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The night beckons

It's not just the hot vibe or the cool drinks. The latest temptation on the scene: great food.

August 27, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The girls tumble out of a hand-waxed SUV. Lara Flynn Boyle-thin, they're dressed like twins, identical pants worn low to show off the blue scrawl of a tattoo inscribed at the small of their backs. The flash of red sole under their teetering heels could only be Louboutin. As they head toward the entrance of White Lotus in Hollywood, a cellphone cries from the depths of a purse. Hauled out, it pounds out a manic tune, flashing blue lights like a police cruiser.

"We're here," one says, whispering conspiratorially into the phone. "Where are you?"

Obviously inside, and not waiting with the crowd behind the velvet rope. Not so long ago, this wouldn't have been the beginning of a great dining experience. But right now in L.A., White Lotus is just one of a new breed of restaurant -- the splashy late-night lounge -- that captures the spirit of the moment.

True, every season sees a few trendy spots open, and close, as the fickle crowd finds a new allegiance. But this season the crop of restaurant-lounges sprinkled across the city has reached critical mass. And now club crawling is as much about the food as the drinks. The usual nibbles -- little fried things, burgers, nachos -- have morphed into sophisticated tapas or full-scale meals that might tempt a finicky gourmand.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant location -- A photo caption in the Food section Wednesday incorrectly said that Oasis is in West Los Angeles. It is in Los Angeles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 03, 2003 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant location -- A photo caption in the Food section last Wednesday incorrectly said that Oasis is in West Los Angeles. It is in Los Angeles.

New York has its Balthazar and 66, but no other city has embraced the genre of the restaurant-lounge as enthusiastically as Los Angeles. We've got an endless supply of svelte actors and industry insiders eager to see and be seen. We've got innovative young designers willing to put their talents to work to create glamorous and edgy settings for night owls. And gutsy entrepreneurs intent on forging a new genre halfway between restaurant and club. Together, they're re-imagining the relationship between indoors and out with highly theatrical spaces that flow from one into the other. The climate, after all, is with us.

The era of the hyper-glamorous restaurant and club began in Paris in the late '90s with Buddha Bar, a huge underground place that evoked 1930s Shanghai, with a two-story-tall golden Buddha and a menu that served Paris its first taste of Cal-Asian fusion. The chef was Kazuto Matsusaka, longtime chef at Chinois on Main. Paris fell hard for both the place and the exotic food.

Soon after, Matsusaka showed up in L.A. to open Barfly, an offshoot of another plugged-in Paris bar, but somehow this one never really took off. It packed in the crowds at first, the way they all do until the next more alluring venue opens. It could be the Charles Bukowski theme doesn't play as well in L.A. as it does in Paris or maybe its moment hadn't quite arrived.

Meanwhile, other serious chefs began showing up on the lounge-restaurant scene. Fred Eric, who went on to found Vida and Fred 62, the 24/7 diner, came up in clubs such as Olive and Flaming Colossus (both long gone), where he found an enthusiastic audience for food so mischievous and bent it practically stood up and played tricks.

Soon chefs, otherwise seen in more sedate dining rooms, were enlisted to add luster to anything trendy. Ken Frank closed his haute French restaurant, La Toque, and moved over to the House of Blues, briefly. Claude Segal, once society's favorite chef, signed on at the sprawling Sunset Room where he basically sleepwalked through his tenure. Moomba, an offshoot of the New York hotspot, flew very high for a while, boasting some of the best cutting-edge cooking in L.A., despite the babe with the clipboard at the door.

L.A. restaurateurs and club owners are discovering, like Las Vegas, that food can be a powerful lure, just one more inducement to spend the evening here rather than there. Waiters in tuxes and a somberly elegant dining room impress a young, free-spending urban crowd less than something with more glamour and excitement. They're not necessarily looking for a sit-down dinner either, which is why small plates in the tapas vein have captured this audience. A handful of restaurant-lounges are doing their best to create scenes with the right kind of magic.

Seen through a scrim of spindly cedars and a windowsill of flickering votive candles, Dolce reads as a hipster's version of Dante's Inferno. Designer-of-the-moment Dodd Mitchell has created a bar where flames seem to lick the bottles and where blonds in backless dresses stand five deep, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ashton Kutcher, an investor in this hot Italian restaurant. Sleek booths feature tables wearing tight-fitting tailored black leather. Former Valentino sommelier Alessandro Sbrendola scrambles up a ladder to fetch bottles of Barolo or Barbaresco from a 2,000-bottle cellar in a valiant attempt to woo the crowd away from cocktails.

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