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Fajita pitas, Octopus Tacos, and the Birth of California Cuisine

1 When Michael’s opens in 1979, there are other serious dining rooms in Los Angeles, including Ma Maison and the newish, ultraluxe L’Orangerie, which bestrides La Cienega like a Louis Quinze bank lobby. Only a year before, my high school girlfriend and I had taken the RTD to L’Ermitage, where we had dined on either kidney stuffed with liver or liver stuffed with kidney (neither of us could tell the difference at the time) and a bottle of Morgon we had somehow been allowed to purchase. But these other restaurants were French, relentlessly so, and Michael’s is a new sort of thing: a fantasy of California as imagined by a dude who has spent an awful lot of time living the good life in Paris. The cellar is filled with Napa Valley wine; the patio is awash in Renoir-like stippled shade; the tables are set with Christofle silver. The art on the walls, Stellas and Rauschenbergs and Hockneys and such, is sufficient to endow a modest museum. The menu, heavily influenced by the French nouvelle cuisine found at such Michelin-starred joints as Chiba and Michel Guerard, is nonetheless centered around California’s peerless produce, and many of the clichés that will later cause eyes to roll even in Ohio hotel restaurants — raspberry vinaigrettes, angel-hair pasta with Chardonnay cream, multicolored bell-pepper confetti, entrée salads based around grilled protein — are new. The opening crew, which includes Ken Frank, Mark Peel and Jonathan Waxman, who will all go on to major careers, may be the Beatles — make that the Byrds — of California nouvelle cuisine. And nearly 25 years later, there still may be no better place to drink a bottle of Sonoma Chardonnay in the summertime than on Michael’s patio, under the benevolent gaze of the pink-shirted waiters and the battalion of Robert Grahams.

2 Orson Welles’ doctor advises him to stop “having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people in attendance.” Unaccountably, Ma Maison does not experience a 25 percent drop in revenue.

3 At West Beach Café (unless it was at his earlier Café California), Bruce Marder discovers that Venice artists and grand cru Burgundy do in fact go together — rather well, actually. Marder’s later successes will include the octopus at Rebecca’s (both as grilled in a taco and as fabricated by Frank Gehry for the ceiling), the chicken potpie at Broadway Deli and the clubby exclusivity of Capo, an icon of tasteful luxury so understated that you probably need a subscription to House & Garden to understand it as luxurious at all. But he will probably always be best known for the historical moment when artists and their followers noticed that their conception of Miller Time had grown to include Calvados hors d’age. Preferably billed back to their dealers.

4 According to Barbara Lazaroff, Ed LaDou’s audition for Wolfgang Puck was a disaster, highlighted by a pizza topped with mustard and pâté. But as realized in the wood-burning ovens at the original Spago, LaDou’s pizza is just spectacular, topped with things like duck sausage or smoked salmon — or, in one memorable instance, slices of fresh white truffles. Spago catches on in part because Puck is the first famous chef to cook the way Angelenos eat, which turns out to be a pretty good culinary lingua franca for what will come to be known as New American cuisine. The first menus are Mediterranean-inspired, with supersize flavors derived fairly directly from the kind of redwood-deck dads’ cooking more identified with Sunset Magazine than with Escoffier. And as for LaDou, he will go on to develop the pizzas for the California Pizza Kitchen chain and to run his own wonderful pizzeria, Caioti.

5 New Southwest cuisine is born not on a windswept mesa, but in a Manhattan Beach shopping mall. John Sedlar, who grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and trained under Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage, introduces the flavors he’d grown up with to classical French cooking, thereby creating an abstracted hybrid that nobody has ever seen before, and elevating the use of squeeze bottles and obscure chile pastes to heights unimagined even by fans of Jackson Pollock. Sedlar’s innovations lead inevitably to the fajita pita and to the availability of blue-corn tortilla chips at Trader Joe’s. He long ago left the restaurant world to concentrate on his dream of a museum dedicated to the tamale, but I know people who still dream about his chiles rellenos stuffed with the French mushroom purée duxelles.

6 Evan Kleiman opens Angeli Caffe, which crystallizes the affinity of Angelenos for casual Italian cooking |— the spaghetti alla checca, roast chicken and minimally garnished pizza that a Sienese teenager might eat for dinner at the trattoria down the block on the nights his mother didn’t feel like turning on the stove, but which was essentially unobtainable to those of us on this side of the sea. Suddenly, one out of three restaurants on the Westside turns into a neo-Tuscan caffè, and the city, then the nation, becomes awash in salads dressed with balsamic vinegar and bowls of tiramisù — few of which are even remotely up to the standard set by Angeli’s rustic simplicity.

 

7 At the elegant beach restaurant 72 Market Street, Leonard Schwartz not only puts Bowl of Kick Ass Chili on the menu, but figures out a way to make meat loaf taste great. This is credited by many with setting off a boom in expensive-restaurant comfort food that sweeps over America like a viral infection. If you have ever been offered chicken-in-a-pot or mashed potatoes in a $75-a-person restaurant lately, Schwartz deserves the credit — or blame.

8 Nuova cucina finds its American home not in midtown Manhattan, but at Rex, a converted haberdashery in downtown Los Angeles with perhaps more Art Deco Lalique glass per square inch than anywhere on Earth. A plane ticket to Italy may cost about the same as dinner for two at the restaurant, but at the moment, the food at Rex may be as good as anything in Rome.

9 A tasting menu at Le Petite Chaya includes six separate dishes sauced with beurre blanc, then a chestnut mousse. Japanese-French fusion is looking more distant all the time.

10 Roy Yamaguchi, chef of 385 North, invents the new-wave gyoza, stuffed with smoked duck, diced kiwi, seared scallops, what have you. Nobody thinks much of it at the time, until Yamaguchi splits town for Honolulu and becomes the unchallenged warrior king of Hawaiian cuisine.

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger at city cafe (Photo by Anne Fishbein)

11 The City Café may have been the prototypical restaurant of the Melrose boom, two impossibly hip young women cooking Modern Food elbow to elbow in a kitchen only somewhat larger than the galley in a Cessna. But Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger’s subsequent City Restaurant, a huge, swell place in a converted auto showroom on La Brea, represents the emerging culture of ’80s Los Angeles better than any restaurant has before or since — the strands of Korean, Indian and Thai cooking twisting from their neighborhoods up to La Brea, the respect for vegetarian traditions, the careful attention to everything from the plates to the waitresses’ jackets, the idea that Los Angeles is a real place.

12 Fennel sounds like one of those ideas certain people come up with at 3 in the morning over their fourth bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape: an ambitious seaside bistro in Santa Monica featuring the cooking of four famous French chefs, each of whom flies in every couple of months for a two-week stint behind the stoves. The experiment, the brainchild of Rex proprietor Mauro Vincenti, is doomed to fail. But on the other hand, Fennel launches the career of supervising chef Laurent Manrique, the guy who actually does the cooking, and somehow morphs into the wonderful La Cienega Italian restaurant Alto Palato. And for a few weeks at least, Angelenos get to eat the food of Guy Savoy without hopping on a plane. What’s so bad about that?

13 Max au Triangle, Joachim Splichal’s attempt at an ultimate restaurant, collapses under its own weight, although its spectacular interior is still used to illustrate books about postmodern design, and the exquisite, expensive, labor-intensive Mediterranean cuisine in the tradition of Jacques Maximin is arguably as fine as any Los Angeles chef has ever produced: elaborate all-lobster menus; salads garnished with rosy rare rabbit livers; and a bisque containing macaroni individually stuffed with crawfish mousse. Splichal’s next restaurant, Patina, will serve delicious, if less ambitious, French cooking and vault into the first rank almost at once; and he will go on to build a vast, profitable fine-dining empire.

Fred Eric’s Fred 62 (Photo by Jack Gould) 14 Fred Eric and Octavio Becerra, veterans of Max, serve their baroque concoctions on glass bricks, hubcaps, roofing tiles and even actual plates at the nightclub Flaming Colossus, a restaurant located in an old Knights of Columbus hall near MacArthur Park. This is not the first restaurant of L.A.’s velvet-rope era — Eric will go on to be chef at the Olive, often thought of as L.A.’s most important club restaurant, as well as Vida, Fred 62 and the Airstream Diner; Becerra will become chef of the Pinot restaurants — but the snooty, creative, Euro-intensive Flaming Colossus contains the DNA that informs the rest of the beast.

15 In a county with almost 3 million Mexicans and essentially no serious Mexican restaurants, the redevelopment agency TELACU expects its Tamayo to be the Eastside’s answer to Spago, with a Michelin-starred French chef, acres of oil paintings (both real and facsimile) from the namesake Mexican artist, and a rotisserie big enough to roast whole sheep, suckling pigs and kids. The concept never quite pans out — the people willing to drive from Bel Air for expensive Mexican food seem to end up eating fish at La Serenata de Garibaldi instead — and Tamayo quickly turns into a rather ordinary Mexican restaurant in an extraordinary setting, the swankiest bar scene on the entire Eastside.

 

16 In a double-blind tasting, the San Francisco Chronicle inexplicably votes La Brea Bakery’s shiny, chewy, naturally risen baguette the best sourdough bread in the Bay Area, even though it is shipped to the city’s supermarkets frozen. Positive they’ve made a mistake, the editors repeat the tasting . . . and choose the La Brea bread again. In bread circles, this is the equivalent of the famous 1976 tasting in Paris where Stag’s Leap from the Napa Valley bested all the first-growth Bordeaux. Baker Nancy Silverton cements her position as the queen of all bread.

17 Without anybody quite noticing, Nobu Matsuhisa sneaks some dishes onto the menu of his neighborhood sushi bar that are influenced by the time he spent cooking in Lima. Innovation in sushi is nothing new in Los Angeles — the ubiquitous California roll was invented at the Little Tokyo restaurant Horikawa just a few years ago — but Matsuhisa’s takes on Peruvian ceviche and the lightly marinated tiradito, along with his own ideas about seafood salad and “new-style” sashimi drizzled with warmed olive oil, take hold. Within a couple of years, Matsuhisa will have re-defined the modern restaurant kitchen as a place with a sushi chef instead of a hot line at its core, and his influence will stretch all the way back to Japan.

Campanile’s Nancy Silverton at La Brea Bakery (Photo by Anne Fishbein)

18 When Campanile opens in a converted Hollywood apartment court, The Village Voice calls it the last restaurant of the ’80s, which in a certain way it is. Chef Mark Peel grows his own lamb, makes mozzarella to order and drives down to Chino Ranch himself twice a week to pick up the produce. Nancy Silverton not only transforms America’s idea of dessert with her entrée-structured pastries, but makes the country’s best bread in her spare time. Manfred Krankl’s list of obscure Italian, Californian and Austrian wines is so far out in front that only now are the rest of the restaurants in town beginning to catch up. A few years later — its moment — it finds itself joined at the hip to the Santa Monica Farmers Market, and the exotic Persian mulberries, Meyer lemons and chiogga beets, for the first time, find a Los Angeles restaurant home.

19 The first Johnny Rockets on Melrose, which from the start is mobbed by the sort of Hollywood guy who has bought his Harley-Davidson with an American Express card, represents the perfection of the faux restaurant, which is to say a blurry photocopy of the Apple Pan menu transplanted to a Happy Days fantasy of a ’50s diner, a vision so compelling that most of the remaining real ’50s diners are redesigned to resemble it completely, right down to the pink neon and the chrome. Is it progress to be able to visit a Los Angeles–style restaurant in Kuwait City? Apparently so.

20 The Los Angeles restaurant scene had long suffered the effects of Spagonomics — which is to say, the inability of any restaurant in town to get away with charging more for its food than Spago did for a meal of pizza, pasta and salad (really good pizza, pasta and salad, true) because Spago was where everybody really wanted to eat. Then Puck himself moves to the old Bistro Garden space in Beverly Hills, and instead of pizza, he serves a crawfish-and-beet salad that might have come out of the playbook of a three-star restaurant in Strasbourg; instead of chopped salad, a foie gras platter; instead of sticky “Mandarin” quail, pan-roasted black bass with fava beans and rosemary. This is the sort of move a chef in France has to make if he aspires to coax a third star out of the Michelin inspectors, but few American restaurateurs — besides, perhaps, Sirio Maccioni at New York’s Le Cirque — have dared to dismantle so popular a place.

21 When the world’s great food cities, Paris and Taipei and Rome, are being discussed, it may not be unreasonable to include among them . . . San Gabriel, California, population 39,804, which up until a decade before had been noted chiefly for the patty melts at Sandi’s Coffee Shop. Consider this: The city of San Gabriel has at least 50 restaurants worth recommending, far more than Beverly Hills or Cincinnati, and scarcely fewer than Los Angeles’ entire Westside. In San Gabriel, you can find the cooking of almost any Chinese province. In Taipei, San Gabriel is almost as famous as Hollywood or Disneyland. And the big event in San Gabriel, the locus of Chinese eating in Southern California, is the opening of San Gabriel Square, a gleaming, sweet-smelling Oz of a shopping mall with a Chinese department store, a tremendous Chinese supermarket, boutiques and bakeries, and Chinese restaurants of every description: Islamic, Taiwanese noodle shop, dim sum, Shanghainese, Chiu Chow, northern Chinese, Cantonese deli and a cook-your-own buffet, among others. Where does one eat well in San Gabriel Square? Everywhere.

 

22 Pan-Latin? Nuevo Latino? Caribbean cooking? Whatever you call it, the cuisine arguably gets its start at Cha Cha Cha, a tumbledown ex–gas station on the far end of Melrose where Toribio Prado parlays a thatched patio, salsa mix tapes and a first-rate corn-chowder recipe into something resembling an empire, plantains on the side.

23 Half the bottles in Valentino’s wine cellar, perhaps the biggest and deepest in Los Angeles, plummet to their deaths in the Northridge quake. More than one grape nut contemplates positioning himself outside the doors of the restaurant, ready to lap up the errant torrent of glass-laced La Tâche.

24 If you grew up in L.A., you probably expected a certain kind of restaurant to be around pretty much forever, the leather-booth, caesar-salad, big-martini places with rolling service carts, Hollywood pedigrees and captains who looked like Joe E. Brown. But in the ’70s, boom, they all begin to disappear. Scandia — gone. The Cock and Bull, whose bar was the first to serve vodka in America — torn down. The Brown Derby — dismantled, the crown of its landmark hat-shaped dining room ignominiously hoisted onto a Korean mini-mall, where it sits like the wart on a witch’s nose. And when a supermarket finally replaces Chasen’s, the ancient Hollywood restaurant that functioned as a clubhouse for everybody from Humphrey Bogart to Ronald Reagan, it isn’t only the hobo steak, the banana shortcake and Pepe Ruiz’s famous Flame of Love martini that are mourned.

25 Vida, whose partners include two-thirds of the Beastie Boys and the guy who manages Nirvana, is persuaded by one of its regular customers to rent the tiny private banquet room out as a set for a high-budget porno film. “You should hang out and watch,” the star giggles to chef Fred Eric. “I’m doing my very first anal.”

Ginza Sushiko, or at least its chef, Masa Takayama, moves to Manhattan. Which means that the best sushi bar in the country is no longer in Los Angeles. Bummer.


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