In the 1996 film Big Night, two immigrant brothers, played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, attempt to dig their Italian restaurant out of financial trouble with one epic dinner. The first hour of the film builds up to the party, during which the wine flows as course after course is presented: soup, three kinds of risotto, timpano, roasted chicken, potatoes, artichokes, asparagus. When a whole roasted suckling pig is rolled out to the dining room on a bar cart, the partygoers rise in applause. Viewers can’t hear clapping, though. The energy of Claudio Villa signing “Tic Ti, Tic Ta” and the horns behind him is all the sound there is.
If you take any pleasure in an extended foodie affair, this is a scene you’ll find yourself rewatching. Between the Italian jazz tunes and the shots of diners as they sigh with satisfaction, it feels as if you’re sitting right beside them. And you wish you were. It is that sense of exhilaration and contentedness over great food that drove Josh Loeb to open Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen in Santa Monica nearly 10 years ago.
“A good meal opens people up in a way that nothing does,” Loeb said. “I think 90 percent of Rustic came from me wanting to create that Big Night scene in my life — that feeling of this big dinner party where everyone is eating, drinking and laughing.”
Loeb tested the waters in his mid-20s by feeding friends, first in his childhood home in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood and later in his apartment near the intersection of Pico and Robertson boulevards. He would charge $25 a person, blow all the money on the best ingredients, test out recipes days in advance but still end up serving dinner an hour or more after he’d planned.
“Those dinners were a mess, and it certainly wasn’t a winning business proposition, but I loved having them,” Loeb said. “I hope that is what has translated here at Rustic — the fact that, more than anything, I just love walking into our restaurant and seeing people enjoy themselves. That’s where it all starts.”
You can’t speak with Loeb about Rustic without talking about family. This is where he met his wife, baker extraordinaire and co-owner Zoe Nathan. Since then, they’ve had three children and opened more restaurants, including Huckleberry, Milo & Olive and Esters Wine Bar. Loeb’s brother met his fiancée at Rustic. Over the past decade, they’ve had renowned chefs Samir Mohajer, Evan Funke and current chef Jeremy Fox in the kitchen. A tight-knit team of managers and staff whom Loeb and Nathan respect deeply rounds out the team. Each and every one of them is considered family, Loeb says.
Also like a family, the Rustic crew has evolved together. When Jeremy Fox came on board in early 2013, he brought his culinary vision to life with support from Loeb and Nathan — even when it came time to ax Rustic’s fanatically loved burger.
“There’s a million things that go into making a business successful,” Loeb said, “Innovating through intuition is one of them. We had a burger on the menu from day one. When Evan came on, he altered it and it took off. Then it started to dominate. After he left and we found Jeremy, the burger didn’t make sense anymore. Jeremy was making this amazing food and people weren’t ordering it. So we thought, let’s not do it. It’s not Jeremy’s dish.”
Nathan thinks along similar lines. She shudders at the word “trend” and admits that she and Loeb have no desire to be “cool.”
“When people ask me what I think is trending, I say the same thing every time: ‘butter, sugar, flour, salt,’” she said. “I have no idea what other people are going to do, but that’s what I’m going to do, because it doesn’t seem to have gone out of style yet. It’s like a white T-shirt and a pair of jeans. We try not to be a flash in the pan.”
Nathan’s zeal for her work gets her up at 3 a.m. — baking breads, pies, scones, cakes and more — and back home before 7 a.m. to be with her kids. She makes treats her family members want to eat, she says, though she’s happy and humbled to hear that other people enjoy her creations, too.
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Though the two say they aren’t particularly keen on celebrations, Rustic Canyon’s 10-year anniversary, which is officially Dec. 8, was a significant enough achievement for them to set aside time to reflect and gather. The first of a series of three dinners took place on Oct. 3 with out-of-town chef friends of Fox in the kitchen. The next dinner is set for Nov. 7 and stars local L.A. names: Walter Manzke, Josef Centeno, Ori Menashe and Jessica Koslow. On Dec. 8, Rustic Canyon chefs past and present will prepare a meal.
“Rustic at 10 is so much better than it has ever been, and that feels really good,” Loeb said. “When we opened, we wanted it to be a restaurant that grew, that wasn’t stagnant and changed and evolved as people came through it and shaped it. That has happened. We can’t wait for Samir and Evan to cook with Jeremy on our anniversary. There’s so much palpable history there, so many incredible nights and experiences. We feel a lot of gratitude.”
Here’s hoping Italian jazz is part of the big night.
1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 393-7050, rusticcanyonwinebar.com.