Here's what I'd like you to do. I'd like you to go ahead and make a reservation at Michael's in Santa Monica. I'd like you to go there and spend some money. Then I'd like you to tell all your friends that they should do the same.
I generally wouldn't be so very direct, even if I loved the restaurant in question madly and deeply. My hope that you'll dine at Michael's isn't so much about the quality of the food or the experience, though both are remarkable. Rather, it's about the ways in which we preserve or neglect our important dining institutions, how those institutions do or do not evolve, and whether there's a way to respect the past while simultaneously looking to the future. What's happening at Michael's is a grand and risky experiment, and it's one I'd very much like to see succeed.
Michael's, of course, is the 37-year-old restaurant that helped to put L.A.'s version of “California Cuisine” on the map. When it opened in 1979, owner Michael McCarty, and the band of young chefs who careened through the kitchen, were the culinary brat pack of the day. They were some of the first American chefs and restaurateurs who thought of themselves as rock stars and hoped the public thought that, too. McCarty was only 24 at the time, and everything about the place was seen as revolutionary — the food, the bright decor, the music, the brazen fun of it all.
Michael's made or progressed the careers of legendary chefs including Jonathan Waxman, Nancy Silverton, Brooke Williamson and many more. The format has changed countless times, and half the trends in American cookery either began here or passed through the kitchen at one point or another.
Michael's has achieved a trick of fashion I'm not sure I've ever seen outside of truly vintage restaurants, which is that its original decor has endured for so long it seems current once again. The main dining room is a sunken, aggressively leafy patio with a water feature and a retractable roof, like a fern bar on steroids. But the once-thrilling menus gave way to safer, run-of-the-mill, European-tinged California cooking in recent years.
Now, McCarty appears to have returned to his slightly radical roots. He's hired Miles Thompson, a 28-year-old chef who's as audacious as they come. Thompson started working in L.A. kitchens as a teenager and spent time at Nobu and Animal before launching a popup, which eventually led to Allumette in Echo Park. Allumette was a strange restaurant — the food was often brilliant, but the space was odd. The neighborhood was perhaps not ready, and there was something about it that never quite worked. When it closed, Thompson left for Northern California, where he worked for two years before returning to L.A. to take over at Michael's.
Thompson's cooking was always assertively modern, but in the years he's been gone from L.A. it's also become more refined, cleverer and more umami-driven. This is food that's cool to look at (in some cases for reasons that are almost subversive), but it isn't so cerebral that it becomes a killjoy. Pure pleasure appears to be the base ingredient in all of Thompson's cooking.
This means that a crab and uni chawanmushi is built upon a base of savory egg custard so elegant and creamy it stopped me in my tracks. Large hunks of Dungeness crab and the decadent funk of uni represent two kinds of oceanic sweetness, and they're punctuated by delicately floral ginger sprout. The flavors are balanced, the textures are downright sexy, and the whole thing feels generous in spirit, as if the chef thought hard about how much fun he wanted you to have while eating.
A different kind of fun happens with a plate of vinegar-roasted turnips, which come heaped in swirls complete with their long mane of greens, as if someone pulled them from the dirt and put them right on the plate. The dish looks a little like a compost pile: There are daubs of inky rice under the turnips, turned dark by black garlic. The joke is that everything tastes so very refined — it looks as though you're eating dirt but instead you're getting a lesson in different kinds of vegetal sweetness, a delicious musing on the idea of earth and the things we dig from it.
There's a lot of “what is that?” when dining here, such as a fat julienne of white crunchy vegetable that's built to hold the burnt eggplant puree and smoked sesame that lines the bottom of a bowl, and to contrast with the tender bounce of swordfin squid that nestles underneath in spiral curls. The vegetable turns out to be raw chayote squash, and the dish would be too salty and intense if not for the squash's cool simplicity, a crunchy blank canvas across which Thompson has painted the other, bolder flavors.
Burrata comes lolling in its bowl with orange orbs of trout roe across the top; underneath is a sweet tart paste that sits in lovely contrast to the milky cheese. This is chow chow — the Southern condiment made of pickled green tomatoes, peppers, onions and cabbage — which Thompson has cooked down for days until it becomes an intense distillation of itself.
There's a steak on the menu, and it's a very good one, served with Russian kale and porcini Bordelaise, as well as a whole roasted chicken and a grilled branzino. But with Thompson, your best bet is to find the weirdest-sounding thing on the menu and let him show you how to dig love from a turnip.
McCarty still roams the room, stopping by your table to shake your hand and declare, “Hi, I'm Michael! Thanks so much for joining us.” That kind of personal touch from an owner is rare these days. But there's a slight undertone of panic in the demeanor of the servers, in the way they approach the table and explain the menu and talk nervously about how you may not recognize many of the wines on the newly eclectic list. This creates an odd dynamic, one in which you're practically being apologized to before you've registered anything lacking. Nervousness begets mistakes, and on the small scale of cluttered tables and forgotten utensils and wine gone unpoured, the little imperfections of the experience can feel like a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But it's hard to fault the staff's anxiety — during my visits I saw a number of older (presumably longtime) customers balk at the revolution that's taken place here. “What if we don't want to share?” one woman demanded of her server when he explained that the dishes for their table of five would come out as the kitchen saw fit rather than in traditional courses.
“You can order individually, of course,” the server said uneasily, “but the one thing you order may not come out until toward the end of the meal.”
“That's fine,” she snapped. “Can you give us separate checks?”
When Michael's opened in 1979
What McCarty has done in hiring Thompson and allowing him free reign in the kitchen is in line with the restaurant's beginnings, but it's also a huge gamble, one that risks alienating the loyalists Michael's has managed to hold on to through the years. It bets on the shaky hope that this food and this chef will attract enough new diners to make up for that alienation, indeed that these changes might cause the restaurant to become truly relevant once more, to thwart the disposable nature of our current dining scene. It offers hope that rather than shut down our venerated institutions, or rip out their walls and insert subway tiles and industrial lighting, we might honor them by moving steadily forward, keeping the components that are worthy of preservation (in this case, the iconic, irreplaceable glamour of that leafy patio), and installing youth and vitality where it's needed.
I have no idea if it will work. Thompson may not stick around long enough. That throng of new customers may never appear. But for now, you have an opportunity to experience the greatness of L.A.'s dining past, its present and its future, all in one restaurant. If enough of us participate, we might send a message that relevance is less about newness and more about courageous evolution.
MICHAEL'S | Three stars | 1147 Third St., Santa Monica | (310) 451-0843 | michaelssantamonica.com | Mon.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. | Shared plates, $9-$45 | Full bar | Valet and nearby lot parking