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Early Bird: First & Hope

'Supper club' is a fitting term for this elegant downtown nightspot, where hostesses glow in 'Mad Men'-inspired gowns and the food is superbly Southern.

May 31, 2010|By S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic

"Supper club" is a nostalgic term that PR flacks like to throw around when describing their client. Picture a glamorous, meticulously decorated room where the likes of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne sit at little tables sipping cocktails and nibbling on dinner. The reality usually bears no resemblance to the ideal.

In the case of First & Hope, however, the term actually fits. At this new downtown restaurant across from Walt Disney Concert Hall, striking hostesses are dressed in lovely, long gowns the color of gray pearls, and they look stunning in them. It's enough to make the unwary diner feel she should go back home and break out the diamonds and pearls and elbow-length gloves for dinner at First & Hope.

The place is larger than it seems from a glance in the door, encompassing a bar with pearlescent walls and a curving ceiling that feels like the inside of an oyster shell and an L-shaped dining room with stylish banquettes and some swell booths. Waitresses are dressed in short versions of the hostess gowns devised by "Mad Men" assistant costume designer Allison Leach. It all works together to evoke an earlier time when a night on the town was something special.

Cocktails designed by Aidan Demarest, former director of spirits at the Edison, and bartender Marcos Tello set the mood. Then there's the food, full-on Southern comfort fare from Memphis native Shelley Cooper, who has worked primarily in the South until now.

And she has some sweet tricks up her sleeve, something new and not just a copybook of everything trendy in L.A. right now. To start, she offers a delightful chicken noodle soup with spring onions, sweet peas and fresh corn in a clear, fragrant broth. She has Swedish meatballs with pickled baby beets and, my fave, "Praise the lard!" — that would be a medley of pigs' ears, bourbon-braised pork cheeks and Kurobuta pork belly. (Tuck that napkin in.) For vegetable lovers, she does a "backyard garden salad" replete with ramps, peas, cress, morels and baby spring vegetables in green goddess dressing.

Her "picnic basket" of fried chicken could be gimmicky, but whoa, this Southern chef really knows how to fry a chicken. The only weak point: the limp cornbread. Her burger is laced with chorizo and served with fried green tomatoes, She has a pot roast made with bone-in beef short ribs, and a cowboy-steak dinner for two, which includes braised beef and bone-marrow tea sandwiches. Better hit the gym before donning that satin dress.

For dessert, try the lemon meringue beehive made with a velvety lemon curd, topped with a toasted marshmallow beehive and served with lemon-thyme ice cream. But then if you want to drink your dessert, go with the superb brandy Alexander scented with nutmeg.

The downside is finding the place. Partners Terry Brewer and Parker Martin probably don't want to emphasize that First & Hope is in a strip mall beneath a towering residential complex. And with no sign obvious, I had to drive around the block several times before I spotted the valet stand in the dark. So what? Once you're inside, First & Hope sparkles.

First & Hope Downtown Supper Club

Where: 710 W. 1st St., L.A.

When: Open for lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for supper nightly from 5 to 11. Bar menu is served Sundays to Thursdays from 2:30 to 11 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 2:30 p.m. to midnight.

Cost: Dinner small plates, $10 to $13; medium plates, $13 to $18; large plates, $16 to $29, family style (for two or more), $26 to $36 per person; desserts, $5 lunch and $11 dinner.

Info: (213) 617-8555;

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