's. The casual miscegenation of Asian and Mediterranean and Latin-American cuisines suggested a juiced-up multicultural future that even Gov. Pete Wilson could groove on: foie gras with cinnamon and pineapple; Brie quesadillas with green-pea guacamole; radicchio tacos stuffed with crab. That was back in the old days, before Miami--or maybe Phoenix--supplanted Los Angeles as the city of the 21st Century, though also, admittedly, before the valleys east of L.A. became the Chinese-restaurant capital of North America.

But if you try to infer the state of Los Angeles from the non-ethnic restaurant scene these days, blinkered to outside evidence like a sequestered juror deprived of Tabitha and Geraldo, things look pretty grim. Hip new restaurants these days tend to be either private clubs or franchises, essentially closed to the public or relentlessly spun off and marketed. (For the future, look to Chicago, where most of the restaurants are owned by the same three or four guys and are different only in the sense that Frontierland is different from Adventureland: Flaming Meat on Swordland, Big Bowl o' Noodleland, Sourdough Breadland.) More people can name the movie-star investors of a new restaurant than its chef. There's also the Wal-Mart-ization of food culture, where the skinny, double-tall decaf mocha reigns supreme.

How many truly interesting mainstream restaurants have opened in the last few years? Probably no more than a couple--just about the number of older joints that seem to close each month . (Most of the new places seem to specialize in mushroom pasta and bad vintages of pinot grigio , like the cafes you go to in Florence on a Sunday when all the good places are closed.) Some of our best chefs slink off each year to the Bay Area or Manhattan; many who remain open new places as fast as Carl's Jr. spins off franchises. And as with everything else in this country, the good stuff here is concentrating in fewer and fewer mouths--it's becoming clear that 90% of the arugula is going to just 5% of the population.

The community you find in an expensive restaurant may not be a real community--you'd have to be pretty far gone to assume brotherhood with a guy simply because he's munching risotto in the same room where you happen to be eating a grilled tuna nicoise --but sometimes it's the only kind we have.

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