The waitress is talking, listing the ingredients in bagna cauda, but it’s hard to focus on her explanation. Olive oil, garlic, anchovy, she says; I’m thinking instead about the last time I was here, eating pizza with my parents on this patio in Silver Lake. Now it’s Wolfdown, the new dinner spot on Rowena, mostly Asian-influenced and largely produce-driven, modern and atmospheric and trendy. Back then it was Nicky D’s, which was just about the opposite of all of those things.
Nicky D’s was a neighborhood pizza joint, a big wood-burning oven in a little bungalow and not much else — some chairs and tables, a gesture at salad, and Nick's big smile. No one drove across town to visit, and no one brandished it in front of transplant friends to show that L.A. pizza had finally caught up, but it served some pretty wonderful pies. The crust was thick-ish and bready and kissed with smoke, the tomato sauce was sharp and bright, and the pepperoni curled up gently around the edges like lotus pads floating on a liquid cheese lake.
Great as the pizza was, it was only one of many reasons that Nicky D’s became a beloved local institution. It was a warm and welcoming restaurant, perfect for a group pizza dinner after soccer practice or a takeout pie and a salad on the way home from work. I ate at Nicky D’s with my grandparents after middle school graduation, and when I dropped out of college and moved home it was the first pizza I ate.
So Wolfdown has a lot to live up to, taking over a space with a long legacy of family dinners and low-key dates, a decade-plus of melted cheese. It presents a minor dilemma – how to approach a new restaurant in a familiar setting, how to feel when you walk in off the same busy street to find the same converted house, with the open kitchen in the same L along the same back wall, but to see it remade, transformed and unfamiliar. It’s hard to avoid, for a few moments at least, a slight disorientation, as if you’ve taken a quick trip in a half-functional time machine.
It can’t be easy for a restaurateur either. Northeast L.A. has changed a lot, and just about every opening in the area means some long-running local business has shut the blinds, pulled up the blanket and closed its eyes for good. Now it feels as if there is a second city buried just underground, a skeleton Silver Lake that only psychically attuned locals can see.
Those bones can curse restaurants, haunting them like the Overlook Hotel, damning concept after concept to short, quiet lifespans. They can also form a sturdy foundation, a spine on which a restaurant can build its own body. Alegria flipped into Trois Familia, an abandoned theater became Mohawk Bend, and soon Canelé will take a spin through Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s machine and emerge as star-bellied Journeymen, hoping to make that same transition.
Wolfdown has the scent of that latter category, too — we are there early on a Saturday night but the patio is very much alive, humming despite a lack of music. Instead you hear the buzzing of heat lamps and the clatter of the crowd; horn-rimmed eyes run down a list of plates that get larger as you descend, glasses of craft beer thunk as they hit the table, laughter cascades from shapely mouths. It is a fun restaurant, interesting and current, the kind of place you’d drop into on any old weeknight if you were just a little cooler, more adventurous, richer.
It is not aiming for the same kind of thing as Nicky D’s, but it shouldn’t be — this is a restaurant for a different NELA than the one in which I grew up, a NELA that is at the heart of New York Times features, that is the backdrop for GQ photo shoots and the Netflix show Love. It’s not worse and it’s not better, but it isn’t the same, either. A neighborhood with this new sort of cachet demands a casual restaurant with the kind of ambition that Wolfdown displays, sunchoke soup and glazed baby turnips, complimentary sparkling water and artistically plated cod.
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We do not order the celery root with bagna cauda, but we do get the apple salad with Gjetost, the coconut black rice with pickled vegetables and a mountain of sesame seeds, and the dry ramen noodles with beef cheek. It may not be the place to bring four kids and five parents after soccer practice, but the environment is the opposite of stuffy, our meal moves smoothly despite the restaurant’s youth, and portions are large. We leave happy and full, with a mountain of leftovers.
There is another Nicky D’s in Santa Barbara, an easy weekend drive up the coast, but I have never been there. I bet the pizza is just as good, but that’s really beside the point. Instead I’d rather sit here, in this new/old restaurant in my new/old neighborhood, eating change made manifest in the form of salty, paprika-dusted patatas bravas. I sit with my eyes closed for a second, a little unmoored, but when I open them again it feels right. We tuck into our food, talk about grown-up shit like work and health care, miso vinaigrette and whether to have a beer. We are rolling forward, of course, in sync with the now, but still I find myself scanning the patio, trying to catch a glimpse of the wood-fired ghosts of nights long past. Fifteen or so years from now, someone else may take a seat on this patio, a little bewildered too, and think back wistfully about tonight, a cool spring evening in their own old Silver Lake.
2764 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake. (323) 522-6381, wolfdownla.com.