“In 1995 I bought this,” says Joan McNamara, gesturing around the room that was once storage space for her catering company. It's lined from floor to ceiling with a colorful library of cookbooks, and now serves as her office. She sits apron-clad at her desk, still smiling from a visit from her young granddaughter, who scurried out of the room a few minutes earlier. “In ’98 I started the market,” she says, pointing out the door toward the adjacent space where throngs are waiting in line to order lunch and spilling out onto the sidewalks to eat.
“It coincided with them going away,” she says, referring to her two daughters, Carol and Susie, who now run both her brick-and-mortar businesses and catering company.
“I really just did not want to have that empty-nest syndrome,” she says on why she ventured into owning a catering company more than two decades ago. “I had just seen too many very active women that I knew as friends as my daughters were growing up. Suddenly their children went off to school and they were kind of lost. And I thought, I just didn’t want to do that.”
But food was not always in McNamara’s business plans. “I was going to open an artisan store where women would make beautiful things, like really beautiful art and sculptures. It was like a women-owned thing, so it would be an outlet for that.” In addition to the women’s art space, she says, she considered opening a clothing or cosmetics store.
“But everything I thought of, whether it was clothes, whatever it was, it could have been a gas station, every time, the first thing I put in it was the table. I would say, ‘So OK, the table will go here, and I’ll have quiche.' That was in the days when people ate a lot of that. It was very fancy back then. It was very nice to have quiche and there was wine,” she explains. “So that came before the clothing that I was selling or anything that I was selling. I was giving these people something to walk around with and drink and eat. And one day, I thought, ‘Well, that is crazy! Why don’t I just open a food place?’ That’s obviously where my heart is. So three years after this, I leased the place next door. It was crazy. There was no business plan, no anything, no money.”
Blind faith and a gut feeling seems to be McNamara’s preferred modus operandi. “I have all of these signs,” she says, turning to a giant bulletin board to the left of her desk. It’s covered in photos of her grandchildren and a variety of motivational quotes. “I’m like, ‘Leap and the net will appear,’” her favorite quote. “I’m a big believer. I love that, or ‘Just go for it!’”
Her mantras certainly seem to be working for her. Twenty years on, the line at the original Joan’s on Third is as long as ever. The 3-year-old Studio City location is thriving and the catering company is still popular.
Catering is how it all began for McNamara, but she admits that her daughter Carol is better suited for it. After running that branch of the business for three years, McNamara wasn’t satisfied. She wanted a cafe where she could host people. When pedestrians would meander into her catering kitchen, she couldn’t help but feel compelled to serve them food, even if she was preparing for a 100-person party.
“One time two guys came in. They were not well. He had [an oxygen] machine and they sat down and they wanted a sandwich and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m in the middle of doing a party and I don’t even know where the bread is!’ So I said, ‘It’s going to take a while. If you have patience, I will put it together.’ You know I had to find the mayonnaise. I remember, they were so sweet. And they said, ‘We love this place! You’re going to be very successful!’ These two guys. I never saw them again.”
In 1998, she expanded the successful catering company into the adjacent cafe space. But how does a cafe withstand the test of time in a city that seems obsessed with whatever is new and next? By serving the classic comfort food McNamara has been cooking her whole life, mixed in with an array of trendy items, of whatever moment.
McNamara is modest about her culinary background. She pulls down two very old cookbooks from the shelf behind her. The bindings are loose on both of them and the name Dione Lucas is written on each cover.
“She was a very strange woman, but I have to say, I learned a lot,” she says, referring to her first foray in the professional culinary world, running Lucas’ New York City cooking school. “On the first day I showed up, and she had suitcases packed, and she said, ‘OK, I’ll be back in two weeks. I’m off (to wherever she used to do demonstrations) and I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and she said, ‘Oh, you’ll figure it out.’ I sat there and I thought, ‘Yeah. I’ll cook.’ So I looked around. I mean I played! I mean, eventually she came back.”
Lucas was famous for being the first woman featured in a television cooking show, preceding Julia Child. She authored several cookbooks on French cooking and ran the famous New York omelette restaurant the Egg Basket, where McNamara went on to work and master the art of omelette making.
“I heard someone say in French, ‘The student passes the teacher’ because I was faster than she was. I was young. That’s why we have that on our menu,” referring to Joan’s on Third's famous Egg Basket omelette.
The French influence on the menu at Joan’s stems from her time with Lucas. “A lot of it was things that I had made with Dione.” But McNamara credits most of her culinary talent to her childhood, a basic instinct to cook for her family and an obsession with what’s on trend.
“I make lists everyday,” she says picking up a spiral-bound notebook in front of her. “If I didn’t have my lists, I think I would … I mean, I may as well go home!” The notebook is filled with her ideas scribbled in pen. She mentions a recent obsession with rice bowls and a new spin on poutine that she hopes to add to the menu in the fall.
“Today I was going to do a dish from Ottolenghi, a tofu dish that someone told me. I love Ottolenghi. I love him and he’s very cute. I have his number sitting right here,” She picks up a small scrap of paper that has what appears to be Yotam Ottolenghi’s cellphone number scribbled on it and waves it around. “I was going to call him up because I want to do a book signing. He is really adorable.”
The cafe is a popular celebrity haunt, but when asked about any notable celebrity stories, McNamara prides herself in not recognizing famous people and respecting their privacy. She opts instead to share a story about the time some teenagers tried to steal the large cow statues she once kept outside the front doors. The staff had to chase after them. “The cows that are in the marketplace. They used to be in the street by the tree, every night. The reason they’re not now is because the city made us take them in because you can’t use the street. I said I’d pay for a permit and they said, ‘There is no cow permit!’”
Along with having her finger on the pulse of food trends, McNamara understands the importance of her classic dishes.
“Like our macaroni and cheese. I grew up with that macaroni and cheese. The macaroni and cheese was a dish that we had in our house every single week. My mother made it. It’s her recipe.” In addition to the mac and cheese, the ficele sandwich, Chinese chicken salad and omelette have remained on the menu since the beginning.
McNamara enjoys giving people food they didn't order and insisting they will like it. “When I’m making something and I love it, I just feel this strong need that everyone needs to try it. So if they don’t order what I want, I’ll walk around and say, 'Try this cookie, you’ll like it!’”
She admits that Third Street was very different at the time Joan's opened and there weren't a lot of other places to eat. But when asked if she aimed to challenge the palates of Angelenos, she shrugs.
“No. I think I thought I was having fun. I was just lucky enough to have some place that I could just cook my heart out and make what I wanted and make whatever suited me.”
8350 W. Third St.; West Hollywood, (323) 655-2285. 12059 Ventura Place, Studio City; (818) 201-3900. joansonthird.com.