A few years ago, while walking down Brunswick Street, the hippest of hip streets in the painfully hip Fitzroy neighborhood of Melbourne, Australia, I came across a restaurant that left a searing imprint on my imagination. The huge, almost industrial space was filled with light. There were long wooden tables, Arcade Fire on the stereo and a young, happy crowd swilling high-end beers.
Yet, at the end of the room, rather than a bar or open kitchen, was a cafeteria line.
I'm not sure what about the place made such an impression (I didn't eat there). But I think it had to do with taking the nostalgia of the school cafeteria — that massive space, the trays, the aircraft-hangar feel — and upgrading it. There's something seductive and exciting about referencing childhood and adding the best things about adulthood: good food and booze.
Which is exactly what Rob Serritella is aiming to do at MessHall, the Los Feliz spot he opened in early September. The restaurant plays with the architecture and feel of a summer camp or woodsy lodge, with high, sloping wooden walls, a patio with glassed-in fire pits and a wall installation made of segmented metal lunch trays.
The building's most famous previous tenant was a Brown Derby, owned by Cecil B. DeMille. More recently, it was Louise's Trattoria, also owned by Serritella, with the minor involvement of L.A. restaurant mogul Bill Chait, who has a small interest in MessHall as well.
The current incarnation is large and fun, and absolutely packed much of the time. Anchored by a central bar with two televisions, it manages its goal of capturing the raucous energy of a mess hall in full swing. Even at 5:45 on a recent Saturday evening, every seat in the place was taken, including at the bar.
Servers in plaid shirts approach tables with all the bouncy gusto of camp counselors on the first day of summer (although they're a far more attractive lot than your average camp counselors — this is L.A., after all).
The chef is Keith Silverton, and his menu plays with ideas of classic American fare. Some of it reaches back to that notion of nostalgia for the institutional food of childhood, some of it hews closer to the outdoorsy nature of camping, and some of it takes on a Southern drawl. And then there are things that simply reflect the sensibilities of Los Feliz in 2012, like baby beets with farro and grapefruit, or the very good cocktails with names like "the Hallucinogenic Whimsies of Banana Man."
The place where MessHall is most fun is where the whimsy gets into the food. Alaskan rock shrimp cakes with orange, fennel and harissa sound good and modern, but there's a wink here to the fish stick of your childhood, or the filet-o-fish, or the shrimp toast. Perhaps it's a crispy hybrid of all three but fresher, and with contrasting garnishes, and just way, way better. While I've never heard of a summer camp that serves oysters on the half shell, let alone a decent variety of both East and West Coast options every night, MessHall makes it seem like a no-brainer that they all absolutely should.
Basic American dinners done right make up a lot of the entrees, like rich, tender, beef short ribs served with a simple, silken mashed potato tinged with celery root and even simpler al dente Brussels sprouts. The "hog chop," juicy and flavorful, comes with grits and mustard greens, both hearty and well prepared. There's nothing that exciting here, just good ingredients treated with care.
At lunch, Cobb salad gets the respect it deserves, served in a big bowl with exactly the right balance of salty, meaty and fresh ingredients. As the Cobb was a Brown Derby invention, it's fitting that MessHall takes its version seriously.
Occasionally, creativity takes over, as with the plant-love snackdown of the romanesco appetizer. You know that broccoli made of conical spheres that's kinda like cauliflower? Here it's served with grilled artichokes and a pine nut gremolata. The vegetal flavor of the two main ingredients works like a math problem: vegetable squared plus smoky pine nuts and salty caper berries equals delicious. A touch of acid would send this dish into the stratosphere of awesome, but it's pretty great as is.
Steak tartar tacos made with a crunchy Parmesan shell push the edges of cutesy, though their zing and playfulness earn your attention, especially if fun is what you're after.
All that said, the food here is rarely mind-blowing. It's American food that's elevated just enough to make it seem special. And it's occasionally way off base. The oyster po' boy served at lunch is no such thing (it's an oyster sandwich, and yes, there is a difference). A special one night of pork belly mac-and-cheese was Exhibit A in one of my most oft-repeated sermons, the one I've titled Don't Put Crap in the Mac-and-Cheese. It was oily and slightly skanky in that way pork fat can get, which is somehow fine on its own or in a sausage but really pretty gross with pasta and cheese.
But most of what MessHall has to offer is good enough, and friendly enough, that you might consider it a regular neighborhood hangout if it weren't for the price point. The bill comes in a cute folder marked "Damages." You may feel they are slightly too damaging. If you're drinking or desserting, it's easy to hit the $150 mark for two people.
That's fairly common at hot new L.A. restaurants these days, I suppose, but it feels a little off for food that is basically glorified comfort classics. It's an expense that creeps up — $12 appetizers, a $6 side here, a $13 (small pour) glass of wine there, and all of a sudden, your casual night out has become extravagant. The place ain't cheap.
But it's also a whole lot of fun, and a refreshing homage to American nostalgia. Where others have gone the gastropub route, or put pizza on the menu because it's an easy sell, MessHall has taken the time to do something different and taken the concept to its logical extremes. I'm not sure that MessHall will keep playing on my imagination for years to come, but if comfort, buzz and a healthy dose of Americana is what you're after, you could do a lot worse.
MESSHALL | 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Feliz | (323) 660-6377 | messhallkitchen.com | Lunch: Fri., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Wed., 5 p.m.-mid.; Thurs.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.-mid. | Entrees $15-28 | Full bar | Valet parking