“Back then, people would love to just hear us talk,” says restaurateur Nick Mathers of his early days in New York 14 years ago. “Now there are so many Australians — I mean, we’re like a rash!” he jokes, Aussie accent still intact after over a decade in the United States.
Mathers, who opened West Hollywood’s Eveleigh in 2010, is a sort of pioneer of Australian food in this country. Since he launched the successful Sunset Strip restaurant almost eight years ago, L.A. has seen an influx of Australian eateries. Meat pie shop Bronzed Aussie opened in April 2013. E.P. & L.P., from chef Louis Tikaram, opened in May 2015. The Paramount Coffee Project debuted on Fairfax in October 2015. Venice Beach hangout Bondi Harvest opened in April 2016. Sydney-based Ministry of Coffee recently opened in Westwood. On the fine-dining side, Curtis Stone continues to dazzle us with Maude and meaty meals at Gwen. Recently Melbourne star chef Shaun Quade teamed up with Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec as part of the 2 Chef series and showed off his Australian flavors after smuggling emu ham through airport customs for the dinner. Quade, who is known for his acclaimed Lûmé, is set to open a restaurant in L.A. in late 2018.
So why the inundation of Aussie eateries in L.A.?
“I know why I opened a restaurant. I loved America and I needed to figure out how to get a visa,” says Mathers, whose latest venture, Little Ruby, is a spinoff of the very popular cafe he opened in New York in 2003. A stone’s throw from the beach, Little Ruby Santa Monica embodies Sydney’s Bondi Beach culture with a menu of everything from Vegemite toast (for the actual Australians) to a wide selection of burgers, pastas, salads and plenty of "brekkie" items. The stylish, laid-back vibe at this all-day cafe seems to be just what the neighborhood needed. And it's just that vibe, says Mathers, that defines Australian dining.
“Australian restaurants are somewhere that you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s one of those places you can pop in anytime. You go there multiple times a week," says Mathers, noting that generally speaking, Australian and American palates don't differ much.
"It’s very global, Australia, so we pulled from all these different parts to create what we know as modern Australian food. It’s very produce-driven. So coming to California was a no-brainer, because the produce was so fruitful, and then we were able to bring what we thought was Australian and it just turned out that’s modern Californian."
Mathers points out that there are business benefits to venturing into the American market.
“There are a lot more people here, so business is more fruitful. I think there’s an opportunity to be more. I mean, I can open multiple restaurants here, whereas in Australia there’s a limit to how many restaurants. There’s 300 million people here and about 20-odd million in Australia, so just on sheer numbers...”
Mathers also feels there is a cultural difference when it comes to entrepreneurship in the United States. “Everyone is so excited about people succeeding and I think that’s such a charming thing about Americans.” Australians, on the other hand, are less supportive, according to Mathers. “We have a little bit of tall-poppy syndrome. It comes from England. They want to chop the tallest poppy down. We want to make sure the poppy fields are level. We don’t want to see anyone growing out of the fields, so we’re like, ‘Oh no! They’re not good.’ Here it’s like, ‘Everyone’s gonna grow! We’re all going to be tall poppies!’”
Mathers' restaurants have succeeded both in New York and L.A. And he takes credit for something most think of as quintessentially Californian: avocado toast.
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“I was having that as a kid. We literally were serving that 14 years ago at our restaurant Ruby’s. We were the first people to serve avocado toast. We know that for a fact. That’s a bit of a phase. The flat white — we were doing flat whites 14 years ago. They’ve got it at Starbucks now.”
For someone juggling so many restaurant projects, Mathers seems relaxed and happy as he watches the lunch crowd flow in and out of his new cafe.
“We love Americans and they seem to love us, so it’s a good combination.”
109 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (424) 322-8353, rubyscafe.com.