Emailing with a reader, I mentioned that I was in the midst of reviewing Barton G, the new Beverly Hills restaurant. "I just looked up Barton G," he replied, "and apparently I don't have enough eye masks or plumage to go there."
It's true: The marketing for Barton G is awfully ... stylized. And I'd be lying if I told you that I never encountered on my visits anyone decked out in feathered headgear and other forms of fancy dress, which bordered on attire better suited for a masquerade ball. But what my pen pal didn't know is that, no matter how you show up at Barton G, the restaurant itself will provide you with plenty of props. This is food in high costume, an experience that is theatrical above all else.
"Do you want me to take a photo of you with the food?" your waitress might offer after a runner has delivered your steak with a super-sized knife and fork roughly as big as tennis rackets. Or maybe she's brought a giant sword, which is now sticking out of a slab of wood that also holds — in a completely secondary sort of way — a hunk of rare tuna, crusted in rice crackers and served with spicy peanut soba noodles.
You might as well go ahead and get the photo. That's not so much to fit in — there's more selfie action happening in this restaurant than at your local middle-school dance, entire tables waving and passing around their phones like some sort of drunken Instagram kabuki — as to get your money's worth. Because that $50 steak that comes with a colossal knife and fork? Not worth $50. It's the props you're paying for.
Barton G is a Miami design, events and restaurant company that owns, among other things, the Villa, which used to be Gianni Versace's home but now is an over-the-top luxury hotel. It also operates a restaurant in Miami, upon which the new L.A. version is based. The Miami location has thrived for a decade.
In some respects, it's easy to see why. A night on the town in Miami Beach might call for a cocktail made with liquid nitrogen so its sides overflow with icy clouds of smoke, garnished not with fruit but a chocolate monkey that dangles from the glass by one chocolate paw.
I'd love to say that the company underestimated L.A. when deciding on its second location, that perhaps Vegas would have been a better place to find customers who want to eat their Jidori chicken with Cajun-spiced jus on a platform that also supports a hulking metal sculpture of a crazed bird. But Barton G seems to be doing just fine here in Beverly Hills, and later in the evening the wait for a table can stretch to an hour, even if you did make a reservation. No reservation? Forget it.
It's hard for me to emphasize how silly, how utterly comical a meal at Barton G can become. By the time a waitress plopped a jumbo flowerpot full of fake orange flowers in front of me, I expected the entire cast of Monty Python to goose-step into the room singing "The Rhubarb Tart Song." I couldn't see my tablemate; he was hidden behind whatever 2-foot-tall appendage was attached to his entree. In the restaurant's neon purple, clublike lighting, with the (generally wobbly) tables squished tightly together and every diner confronted with a bad modernist sculpture poking skyward from his food, the entire experience can become a little menacing, like a designer drug trip gone horribly wrong.
I know: I've barely even touched on how the food tastes. Forgive me; it's hard to focus with so much distraction. And I have to assume that's basically what Barton G is banking on, because while this food is not offensive in any way, it's also not distinguished in any way. And it's very, very expensive.
An $18 "rake and hoe garden" salad comes in a wheelbarrow, and is tossed by your server with a full-sized trowel and hand rake. She empties various seeds over the salad from a sachet such as you'd purchase at the plant nursery. Extra quinoa and nuts come in a ceramic flower pot on the side. Was there a watering can full of truffle vinaigrette with which to douse this perfectly decent and perfectly ordinary salad? I think so.
The $38 pan-roasted sea bass that came with my flower pot was cooked in a brown paper bag, which the server cut open with large scissors and a satisfied flourish. The fish was overcooked but fine. A collection of fingerlings, sweet potatoes and asparagus crammed into a smaller flower pot were the best things on the ... what? Plate isn't the right word. Food stage is more appropriate.
A $24 appetizer of lobster pop tarts come in a plus-sized toaster (because what does a small, unsteady table need but a giant hunk of metal perched atop it?). But they're actually pretty delicious, in a phyllo-pastry-and-cheesy-cream-sauce kind of way. Like hors d'oeuvres at an upscale wedding, circa 1983.
The drunk guy at the next table assures the waiter that he's the CEO of some company and we all ought to be impressed. The bachelorette party across the room has just received dessert: a full-sized mannequin head with a glorious pink bouffant wig made from cotton candy. I am having heart palpitations.
Over my visits to Barton G, my check for dinner for two averaged around $250, including tip. Lest you think that's because I drank my way through these dinners (which would be advisable), think again. The $18 smoking cocktails look cool but they're mainly too sweet to actually drink. Two drinks, two appetizers, two entrees, $250.
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And if it wasn't for that, I'd say that you should experience Barton G for the people watching, for the utter silliness, for the glorious selfie opportunities. If you've got the cash to throw around, go for it (though I hope you'll keep your moneyed status to yourself, unlike our drunken CEO friend).
It's a spectacle, there's no denying it. I do wish it were a cheaper, less stressful, somewhat tastier spectacle. But perhaps I'm missing the point.
See also: Our photo gallery of Barton G
BARTON G | 861 N La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills | (310) 388-1888 | bartongtherestaurantla.com | Sun.-Thu., 6-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.-mid. | Entrees, $29-$65 | Full bar | Valet parking