When the economy crashed in late 2008, many of us had this hilarious notion that a new age might usher in some way of living that was deeper and richer, less wasteful and more authentic.
But there is only one world in which that has come to pass: the food world.
The decline of “white tablecloth” dining had been a long time coming. Maybe it never recovered from the scene in which the Vietnam-era hippie played by Treat Williams danced on the formal wedding table in the film version of Hair (1979) — sending guests scurrying to recover flying dishes and flowers while he sang “I Got Life.” Reviewing a Beverly Hills restaurant called Max in 1985, Ruth Reichl wrote in the past tense of an era when “fine dining in this town used to take place in an atmosphere of almost hushed reverence, and good restaurants were the kind of places that made you nervously keep your elbows off the table.”
Reichl went on to applaud a new turn toward “casual insouciance.” But even she couldn't foresee just how insouciant things would get once chefs took over from maître d's and restaurateurs as the souls and stewards of the dining experience. Thank the recession and the loss of investors. Thank the prevalence of food TV and a new generation of adventurous eaters. Thank Anthony Bourdain for helping make a cultural hero of the chef. Whomever you credit, a convergence of forces took place in 2008, and that convergence was good. Treat Williams was off the table and in the kitchen.
2008 is the year that Roy Choi debuted his Kogi truck, and it also was the year that Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo opened Animal, a restaurant initially viewed as a novelty place that put bacon in dessert. Now we can see these events as harbingers of a new and very personal kind of cooking in a city that really needed it.
The best chefs are no longer found at the most expensive restaurants. In Los Angeles, a majority work in midrange or pop-up restaurants.
Choi sees a direct relationship between the economy and this city's embrace of small, informal restaurants, which offer almost a hallucinatory focus on flavor and pleasure, a kind of cooking that is playful, impolite and a little too messy for a white tablecloth. The intensity of this cooking, he says, can come only with a stripping down of barriers. “With no investors, there is a direct relationship between the chef and the person eating,” he says. “It's like a musician going on YouTube and just putting his music out there, without the interference and the needs of a label or a producer. The restaurant scene is filled with energy now because people don't need $100 to sit down and have a fantastic meal.”
Choi describes this new wave of cuisine as “cooking from the heart. It is raw and pure. Nobody is watering it down.”
Indeed, for Choi, born in Seoul, it is autobiography. At Chego, his 2010 restaurant on the outskirts of Culver City, it was as if he'd opened his childhood refrigerator — “without being ashamed of it,” he says — and cooked with what was inside: “fish guts, kimchi, rice, egg and hot chili oil. I made something more layered out of it than what was there before.”
Shook and Dotolo opened Animal a few months before the drama of the 2008 recession. “We did not order tablecloths because tablecloths are not cheap,” Shook recalls. “You have to keep them fresh, and they cost you about 10 to 25 cents per table. These are all costs you have to pass on to the customer. We didn't put up a sign because we couldn't afford it. We wanted to spend all of our money and put all of our focus on the food we were making, and we made exactly the food that we wanted to eat.”
By the time the two opened their second place, Son of a Gun, in 2011, they could afford tablecloths but opted to skip them. The starched whites had become not only a literal option but a symbol of what was past. “Our plates at Son of a Gun are made by Heath — that is not cheap,” Shook says, “but they are beautiful objects. And our tables are made of zinc.”
Ludovic Lefebvre is a human barometer of the changes in the Los Angeles dining scene. He arrived from France in 1996, at 25, schooled in all the right ways with the right French chefs, and took the reins at L'Orangerie, a classic French restaurant. He won the restaurant a Mobil Guide five-star award, the kind of accolade that is not on the radar of young chefs today.
Next, in 2004, he went to Bastide, a jewel box on Melrose Place, which promised to be a looser fit. It was not loose enough. “When I took off my chef whites, I felt like I was taking off a straitjacket,” he says.
What he wanted more than anything was “to cook for young people, for my friends, for joy, and not just for one kind of clientele.”
He opened LudoBites in 2009, an instantly successful pop-up restaurant where he could get as funky as he pleased. He created uncommon dishes that diners wanted to stay lost in — like sea urchin crème brûlée or a little broth dotted with foie gras, tamarind, turnips and daikon. Friends came in groups of six and ordered all 13 dishes on the menu. The evenings were boisterously beautiful, a celebration of the chef being true to himself and of diners spending about $70 a person to experience the range of a world-class chef in his prime.
How long will the moment last? No one knows, but a recent study of 6,500 U.S. consumers by brand consultants Empathica Inc. found that diners plan to cut their fine-dining budget by 71 percent in the coming year, and their informal-restaurant budget by 50 percent.
And if a tight economy has rewarded certain chefs, it has of course punished many others. Last year, we saw the shuttering after five and a half years of Ortolan, a Michelin-starred, French-leaning, haute cuisine restaurant that lavished resources on its romantic setting — rows of chandeliers, candlelight, curtains and lush banquets. Bastide, also French-leaning, once the only restaurant in town with four stars from the Los Angeles Times and the onetime home of Ludovic Lefebvre, closed after nine years and at least six seemingly torturous periods of reinvention. Drago in Santa Monica closed, too.
The stalwarts that remain, the ones that provide the unhurried hush of luxury, appear to be going strong; in this Darwinian environment, they are the big fish in a sea with fewer competitors. And, unemployment notwithstanding, that's a good thing. What would L.A. be without Mélisse, Hatfield's, Valentino, Josie, Providence or Spago? Civilization needs such places; there are occasions when nothing else will do but serene and perfect service, a room in which the tables are spaced discreetly, the chairs are comfortable, and no one needs to yell to say “Happy birthday,” “I adore you” or “Your mother and I are getting divorced.”
Laurie Winer writes about food and culture. She is a founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.