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Puck’s Lament 

When Spago’s celebrity chef chastised the media for ignoring the state of fine dining, he struck a chord with this critic

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
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What, if anything, is wrong with Los Angeles restaurants? To hear Wolfgang Puck tell it, whatever fault there is lies largely with the media — specifically with the Los Angeles Times, which invited him and six other prominent chefs to take part in a roundtable discussion last February. The subject was the state of fine dining in Los Angeles, and Puck opened the discussion with a frontal attack: “The Los Angeles Times doesn’t represent the city the way a newspaper should. It’s disgraceful that we don’t have more coverage.” Puck himself has no trouble generating publicity, but says that younger chefs labor in obscurity under a wrong-headed assumption that Los Angeles is a second-rate restaurant city. “Actually, I think restaurants now are more ambitious than they were in the ’80s. I think they are underrated now. It feels like, from the L.A. Times on down, we get complexes of being an inferior city. If the Los Angeles Times doesn’t go out and say we have better restaurants than they do in Chicago or San Francisco, how is anybody else going to believe it? . . . I believe that we have wonderful restaurants here. I believe we have many talented chefs who we never hear about.”

Puck has a point. L.A. restaurants have not been considered hot, newsworthy subjects since the early ’90s. Before that, the ’80s saw an explosion of creativity that briefly and blissfully made Los Angeles the most exciting and vital restaurant destination in the country. Chefs became celebrities. Whole new cuisines were invented weekly. Kathie Jenkins’ Restaurant Notes column in the L.A. Times crackled with gossip and controversy. This golden age gave way to the recession, a tide of Tuscan food, an age of casual spinoffs, and a reactionary obsession with the tried-and-true (chefs complained that they couldn’t stay open without New York steak, caesar salad and crème brûlée on their menus). Many fine-dining establishments hung on, but new restaurants owned by young chefs were increasingly rare. It was, as Mark Peel called it, a “sleepy” period, and there wasn’t a lot to report.

Times are definitely changing; discretionary income is up again, and the IPO crowd is out on the town. Interesting new establishments have slowly and surely arrived on the scene — and are sticking around: Lucques, Cienega, 5 Dudley, Melisse, Paio, Bouchon, Vermont, Figaro, to name a few. Even coffee shops are sparkling: Consider Fred 62 and the surprising Standard. And more is on the way: word has it that Suzanne Tracht (of Jozu) and Alain Giraud (of Lavande) are striking out on their own. Still, Lee Hefter, Suzanne Goin, Michael Wilson, Josiah Citrin don’t have the brand-name recognition of their predecessors.

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If the restaurant scene is stirring to life, this has not, as Puck points out, been adequately reflected in the media. Ironically, when he went to participate in the roundtable discussion at the Times, Puck brought Josiah Citrin along with him. Although Citrin was part owner of the successful restaurant JiRaffe and recently opened the very ambitious and formal Melisse, he was not invited to participate in the discussion. One more time, the restaurant establishment seemed composed of the same few faces: Fred Eric, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Piero Selvaggio, Mark Peel, Joachim Splichal — while the younger chefs remained hypothetical and invisible.

Are we a city in the restaurant doldrums? Or is that very assumption both false and curiously self-fulfilling? How does a young chef break into the establishment? How does he or she become a known quantity?

Puck suggests that adequate print coverage and support can facilitate the success of new restaurants, but he could also call upon the general public for more conscious and active support of new establishments. In general, Los Angeles lacks the kind of loyal, neighborhood-based dining culture found in other large, but more compact, cities. In fact, we tend to all dine like restaurant critics: a few meals here, a few meals there, the occasional return. Our sprawl and car-centered, peripatetic lives reinforce these dining habits. How many of us eat regularly at the same fine-dining establishment? Rather, we strive for diversity; we feel obliged to try out the new and the novel; we distribute our celebratory dinners and lunches among various establishments.

There’s nothing wrong with this taste-test approach, of course, except that we’re missing out on the true pleasures of being a regular, of having an ongoing and deepening relationship with a restaurant. Cities like New York and Boston and San Francisco are more neighborhood-centered, and going out to eat often involves shorter distances and requires less effort. Dining in general is less an event and more a part of daily life; people frequent neighborhood establishments; they become known to their restaurants, and the restaurants, in turn, become more attuned to them. This give and take creates a different kind of dining culture, a world where young chefs are not simply a flavor du jour, but watched, revisited and evaluated in the context of an assumed long haul.

Loyal diners do exist in Los Angeles and are every bit as essential as they are in any other city. The preferential treatment they earn is, however, begrudged them by other diners.

Peripatetic Los Angeles diners walk in the door expecting peak performance from whatever restaurant they’ve chosen to visit. Take, for example, a couple who wrote in to the Los Angeles Times in response to the roundtable discussion. “Several times a year, we still like to go to an outstanding restaurant to experience the talents of an extraordinary chef. We’re even willing to plan a month in advance and pay ridiculous valet-parking fees. But we find that unless we are beautiful people or those with recognizable names, we are treated like nobodies and are made to feel unwelcome . . . With a few noteworthy exceptions, we find this to be universal.”

As an anonymous restaurant critic, I too am the unknown quantity in a restaurant, and I too have been denied prime-time reservations and seen others taken to terrific tables while I’ve waited long past my reservation time for a two-top behind the potted palm. But unlike the couple above, I do not assume that I am not considered important or desirable. In most cases, preferential treatment is not based on beauty or hipness or fame, but on customer loyalty and investment.

While it behooves a restaurant to greet every customer happily and provide service and food commensurate with its prices, it’s also true that Mr. and Mrs. Once-a-Year will spend around $200 in a fine restaurant over the course of a year, while Mr. and Mrs. Once-a-Week will be spending around $10,000. Add to this the fact that the latter folks’ faces are familiar, their preferences known, their loyalty and patronage a vital part of the restaurant. Ironically, in most cases, Mr. and Mrs. Once-a-Week are not beautiful or famous people at all; they might well be older, retired folks with a passion (and the funds) for fine food. They are loyal, repeat customers, and if the hostess smiles at them with more warmth than she bestows on strangers, if they land a terrific table, well, they’ve actually earned it.

I agree with Puck that the print media — and also the public at large — could cultivate a more in-depth, optimistic and committed approach to restaurants in Los Angeles. The results could only be mutually beneficial.

Restaurant critics have limited power. They can draw people to a restaurant for one meal. It’s up to the restaurant to bring first-time customers back. It’s also up to the customer to return. The next time you have a really good meal, think about going back for another. And another. Eventually, you too might become one of the “beautiful” people that garner especially warm smiles and secure great tables.

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