Maybe it's because so many things in this town seem impermanent that our fondness for those that do not increases, exponentially, with each year they remain. Michael McCarty's Santa Monica restaurant Michael's, which he opened in 1979 -- yeah, yeah, that's ancient for us -- is one of those places that we love not simply because it is good, but because it has remained so for decades. But that does not mean it should not adapt to the times, which is what happened recently, when McCarty radically overhauled his menu and renovated the interior of his restaurant. Don't worry, the open leafy patio and the artwork remain, because some things should not change. You were expecting maybe Jeff Koons and a chocolate fountain? No.
"We've been here for 33 years for a reason," said McCarty on a recent afternoon, perched at one of the high wooden bar tables that now fill the restaurant's front room, where new Dennis Hopper photographs line the walls. "Change is good, but it's evolution not mutation. As my mother and grandmother used to say, 'stick to your own knitting.'"
The changes to Michael's required neither a shutting down of the restaurant -- unlike the recent renovations at Spago, which closed its doors for most of the summer -- nor radical rebuilding. The menu, under chef John-Carlos Kuramoto, a young chef McCarty hired from Campanile a few years ago, has been entirely revamped, with a new format and pricing structure.
The mixology program has been reworked, a change that McCarty made first in his New York restaurant, with bar food to match the drinks program. All the furniture, plates, cutlery and glassware have been redone. And the upstairs is now a lounge, with a bar, a wood-burning fireplace, a flatscreen television ("the goddamned Lakers game will be on it"), comfy couches and an additional lounge for private parties. In the outside patio, look for mahogany tables and wicker chairs. "I took out all the fancy $2K chairs. People don't care," said McCarty, who grinned happily when asked what happened to them all. "EBay!"
No more tablecloths and communal tables for a place that was once known for being a high-end special occasion restaurant? "There is zero formality left," said McCarty. "It's over."
As for why he decided to change things up now, McCarty was circumspect. "In the last 12 months, the demographics have changed dramatically. All of a sudden the people coming in the door walked here. They physically walked here." Between actual street traffic -- yes, Angelenos can do more than valet their cars -- and a younger crowd, McCarty figured it was time to lower the prices, amp up the bar menu, and re-envision the slightly formal menu in favor of more small plates. "Michael's is no longer an L.A. restaurant," said McCarty. "It's a Santa Monica restaurant."
The outdoor patio, long a happy fixture at Michael's, is unchanged, although there's new landscaping, a more open space absent the planters, and a cheerier ambiance. Look for an iPad wine list, and more tables at which to sit and order from Kuramoto's new menu. That menu is loaded with sharable dishes which continue to reflect McCarty's presence at the nearby Santa Monica farmers market. Look for a vegan risotto with chanterelles, white corn and salsa verde; duck confit ravioli with kabocha squash; housemade Merguez pizza with smoked mozzarella; Jidori chicken with fries and tarragon butter; cioppino with market fish and rouille; and gravlax with brioche and mustard-dill aioli.
The artwork, long a fixture at the restaurant, has been updated with new art curated by the restaurateur's wife Kim McCarty. Thus while you're eating your burger with duck fat onions and butter lettuce, you can appreciate works from Peter Alexander, Ed Moses, Lucas Reiner, William Berry and, of course, Dennis Hopper, among many others. (Better than an evening at MOCA these days.) And yes, the bathrooms are still the best in town.
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