Did you ever know someone with a face so attractive, style so effortlessly perfect and a life so wonderful that it made you secretly hate them? Sometimes I think this basic human cattiness is a large part of why many people disparage Los Angeles — it's too sunny, too breezy, too full of beautiful people. If you ever want to torture a particularly cynical New Yorker with just such a Californian fantasy, I recommend taking them to Winsome, the all-day Echo Park restaurant and cafe that embodies that dream of stylish, carefree California living so completely, it's hard not to hate it a little.
The servers are ridiculously beautiful, not in the cliched L.A. struggling-actor way but in a casual, bohemian way, as if they all just stepped out of an Anthropologie catalog: They look as though they ought to be photographed in soft focus wearing complicated lace dresses while lounging in a flower field. Winsome itself would make a great set for a fashion shoot, especially in the daytime, when light streams in and illuminates the blond wood ceilings and booths, and the long counter that curves around the bar and open kitchen. The hanging plants are draped just so; the wallpaper against the back wall is printed with a scene of fat-bottomed figures picnicking in a lush, green park. Even the customers seem to have materialized from mythical unrealities, some of them perfectly stubbled, sunglasses-inside Hollywood types, some of them looking as if they just came from a fabulous Laurel Canyon house party, circa 1972.
I suppose that's what Echo Park looks like in 2016, at least the part of Echo Park built for its moneyed newer residents. Winsome is in the bottom of an apartment development called the Elysian, where a 523-square-foot studio apartment rents for $2,250 a month. The restaurant obviously caters to the type of people who either live in the building or could see themselves living in such a building. The first I heard about Winsome was someone exclaiming about the cost of a single pancake on its breakfast menu — $11. But when you're dealing with folks willing to pay up to $5 per square foot in rent, an $11 pancake doesn't seem so crazy.
(I interrupt this snark fest to inform you that the Elysian is part of the historic Metropolitan Water District campus, originally designed by acclaimed architect William Pereira, and that all its apartments have sweeping views; the studio apartment referenced above has a balcony with a looming, glittering view of downtown that's undeniably astonishing. Winsome is tucked underneath; it has no view, just a nice but basic patio.)
Winsome is put together by Marc Rose and Med Abrous, the guys behind the Roosevelt Hotel's lauded Spare Room cocktail bar. When Winsome opened in February, it served only breakfast and lunch, but expanded to dinner hours in August. The chef is Jeremy Strubel, who has been working in L.A. for many years and probably is best known as having been the chef at Rustic Canyon between when Evan Funke left and when Jeremy Fox came on. Strubel is also a partner in the restaurant; while he created the menus, he's not executing them on a day-to-day basis. That's being done by Matt Bollinger, who was previously at Trois Familia. Strubel's style is to douse everything in lots of bright, herb-based and often creamy sauces, to spike things with lots of acid, to throw a bunch of ingredients that sound fairly random into a bowl together and to create something harmonious and interesting and delicious.
That's the thing about Winsome: Even if you'd like to resist the hipster fantasy it perpetuates, the food — and the drinks! — are likely to seduce you anyway.
Vibrant, blindingly green sauces are a specialty. At breakfast, tangy basil tahini pools around a potato rosti (a large, flat, crispy potato pancake) that's draped in smoked salmon, and cilantro yogurt perks up a plate of "grains and eggs." An addictive, deep green sludge of herb pistou tops a lunchtime dip of whipped feta combined with pureed shelling beans — you slop the stuff onto grilled bread and wish they also served it at dinner. Underneath the beautifully cooked and seasoned grilled rib-eye comes a layer of grassy but decadent creamed wild arugula. You get the feeling the chefs in charge could spend years thinking up new ways to combine leafy things and creamy things, and you hope they do just that.
Acid is another apparent muse. Maitake mushrooms over sauteed greens with a tarragon breadcrumb crunch are complemented by a wonderfully bracing hit of lemon aioli. A stack of lightly fried tofu cubes gets the exact amount of tang needed — from a dice of peppers and chili and puffed wheat berry — to bring out the creaminess of the bean curd.
Like every trendy new American restaurant, dishes are of varying sizes, and putting together a meal that makes sense is really up to you. But it would be possible here to eat a bunch of medium-sized bowls of vegetables and be very happy.
Winsome is cooking a lot of food for a lot of people — breakfast, lunch and dinner is a big undertaking — and it would be weird if it was batting a thousand. I have some minor complaints: The wilted escarole chicken soup at lunch tastes a little too much like what I'd make from whatever was in my fridge on a night when I didn't feel like shopping; the heirloom carrot "tagliatelle" and watercress next to a beautifully cooked beef cheek looked and tasted a bit too much like bunny food; desserts are uneven, some of them too wacky and some of them too clumsy. But for a menu with such breadth and personality, Winsome's average is pretty impressive.
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If there's one place where the restaurant plays to its own hipster cliché in a less flattering light, it's in the service, which can be charming and neglectful, oftentimes because it seems like the waiters are having such an awesome time hanging out at the end of the bar flirting with one another. One of the owners often hangs out at that same end of the bar, leaving his perch to schmooze with the industry types who take meetings here throughout the day, slapping them on the back a few feet away as I wait in vain for my man-bunned waiter to notice I've been done with lunch for 20 minutes.
The drinks are great, both the cocktails (unsurprisingly, given the Spare Room sisterhood) and the short wine and beer list. But it can be a difficult task to get those drinks. Even after you've flagged someone down and ordered, the bartender won't notice the order come in, and your waitress might be having such a good time chatting to him that she forgets to tip him off. Everyone on staff is so delightful and attractive, it makes me feel bad to want to break up their good time. If that circle of chatty goodwill extended far enough outward that it could carry my cocktail down the bar to my needy hands, I'd be all for it.
There are some restaurants that present a fantasy that enrobes you when you walk in, that manage to make you feel as though you are fabulous simply for being there. Winsome is not that restaurant. Either you belong there or you don't — you'll know the answer as soon as you walk in through the gorgeous, heavy blond wood front door. If you do, Winsome will be your new favorite spot to sip a cocktail or a macchiato and feel blessed to live in a city that provides such stylish quality in its restaurants and way of life. If you don't belong, all this louche comeliness is a little hard to swallow. Even so, I suggest you un-grit your teeth long enough to eat. Unlike people or restaurants, it's hard to hate food simply because it's so effortlessly wonderful.
WINSOME | 1115 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park | (213) 415-1818 | eatwinsome.com | Snacks $5-$13; shared plates $13-$19; shared entrees $28-$46 | Cafe, 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily; breakfast and lunch, 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner, Sun.-Thu., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. | Full bar | Street and lot parking in the daytime, valet parking during dinner