“It’s already fucking packed,” says a woman in a genuinely upbeat, out-of-town voice to a man she’s holding hands with as they enter Craig’s in front of me. Her head is on a swivel, eagerly downloading everything as the couple moves inside and straight for the bar with no seat vacancies but plenty of cocktails, a giant plate of homemade pigs in a blanket, dozens of oysters and a few carrot-sprinkled Buffalo wing pizzas. Everyone’s smiling and chatting or watching a football game, periodically rotating their attention to the front entrance behind them when the early evening’s remaining sunlight rifles through the space as the next guest enters. And all those curious faces are thinking the same thing: who’s here?
I already passed the RETNA mural out front on Melrose where Instagrammers Instagram. And I already passed the young kid slurping spaghetti in the best blue leather booth watching a pink iPad Pro held in front of his face by a nanny or young mom next to a grandpa or old dad. And now I’m passing the maitre d’ who’s hugging a group of older women while answering the constantly ringing phone. No point in bothering him, because I don’t have a reservation and one of two elevated tabletops in the bar is being cleared and set up by a tornado of a busboy, so it’s an electric slide past the woman who’s still amazed by how fucking packed it is at 7 p.m. on a Thursday. Unknowingly left in my dance move wake, the out-of-town couple shout drink orders at an utterly attentive bartender and settle in, leaning against a polished wooden rail, adrenalized and cozy. They’re here, they’re happy.
A steaming canoe of a baked potato lands next to a glass of Casamigos Reposado in the mitt of a 20-something wearing a backward hat with the word “huf” written in lowercase cursive while all I hear over the space’s buzz are famished orders of “Crown and diet,” “dirty Goose martini,” and “New York medium rare, charred.” In another direction, what looks like a blonde mother and daughter beg a spectacled maitre d’, who kindly shakes his head no, only offering them a chance in the bar. The women shuffle over and it’s kismet for them as two seats magically appear, and in an instant they’re sharing a bottle of chilled Pinot and a basket of the best flatbread you’ve ever eaten. They entered with no reservation but now enjoy the beginning of a meal exactly where they wanted to be, and while chewing that gloriously seasoned dough, they ask a bartender what anyone who’s ever eaten at Craig’s has asked a Craig’s employee: “what the hell is in this?” They listen to a list of ingredients — in a place known for healthy menu options, the flatbread is a nutritional Kim Jong-bomb, but the women don’t care, quickly finish the basket and order another because it’s a night out on the town at one of the toughest to land reservations in Los Angeles. They’re here, they’re happy.
A few friends eventually join me at the elevated table where I’m watching the football game and swallowing every strip of flatbread in my reach. When Magic Johnson enters, heads turn, faces light up, fingers point and even though he’s only with Cookie, they’re escorted to the biggest booth under the roof. My friends don’t really care about Magic and his wife because they’re all from New York and busy with chopped salads and shrimp cocktail, and my ground steak soon arrives (which isn’t even on the menu, but you can have it your way at Craig’s), and we eat under Dizzy Gillespie blowing his horn in orange pop art form on the wall above us. Across the room, Frank Sinatra’s mug shot hangs near a booth holding an ex-SNL cast member whose first movie is in theaters, and I don’t know if that’s John Mayer in the next booth, but it usually is. And it’s packed, wall-to-wall as every hand grips a generous pour. Everyone’s favorite ex-maitre d’-turned-restaurateur, Craig Susser, makes his first appearance, gliding like a Spike Lee signature shot out of the kitchen, dressed Reservoir Dog-sharp, and it’s time for hellos, hugs and kisses. The night officially begins, and I’m not sitting in a booth like Magic Johnson or the ex-SNL cast member with a movie in theaters or John Mayer (if that’s him) or anyone who made a reservation weeks in advance, and it doesn’t matter. I’m here, I’m happy.
The football game winds down and it’s on to the next cocktail and the next conversation as tables in the dining room turn over and the bar empties for only a beat before new guests arrive, filling any open real estate — the low and high tides of a successful restaurant. While this occurs, a group of well-known, young models ripped from social media pages come to life, entering from the cold Melrose concrete as paparazzi flashes follow them inside. I watch the dining room’s action: The comings and goings of smiling, spinning staff serving endless vegan ice cream scoops, trays of shots and chicken parm plates; Ryan Phillippe posing for a picture with The Mooch; a pile of Postmates-bound chocolate pizzas; all the conversations, all the energy. I look at this restaurant, seven years in and busier than ever with all sorts of clientele as happy as ever paying a premium for two pieces of honey truffle fried chicken, filets of sesame salmon and even a bacon cheeseburger, and it all tastes good, but that’s not why we’re here and happy.
Whether you define this L.A. institution as a Clooney-approved Hollywood haunt or celebratory destination for a perfectly served meal or an expense account-paid meeting ground or simply a place to see how many pieces of flatbread you can eat in one sitting with your friends, regular or first-timer, Angeleno or out-of-towner, reservation or walk-in, everyone gets what they want out of the night. And that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re happy.
8826 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (310) 276-1900, craigs.la.