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Special Restaurant Issue / A New Sparkle: The Scene
| Critic's Notebook

This delicious moment

Exciting new restaurants are transforming L.A. dining at every level. There's never been a better time to pull up a chair.

November 05, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The names snake off the page, scrawled in the margins, crossed out, written in again, as I come across scraps of paper where I've scribbled an address or phone number, real or rumored. For the first time in years, I can't keep up with all the alluring restaurants opening. Neither can anybody else. Suddenly everybody -- my dentist, my mechanic, the postman, the bookstore clerk, the piano tuner -- wants to talk restaurants.

Giddy with possibilities, L.A.'s restaurant scene is sparkling with an effervescence we haven't seen since the mid '80s when Citrus, Spago, Michael's, Max au Triangle, St. Estephe, City Restaurant and Trumps were showing the rest of the country how it's done. Those were the days when Wolfgang Puck put casual and gourmet in the same sentence at Spago and Michael McCarty parried with his crew of irreverent young Turks at Michael's. There was no going back. Or so it seemed. But that delicious moment when each new restaurant tried to trump the next with daring design and even bolder dishes was almost 20 years ago, I hate to say.

L.A. was riding high. And then suddenly it wasn't.

Once the economy slipped its gears into reverse, many of the brave new places weren't deeply rooted enough to hold on. Then came a long dry spell when restaurateurs got conservative and innovation took a nap. Not so long ago I used to scramble to find a new -- any new -- restaurant worth celebrating. Some months -- and even some entire years -- the pickings were embarrassingly slim.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Chef's name -- A Food section article on restaurants Wednesday misspelled the name of chef Joseph Herreros as Herrera and incorrectly identified him as the chef at Paladar. He has left that restaurant.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant location -- In an article about the restaurant scene in the Nov. 5 Food section, the address for the restaurant Jar was given as 8225 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Center. It is at 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 26, 2003 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant location -- In a Nov. 5 article about the restaurant scene, the address for the restaurant Jar was given as 8225 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Center. It is at 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles.

What a difference now. While New York and San Francisco languish, with few new exciting restaurants this year, the Los Angeles dining scene is alive and well. It's hard to pinpoint when the sea change came. It might have been when Gino Angelini caught the city's imagination with his casual, authentic Italian cooking at Angelini Osteria or when Alain Giraud debuted his sensational Provencal-California cuisine at Bastide a year later. But the restaurant scene has been picking up momentum for at least the last couple of years: 2002 brought us A.O.C., Alex, Jar, Paladar, Bistro Em, Nishimura and Sona, among others. Through most of the '90s, that might have been three years' worth of worthy restaurants.

This year, the pace has picked up even more. The renewal of Patina, which had been sleeping on its laurels while Joachim Splichal concentrated on his ever-growing restaurant empire, is nothing short of astonishing. Just last week it pulled up stakes and moved into the new Walt Disney Concert Hall with a new chef and a new sommelier. And four days into a completely new menu, a dinner there outshone every other meal I've ever had at Patina. The setting is spectacular, and at 10 p.m., when everyone poured into the room after the concert, the atmosphere was electric. This is a bona fide late-night restaurant. And in downtown L.A.

Farther west, you'd have to be blind not to notice all the new places cropping up on Beverly Boulevard, West 3rd Street, Melrose Avenue, and Sunset and Hollywood boulevards like mushrooms after a deep rain -- Table 8, Grace, Opaline, Citrine, Dolce, Cinch and a long string of others.

Against all odds, which may or may not include the economy, war, the state of politics and raging firestorms, L.A. is back. There's a new generation of chefs breaking out, and they didn't come from nowhere. Some have worked all over town, waiting for the right moment and the right space to launch the restaurant they've been designing in their minds for years. In an uncertain economy, most stayed put, but now that the pressure is gradually lifting, it's time to move. As money has come out of the stock market, some investors are looking to restaurants. The usual backers have been joined by some younger investors intrigued by being part of something so creative and glamorous.

The restaurant scene is spreading too, beyond West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, to Los Feliz, Silver Lake, the Fairfax District, even Playa del Rey where rents are more affordable. It's bubbling up in far-flung corners of the city. Restaurant row is a thing of the past. And so is the dominance of French cuisine at the best tables. The food is all over the map as more chefs travel and study all over the globe. Dishes inspired by street food in Singapore or Umbria, Indian spices, Australian fusion or the extraterrestrial cuisine of Spain's explorer-chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli are popping up on menus all over town. The mood is experimental, the atmosphere urban and casual. L.A. is busy forging a new sort of restaurant scene, eclectic enough to defy easy categorization. The wow factor is less than it was in the mid-'80s. Diners today are more sophisticated, more sure of their own tastes.

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