Is it a restaurant? Is it an event space? Is it a home for cutting edge cultural programming? These are the questions that arise when the multipurpose venue known as Elysian in Frogtown comes up in conversation. The answer is: all of the above, and then some.
Any attempt to describe Elysian in Twitter-friendly brevity would be futile, as well as selling this place short. But fans of unconventional restaurant experiences can see for themselves this Monday, July 14, when co-owner David Thorne cooks his first public dinner in Elysian's new beautiful, slick kitchen, designed in collaboration with local Frogtown firm RAC Design Build. Thorne's menu will include a choice of local sea bass with poached cucumber, daikon, snap peas, purple barley and opal basil; or duck breast with plum, radish, blackened escarole, black rice, walnut and pickled ginger. Dessert will be an apricot tart served with rosewater cream and pistachio.
"The kind of ethos we've developed in terms of how people come and sit [is], we're not pressuring anyone to get out, we're not trying to flip the tables," Thorne explains. "The idea is to allow a different kind of atmosphere, where as a diner you're not hustled." Thorne is a mostly self-trained cook, save for two months worth of professional courses he took in New York City followed by restaurant kitchen line work.
A bit of background: Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, both accomplished artists, moved to a dead-end industrial street in Elysian Valley along the north bank of the Los Angeles River, AKA Frogtown, over a dozen years ago. The couple renovated what had been a functioning porcelain mold factory into their home (which it no longer is) and creative space in a quiet pocket of Los Angeles not known even to those who pass through it regularly when zooming along Fletcher between Silver Lake and Atwater. (This was back when the Hostess factory was still functioning, years before the massive building recently became acquired by Modernica Furniture and a portion of it leased to Good Eggs.)
Elysian as a physical place and as a concept has evolved in the years since Meltzer and Thorne settled into the neighborhood, with the latest stage including a brand new professional kitchen for Thorne to cook his twice monthly — but soon likely to increase in frequency — "Night In" series he began in 2012. (The limited seating dinners, however, take place both indoors around chic communal picnic-style tables, or outside in Elysian's stunning steel-framed garden area.) Instead of using what used to be "a little domestic kitchen" and four burners, there's now room to expand the concept and $42 prix fixe menus. Aspects of the business have been more professionalized with the remodel, yet Elysian retains its highly personal, idiosyncratic feel.
The team also plans to "develop a more curated kitchen" and invite chefs to experiment with in-progress menus and potential restaurant ideas, along the lines of the former Test Kitchen. (In this case, given the proprietors' backgrounds and context, Thorne's word choice is indeed appropriate.) Because Elysian still functions as a popular special events venue, however, Night In dinners generally don't take place on weekends, except for the occasional times Thorne will block out to cook for a mixed crowd of many Elysian regulars, instead of renting it out for weddings and other private events.
Thorne hopes to boost the number of dinners, but "it's going to be more intermittent" than a typical restaurant. (Again, categorization is elusive here.) Kayaking and other new uses of the L.A. River, including a consistent Cafecito Organico presence and the new Frog Spot hub, means brunch would be a natural fit. Elysian put on a pop-up brunch earlier this year, which he says "was crazy. People love brunch." Stay tuned for more developments in that department, too.
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Meltzer's arts organization, Clockshop, is based out of Elysian and hosts guest speakers, film screenings, and other events such as the forthcoming My Atlas series about women and travel, and the recent L.A. River campout, since Elysian's proximity to the L.A. River influences much of Clockshop's work. She has intriguing plans for the fall, which will take advantage of Elysian's improved food prep facilities, featuring three weekends focused on the Jewish and Arab diasporas. Leading scholars and artists have been invited to participate, and chefs will join Thorne to explore specific cuisines. "It will be eclectic, but centered around bringing people here to eat this food," Meltzer says.
While Elysian is a draw for diners, viewers, revelers, and engaged cultural participants who may or may not live nearby, Meltzer and Thorne think and act carefully about Elysian's role in a quickly changing area. At some point, they might add to Elysian's long roster of uses a place for neighborhood residents to offer the food they personally know best and excel at creating. "We want to be conscious about not being some new thing that's coming in and not serving people who actually live here," Meltzer says.