Used to be, the kind of sign a restaurant put up was crucial to doing business. It was a way to grab attention, to differentiate from neighboring retailers, to alert people that the place was open, or just to prove that the restaurant was there. This was pretty important if you were a tired traveler on a horse — or, more recently, stuck in horrific street traffic or lost in the concrete desolation of another strip mall.
Not anymore. Lately the trend seems to be eliminating the sign altogether. Maybe this started with speakeasies, when secrecy was more important to business than any publicity at all. Bars have a long tradition of ditching signage, which you'll know if you've spent any time drunk in Los Angeles. But restaurants have been abandoning their signs too, especially this past year, when some of the best restaurants to open in 2013 did so without bothering to put up any signage at all.
Trois Mec is the most famous for this, as the restaurant took over a former Raffalo's in a grungy strip mall at the corner of Highland and Melrose — and just left the pizza place's sign there. This wasn't laziness or cost-cutting so much as it was a deliberate bait-and-switch, which was utterly in keeping with the sly ethos of the restaurant. That the place opened across the street from the Mozza compound, with all its obvious orange signage, just made Trois Mec's lack of it funnier. And since you can only get in via prebooked, prepaid ticket, Trois Mec's three restaurateurs must have figured that if you couldn't find the place, you didn't deserve your seat anyway. A Skull & Bones initiation rite, as applied to your dinner.
There's no sign for Bucato, either. When Evan Funke opened his Italian pasta palace in Culver City this past summer, the restaurant came with a sign — the much-loved old Beacon/Laundry sign that flashed above the restaurant when it was Kazuto Matsusaka's restaurant, and before that when it was part of the Helms Bakery. So there's that sign, and the street numbers — but no sign for Bucato. Since bucato means laundry in Italian, maybe Funke figured the initiated could just translate the sign that was already there.
The recently opened Scopa in Venice doesn't have a sign either, nor does n/naka in Palms, which opened last year. And then there's Totoraku in Cheviot Hills, which has been open for years — although since that's supposed to be a secret restaurant anyway, you figure that the anonymity is part of the conceit. (It does have a Yelp page, which kind of deep-sixes the secrecy thing, doesn't it.)
I suppose we have Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo to blame for all this. When they opened Animal in 2008, part of the enormous fun of the place, in addition to the foie gras loco moco, the poutine and all the deliriously addictive high-end drunk food, was that all the hipsters and journalists flocking to the place kept getting lost. No sign. Never was.
Of course, what you think of this trend depends a lot on your sense of direction, as well as, maybe, your fondness for flashing neon and cursive lettering. Signs can be kind of helpful when you're driving up and down the same street trying to find the damn restaurant. Especially if you're already 15 minutes late for your dinner reservation.
Under those circumstances, the decision not to hang out a sign can seem aggressive, like a secret handshake designed as much for exclusion as inclusion. If you make it there, on time and to happy results, you feel rewarded. And if the process pisses you off, you might head for a restaurant with a giant, familiar sign the next time you go out to eat. Although if Siri is navigating you everywhere these days, maybe signs are obsolete anyway.
So does this mean that, in the future, we'll find the best restaurants in town only through their GPS coordinates? For better or worse, this is already true.
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