It's a moment seemingly torn from the pages of the "Good Will Hunting" script. A scruffy college student in baggy jeans and baseball cap walks into a new bar called the Lab Gastropub just off the USC campus. He takes in the chalkboard tables, the white-tiled walls, the beakers full of beer, the leather study chairs and bookshelves packed with science texts. Then he turns his attention to a formula written on a chalkboard on the wall. He erases part of it, grabs chalk and begins to rework it.
Behind the long marble bar, bartender Ashley Todd watches, amused. "I love it when people come in and are like, 'This is wrong,' and we give them some chalk and say, 'OK, fix it.' "
Launched just two weeks ago, the Lab is part of a rapidly growing roster of restaurants opened on Figueroa Street by USC Hospitality in hopes of making the neighborhood a go-to destination for students, faculty, alumni and the public. USC's burgeoning "Restaurant Row" also includes Rosso Pizzeria and McKay's, opened within the past five months.
The Lab is the group's most elaborate effort. To achieve its " '2001' goes-to-college" look, USC Director of Hospitality Scott Shuttleworth brought in prominent L.A. architectural firm AC Martin. Shuttleworth has plenty of experience creating vibe and buzz, having worked as director of operations for Sam Nazarian's SBE Restaurant Group and helping to launch stylish dining mainstays including the Katsuya outposts in Brentwood and Hollywood.
The amped-up approach to dining is welcome on a stretch of road usually associated with fast food and taco stands. According to bartender Todd, the Lab is making former students jealous. "Alumni come in and say, 'Man, why wasn't this here when I was here?' " she says.
The menu features dressed-up, mercifully un-greasy bar food, including boneless hot wings; crisp calamari with two sauces; tomato, mozzarella and basil salad; black Angus beef burgers; spicy grilled lime and garlic shrimp; and meatloaf with mashed potatoes with gravy. You'll also find 14 beers on tap, with the head of the class being a special "Trojan Blonde" brew by Karl Strauss.
On a recent Monday night, a student walked up to the bar and ordered one, asking hopefully, "Does it come in a beaker?" Yes, it does.
Where: 3500 Figueroa St., L.A.
When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays
Price: Appetizers, $4 to $7; sandwiches and entrees, $7 to $16; beer and wine, $4 to $7
Contact: (213) 743-1843