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Lunch in L.A.: It's nearly extinct

Most of the city's great restaurants don't serve it anymore. And that has diminished us as a serious dining town.

August 20, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

The good lunch seems to be going the way of the good baseball team in Los Angeles these days.

Down the tubes.

It's not that restaurants here are getting worse. Quite the contrary. Unlike the Dodgers and Angels, they're getting better. Several first-rate restaurants have opened in the last year or so, and for the first time in more than a dozen years, when friends ask, "What's good and new in L.A.?" I don't reply, "Which do you want: good or new?"

The sprawling nature of our megalopolis -- and the local obsession with health and diet -- have long made lunch a dicey proposition, especially for fine-dining establishments. But it's worse now than I can ever recall.

Many restaurants have responded to the decline in the economy by closing for lunch or -- in the case of new restaurants -- not opening for lunch in the first place.

A decade ago, L'Orangerie served lunch. No more. Alto Palato stopped serving lunch five years ago. Mimosa stopped when business took a big dip after Sept. 11. Shiro stopped last September. Alex stopped early this year. Patina served lunch five days a week when it opened in 1989, later cut back to four lunches, then one and, last year, stopped serving lunch altogether.

Four of my favorite newish restaurants -- Sona, A.O.C., Grace and EM Bistro -- aren't open for lunch, and a fifth, Bastide, stopped serving lunch at least through the end of September and, "barring a miracle," beyond that, says Donato Poto, the general manager.

Capo, Cobras & Matadors, Josie's, Reign and Tantra are among many others that don't serve lunch.

A few of my favorite restaurants do serve lunch but only on a limited basis: three days a week (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) for Melisse and Chinois-on-Main, one day a week (Friday) for Valentino and Vincenti.

To be fair, I have had simple, delightful lunches recently at Osteria Angelini, Water Grill, Campanile, Lucques and Xiomara, so it's not quite a case of "You'll never eat lunch in this town again." There are still some good, five-day-a-week lunch spots, and a visiting friend and I had a 12-course lunch at Spago Beverly Hills in April that was easily the best meal I've had anywhere in more than a year.

Yes, I realize that most people don't want 12-course lunches. Neither, usually, do I. In fact, on most days I eat at my desk, either leftovers from home or something (shudder) from The Times cafeteria. But there are times when I want to go out for a good lunch. Not 10 or 12 courses. Just two. Or maybe three. And that's what's getting more difficult to find.

A city of noontime ascetics

Most people, alas, don't even want a traditional three-course lunch -- appetizer, main course and dessert. They're worried about their waistlines. Or their cholesterol. Or the drive back to work. So they don't want wine either, just the ubiquitous iced tea, which I'm beginning to think of as our local drink specialty, the Los Angeles equivalent of a pastis in Paris, a bellini in Venice or a mojito in Havana.

One would think that in a city this big and this rich there would be enough people who do appreciate -- and have the time and money for -- an occasional "dining experience" at lunch.

I worry that we have become such ascetic grinds, so determined neither to "waste" time or indulge our sybaritic selves, that we can't even take time for a proper three-course lunch.

"But the dining public in L.A. has a precise idea of what they want to eat for lunch -- pasta and salads, especially Caesar salads," says Joachim Splichal, the founding owner-chef of Patina, who supervises the kitchens there and at the various Pinot bistros.

"Maybe Alex, Grace, Sona and Patina are too sophisticated and elaborate for the general lunch clientele, which wants food that's light and streamlined."

They also seem to want midday food that's much less expensive than it is at dinner at the best restaurants.

"At Patina, the tuna we sold in the $30 range on the dinner menu had to be priced at $18 for lunch," Splichal says. "To staff for lunch, we had everybody working overtime. Lunch was a money-loser for us."

Cutbacks in movie studio expense accounts hit high-end restaurants especially hard -- and none, perhaps, harder than Patina, which is just down Melrose Avenue from Paramount Pictures, many of whose executives once used the restaurant as a virtual studio commissary.

The mantra of the Los Angeles realtor -- "Location, location, location" -- has become all-important to lunch business.

"We're on a street with no offices, so there's no walk-in business," says Danilo Terribili, owner of Alto Palato on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, which gradually cut its lunch service from six days to one to none.

"Most people don't want to get in their cars and drive, park, walk to the restaurant and then have no time to eat because they still have to drive back."

Ironically, the car may be the single most critical player on the Los Angeles lunch scene -- ultimately more important than any chef or maitre d'. For instance:

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