A common complaint from people who live in the West San Fernando Valley and points beyond is that there's a dearth of fine restaurants for a special meal out. The fans of Leila's in Oak Park would beg to differ.
It's been 15 years since Leila's was launched in a nondescript suburban strip mall, and in that time the restaurant has amassed a loyal group of regulars. The eatery has expanded twice, from 35 seats to 60 and, most recently, to 95. The growth has taken place thanks to word-of-mouth, without any advertising.
“My motto with my staff is, when customers come in, you need to look at them as if they're guests visiting your home,” owner Peyman Afshar says. “If you do your job right and people feel comfortable and they have an enjoyable experience all around – they're going to tell their friends.”]
Chef Richard DeMane has been in the kitchen since the start. Afshar says that long before the concept of farm-to-table became a culinary mandate, DeMane was scouring local farms for produce, in addition to growing tomatoes, Meyer lemons and chili peppers in his own backyard for the restaurant.
“I call it California cuisine. Some people call it New World cuisine. I've heard it called eclectic American,” Afshar says. “Our philosophy is to bring together a variety of influences to create different tastes. Richard goes out and he sees or tries something and he experiments with it. We talk about it, play around with it. We come up with our own version.”
In addition to menu staples such as six-hour braised beef and grilled Scottish salmon, there are one or two new dishes every week, depending on what is in season and available. Nothing in the restaurant is frozen, except for ice cream. Right now, popular items are a crispy salt-and-pepper shrimp and a pan-roasted cauliflower with romanesco and Parmesan cheese.
“I wish I could describe the feeling on days when Richie is changing a dish, because it's upbeat and everybody is excited, and you just can't wait to put it on the plate,” Afshar says.
He praises his staff – many have been with Leila's since the doors first opened – as “lifetime food people. We don't have any actors and actresses who are using it as a stepping stone. They care about and love their food and wine.”
The restaurant is open five days a week (Tuesday through Saturday) for dinner only. Afshar explains that there isn't enough local commerce to attract a business lunch crowd. As for being closed on Sundays, he regards that as a day to spend with family: “Most of my staff have children. The restaurant business, as I'm sure you know, has grueling hours. I have three daughters and I don't want to miss them growing up. The same with my staff. I feel that it's important to keep things in perspective.”