In the course of a year, approximately 750,000 people visit the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. You’ll find the first-ever printed cookbook here, dating back to 1475, not to mention Old Master prints by Rembrandt and a First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays. Outside the galleries, 120 acres of specialized gardens await. As much as there is to enjoy at the storied venue, one thing has long been missing: food of the same caliber as the collections.
That story changed as of Nov. 1. After a lengthy search for the best team to take over dining and catering services at the site, the Huntington settled on Palo Alto–based Bon Appetit Management Co., which has been highly regarded since its founding in 1987. Celebrated Los Angeles chefs Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken and Kasja Alger simultaneously joined the ranks, working in partnership with Bon Appetit to elevate on-site fare options.
“I think this venue is so underused, and part of it is that, if you’re driving here, you want to spend the day,” Feniger said at a recent media event. “In order to hang out, you need great food, and you want it to be representative of the city. That’s what we’re doing, and we are jazzed about it.”
Representing L.A. through food is something that comes easily to this trio of chefs, who are blending old and new ideas in their takeover of the Huntington’s five dining spaces. In the main dining hall, now called 1919 (the year the Huntington was founded), Feniger and Milliken’s Border Grill concept has a stall, serving taqueria standards: tacos on house-made corn tortillas, ceviches and seasonal aguas frescas. Alger's and Feniger’s Blue Window brand operates The Bar, a sushi kiosk with nigiri, rolls and bowls, not to mention beer, wine, sake and cocktails inspired by the surrounding gardens. Bon Appetit offers made-to-order salads, sandwiches, brick-oven flatbreads and more at a deli station.
If 1919 feels too much like a college dining hall (albeit a luxurious one), there are other choices to consider, perhaps none so scenic as Freshwater Dumpling and Noodle House, set in the Chinese Garden’s Freshwater Pavilion. Despite Freshwater's teeny kitchen, Alger and Feniger are set on serving a gamut of Chinese dumplings, from a Nepalese variety (think tomato and curry) to pork and Napa cabbage dumplings in broth. Sticky rice in lotus leaf, hand-rolled scallion pancakes and General Tso cauliflower are other choices. It’s tough to beat sampling any of the above while sitting on the terrace overlooking the lake.
For more casual outdoor dining, guests might head to the Patio Grill, where Milliken and Feniger have set up an outdoor barbecue, where they are trying out items such as “global skewers,” grilled Cubano sandwiches and corn with smoky aioli and cheese. This covered dining space is adjacent to the Shakespeare Garden and the American art galleries. The nearby Rose Garden Tea Room also has received a simple physical update and has a refreshed menu, offering blinis bedecked with caviar, finger sandwiches and typical teatime pastries. Finally, there's Red Car, a quaint coffee shop at the main entrance, where you can procure an Illy coffee, a scoop of Fosselman's ice cream or a grab-and-go-snack.
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As thrilled as Feniger, Milliken and Alger are to be neck-deep in transition at the Huntington — they’re spending lots of time on-site as of now, so you’re likely to spot them behind the counter or grill — they’re still looking to do more. Milliken says she’s eager to ramp up the level and number of catered events that happen at the venue. The team also aims to help draw in new visitors — the next generation of Huntington fans — with events ranging from chef talks to cooking classes. Guest speakers on her wish list include Nancy Silverton, Michael Pollan and Anthony Bourdain.
“The whole idea is that we get more people here, and that we get young people here,” Milliken said. “We want this place to get its due. Food is a universal way to do that — it brings us together.”
1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. (626) 405-2100, huntington.org.