As someone who covers the tear-stained, blood-soaked money pit that is the restaurant industry, I can say without hesitation that I want no part of this business except as an observer. “Why does anyone do it?” my fellow food writers and I often ask one another, wondering about the audacity of chefs and restaurateurs who wade bravely into the muck of city regulations and real estate and contractors and a fickle, oversaturated and understaffed market. Restaurant ownership seems like the career most likely to give you a stress-induced medical condition while simultaneously offering no guaranteed financial security. God bless those of you fearless enough to take on such a thing. I don't quite understand you, but I thank the heavens for your courage every single day.
This perspective, which is common among food writers, makes the reality of Botanica slightly confounding. The new restaurant in Silver Lake is owned and operated by two women who were — and still aspire to be — food journalists. Heather Sperling and Emily Fiffer worked in New York for years, writing about food for Tasting Table, Daily Candy and StarChefs, among other websites and publications. Botanica was conceived as a way to bring their food dreams to life, both physically and on the page. They refer to the endeavor as a “restaurant, marketplace and magazine,” and while the magazine has yet to materialize it's still very much a part of the plan.
The decision to start a magazine and a restaurant that are based on one another speaks volumes about Botanica and its owners, and also about the state of restaurants in Los Angeles right now. This is an intellectual pursuit as well as an aspirational fantasy. The look and feel of the place are massively important, in the same way that a glossy food magazine is judged less on the quality of its recipes than on the visual package it presents. We read Saveur and Bon Appetit to fall into the beauty of their pages and to be the type of person who knows about a rare spice from a far-flung location. Botanica scratches a similar itch. You could go there simply to be the type of person who goes there, who eats gorgeous plates of food that look as though they were lifted from the pages of a fabulous food magazine, in a room that might be featured in the pages of a fabulous design magazine. Botanica is a restaurant, but it is also a lifestyle.
What lifestyle is that? One lived in Silver Lake in 2017, where you're wealthy enough to pay $50 for lunch and have enough leisure time to spend three hours lingering over that meal, sipping natural wine and chatting about your creative endeavors. Like its most obvious contemporary, Kismet, Botanica is the type of place you're likely to see movie stars dining unshaven and relaxed, where million-dollar Hollywood deals are made at adjacent tables by dudes who look fashionably unemployed.
The all-day restaurant is located on Silver Lake's prettiest retail corridor, in what was formerly a dimly lit, halfway decent liquor store. The vintage “liquor” sign still hangs above the door. If you were at all familiar with Silver Lake Liquor, that sign is perhaps the only indicator that this is the same space. The remodel, one in which the building has been gutted and opened up and transformed completely, is somewhat disorienting. The storefront space is now a market selling wine and coffee and a few beautifully chosen baskets of seasonal produce; behind that lies a long bar and banquette seating, and there's a garden patio out back with more seating and vases spilling unruly arrangements of flowers. It's all quite fabulous.
Most of the food comes in wide, heavy bowls, herbs and lettuces and pops of brightly colored garnish draped around the inner curve of the tableware, messy but somehow composed and perfect. There's a “fattoush-y” salad of grilled and raw summer vegetables with sumac-crisped focaccia. (Also like Kismet, the menu at Botanica is full of this type of language: sheep's milk yogurt is garlicky; salad is lemony; a braised chicken entrée is “tagine-ish.”) A Shirazi salad highlights hunks of cucumber and heirloom tomato — along with fresh cantaloupe — in a lime dressing, and it all comes together as one big, delightful summer jumble. At lunch you can get a bowl of what basically amounts to cold rice noodles and lettuce, but the flurries of fried shallots and mint and diced beets and bitter greens make it seem like so much more.
Juicy lamb kofte kebabs come over a slick of yogurt and under a massive pile of herbs and greens, punctuated with slivers of watermelon radish. A side of Japanese sweet potato comes draped in a pert salsa verde, and the fudgy sweetness of the vegetable pairs gorgeously with the strident grassiness of the salsa. The natural beauty of produce is king here, rarely manipulated more than just enough to emphasize its best qualities.
There are dishes that fail, or that seem too expensive, or that take tropes we've come to love and push them too far. A slow-roasted king salmon was pale and tasteless, drowned in its nest of too many vaguely bitter green things. Coal-roasted eggplant and Sungold tomatoes come piled atop whipped tahini on crusty bread, and the acid content of the dish was enough to lightly sear my taste buds. I adore the salt-in-the-dessert trend more than almost any other dessert trend, but a chocolate tart that's steeped in crunchy salt pushes that idea to its limit, so much so that the sweetness barely has a chance to shine.
And like so many other places of its ilk, Botanica might irk anyone outside of its intended audience (and even some people smack in the midst of that audience). “I was so annoyed by it,” one friend said. “I just felt like they were pandering exactly to my tastes in a way that bothered me.” But she eventually succumbed to Botanica's charms, and the reason she gave in is one of the things I've also found so endearing about the place: its hospitality. Sperling and Fiffer and their staff are welcoming at every turn, chatting with customers, pouring tastes of wine, exuding a warmth that brims with genuine emotion. They love this neighborhood, they love this food, they're excited about the wines they pour, they want you to be happy. It's hard to find fault with that.
I'm still floored that two food writers would be foolhardy enough to put their money where their mouths used to be (quite literally). Perhaps if more of us did the same, there would be a greater understanding on our part of how very hard it is to get a restaurant right — and what an achievement it is to open the doors and invite people into your fantasy.
BOTANICA | 3 stars | 1620 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake | (323) 522-6106 | botanicarestaurant.com | Wed.-Sun., 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner: Wed., Thu. & Sun., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11 p.m.; market: Wed.-Sun., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. | Plates, $11-$29 | Full bar | Street parking; valet at dinnertime