Gourmet food trucks and pop-up dinners have become so much the norm in Los Angeles that it's surprising to think it was just eight years ago that Kogi BBQ godfather Roy Choi started slinging his Korean-inspired tacos from a lonchera, leading to a food-truck frenzy that ended up taking the nation by storm. Soon after, Ludo Lefebvre's guerilla-style pop-up dinners, dubbed “LudoBites,” were selling out nightly and considered revolutionary and refreshingly different at the time — after all, Lefebvre's background is French fine dining.
And now comes an emerging trend in the L.A. food scene for up-and-coming chefs who are thirsty for a business opportunity but don't quite have the capital yet: indefinite residencies held inside restaurants that are otherwise dark during lunch or dinner service. Among those young entrepreneurs latching onto this alternative business model is 27-year-old Avner Lavi, who launched his lunchtime Cento Pasta Bar residency inside downtown French bistro Mignon last December. Now he's splitting his time between Mignon and another residency — his new Italian concept Andare, inside Birch in Hollywood — during lunch service.
This reporter has been invited by the chef to both his residencies, and can attest that Lavi, a Bestia and Sotto alum, makes gorgeous pastas, such as beet-red spaghetti topped with a dollop of goat cheese and showered with chopped green chives, or ricotta gnocchi accompanied by house-made 'njuda sausage. The most surprising thing is that he's charging only about $10 a plate for this caliber of food at both his residencies.
Even his “pricier” items aren't that much more expensive.“I have an uni spaghetti that’s on the menu for $15, and this was Santa Barbara sea urchin that’s live when I get it. No one does that,” Lavi says. “I have truffle pasta on my menu for $15. No one does that. Truffle on any [other] menu is at least $40.”
Part of the reason he's able to charge much less than his peers obviously has to do with the lower overhead cost from not paying an exorbitant full amount in rent. But to Lavi, it's not just that. He says he's using the same ingredients as other fine Italian restaurants, and posits that other eateries are inflating the prices of their dishes. “People are literally just throwing out numbers that just don’t make any sense,” Lavi says. “It’s just the way it is.”
He says it's the same with pop-ups now. He fondly recalls that when LudoBites started, it would cost less than $50 for a prix fixe, BYOB menu. Now, pop-up dinners are creeping toward the $200 mark for 10- to 12-course meals, and sometimes that doesn't even include alcohol, he says. That field has become too oversaturated and competitive for him.
“I don’t get how this happened,” Lavi says. “I don’t like that.”
His adamant view on keeping prices low stems from his culinary journey. When Lavi was just 20 years old, fresh from quitting culinary school in Rhode Island (he says he realized he didn't want to pay $25,000 a year in tuition to “learn how to make mashed potatoes”), he was out to dinner with his family at Nagila Pizza on Pico Boulevard when he saw a man wearing chef's pants and shoes covered in flour. Lavi approached the man and asked if he worked at a restaurant and if he was hiring. The man turned out to be chef Steve Samson, and Lavi got a gig at the seminal restaurant Sotto, which had just opened. Until that point, Lavi, who is Persian and Jewish, had only eaten kosher; his concept of pizza was Domino's and pasta was from Olive Garden. But after his first day staging at Sotto, he was offered a slice of margherita pizza and it forever changed his life.
“This one was just tomato sauce on the pizza, and it was the best tomato sauce I had ever had,” Lavi says. “I can’t explain how amazing this was. It was just a big slap in the face, like, What the fuck have I been eating my whole fucking life?“
He later moved on to work at Osteria la Buca with chef Jason Neroni, and then helped Neroni open Superba Snack Bar. Lavi took a brief foray into French food at Papilles, which is owned by Santos Uy, who also helms Mignon. Then when Lavi felt like he was “the shit,” he says, he got a gig working at Bestia and found that he had been “thrown into a lion's den.” Working with chef-owner Ori Menashe was intense for Lavi, who recalls spending long hours there under extreme pressure, with Menashe constantly yelling at him. Despite that, Lavi has nothing but deep respect for Menashe, whom he calls the best chef he's ever met, and feels honored that the Bestia chef-owner cared enough to whip him into shape and teach him to have finesse in his cooking.
Lavi would eventually move on to other restaurants, but says nothing could ever fill the void of Bestia, and he also realized he didn't want to work for someone. He also was getting tired of going to restaurants and paying $100 for a meal. When Lavi started testing out pasta dishes with Uy, the Mignon owner suggested Lavi use his restaurant space during the daytime when he wasn't doing lunch service, and that's how Cento Pasta Bar formed.
Most recently, Birch chef-owner Brendan Collins contacted Lavi to see if he'd be interested in doing a residency during lunch, a time when the eatery is normally closed. Lavi saw it as a good chance to reach out to a different audience, in Hollywood and further west, with a fuller kitchen than Mignon. He agreed to launch Andare, which is similar to Cento Pasta Bar but has a stronger focus on to-go meals such as sandwiches and pastas that travel well. Lavi also plans to do monthly Monday dinners to experiment on newer dishes and with wine and cocktail pairings.
Other rising chefs and entrepreneurs have seen the benefit of working with this business model. The guys behind Belle's Bagels set up shop inside the Hi-Hat music venue in Highland Park this past summer. They sling about 400 hand-rolled bagels a few mornings a week from the venue's to-go window. Alvin Cailan's culinary incubator in Chinatown, Unit 120, has been home to a handful of buzzed-about residencies, from Easy's Burgers to LASA's Filipino prix fixe meals as well as pastry chef Isa Fabro's unique Filipino-Hawaiian-hybrid doughnuts, coconut malas.
And food trucks have proven to still be a good way for chefs to break into the scene with their own concepts before venturing into a brick-and-mortar. Pico House, a food-truck crew consisting of fine-dining chefs armed with experience working at lauded restaurants like Bestia and New York's Blue Hill, has been quickly gaining steam in the L.A. food scene with its $10 gourmet grain bowls. Even the renowned, Michelin-starred restaurant NoMad from the East Coast is testing out its upcoming restaurant in L.A. by first creating buzz with a food truck circling around the city.
Lavi sees how the food-truck model changed the culinary landscape, paving the way for chefs to bring ambitious dishes to the masses at more affordable price points. The lunch residency is an outgrowth of that movement.
He says the end goal is to have his own brick-and-mortar restaurant one day, but for now, doing this sort of residency lets him have the freedom to test new concepts and dishes without the risk of a crippling financial dive. It's market testing on the go.
Of course, residencies aren't completely stress-free. Lavi admits it's difficult working out of a shared space. It's also hard to explain to customers the hours that the pop-ups operate and to clarify that there are two different concepts for lunch and dinner inside the same restaurant space.
But for now, this works for him. Lavi reports a lot of positive feedback about his residencies and has some customers coming back regularly. After all, it's high-end pasta at chain-restaurant prices.
Cento Pasta Bar runs Wednesdays to Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., at Mignon, 128 E. Sixth St., downtown. Andare by Cento runs Mondays to Fridays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., at Birch, 1634 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; facebook.com/centopastabar.