View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "The Yard: Small, Happy Bar is the Embodiment of the Westside & Comes with 'Top Chef' Pedigree."
If the new L.A. restaurant has a secret blueprint, it probably looks a lot like the Yard, a small, happy bar that encompasses so many of the nuances, so many of the themes in local dining that it probably could be sealed in a time capsule as an embodiment of the Westside circa 2010. The customers are young and good-looking; the beer list includes a rotating roster of rarish nanobrews, including the occasional cask-conditioned ale. The bartender concocts seasonal farmers-market cocktails and pre-Prohibition smashes but is not above the occasional cosmo. There is the requisite custom-blend aged meat in the bar burger; crispy beef cheeks with mashed potatoes; sliders with either pulled pork or Nueske's bacon and beef; and tangles of fried pigs' ear. Ingredients come either from the farmers market or from the most sustainable of abattoirs, and all are served on sharable small plates. Andrew's Cheese Shop curates the cheese plate.
The chef, known to everybody as CJ, comes with a genuine Top Chef pedigree, as one of the stars of season three — it's a surprise he isn't blinded by the camera flashes when he wanders into the dining room. (He may have become famous as a contestant on Top Chef, but Chris Jacobson has been around the Los Angeles restaurant scene for half of forever — before he became CJ, I remember him as a Campanile line cook whom everybody called "Stretch.'') Does the Yard call itself a gastropub? How could it not?
If you've been to Lazy Ox, Rustic Canyon, Tasting Kitchen or Animal, the program will seem as familiar to you as warm milk: vernacular local dishes elevated with great local produce, carefully prepared, and made slightly strange with the introduction of a semi-exotic cut of meat, such as beef cheek, or an unusual touch like harissa, balsamic-marinated grapes or smoked almonds. Food is placed carefully, where you don't expect it to be — the french fries are arranged into a sizzling log cabin — and scattered across the plate, as in the jumble of heirloom-tomato salad with goat cheese, or the shredded-duck confit tossed with grilled nectarines, where other chefs might choose precision. The Yard is a casual place to stop in after a late movie in the Promenade — a bar menu is served until 1 a.m. — or to drag yourself out of bed for at Sunday brunch. The Yard wants to be your friend.
Unless you would like your Yard Burger without onions. As at Animal, a disclaimer on the bottom of the menu states, "Substitutions and modifications politely declined.''
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Still, the first time I visited, the meal couldn't have been more of a disaster. You could smell the frying seafood all the way from the corner, the place was crowded with people more intent on beer and the Lakers game blaring from the bar than they were on the cuisine, and the service was from the "Now, who ordered the octopus?'' school. The produce, which showed every sign of being impeccably sourced from the Wednesday farmers market a block away, was abused: fresh favas fried inside their pods so that it practically took a chain saw to get at the beans; beets with avocados that had been grilled into rubbery nubs; half-raw risotto. It was the kind of dinner you are more likely to read about on Yelp than to encounter in an actual café.
But six months later, even when CJ is out of town, the kitchen seems to have settled down, and the cooking is for the most part simple and accurate — rare grilled skirt steak smeared with horseradish crème fraîche and tossed with those grilled grapes; a beautiful summer salad of ripe Tenerelli Farms peaches with creamy burrata; even the vinegary Carolina spareribs with cabbage and a bit of mint. The fish tacos, on pliable half-fried tortillas, are garnished with a cabbage slaw whose shot of cumin puts it halfway between Ensenada and Xinjiang. That beet salad with avocado and hazelnuts is actually delicious now, well-balanced and just tangy enough. I'll never quite get used to the idea of king crab in the macaroni and cheese, the pigs' ear is a funky example of the breed, and those pulled-pork sliders aren't going to get you to cancel your air ticket to Raleigh-Durham, but the spaghetti with a turkey-based Bolognese sauce is rich and buttery, about a thousand times better than you might expect of that combination.
If you plan to visit the Yard in the last few weeks of summer, don't miss the deconstructed peach cobbler. It doesn't seem like much — ripe peaches, a scoop of icy ginger ice cream and a scattering of crunchy streusel — but sometimes minimalism works.
THE YARD: 119 Broadway, Santa Monica. (310) 395-6037, theyardsm.com. Open daily, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Nearby city-lot parking. Sharable plates, $10-$18. Recommended dishes: skirt steak with horseradish and grilled grapes; summer vegetable risotto with Parmesan and mint; fish tacos with cumin slaw; deconstructed peach cobbler.