Photo by Anne Fishbein
Pete’s Café and Bar, on Fourth and Main in Los Angeles’ Old Bank District, has transformed a once degraded and decrepit corner into a large, classic urban bar and restaurant scene. And Pete’s is only one component of the area’s redevelopment, a project that’s largely authored by the restaurant’s co-owner Tom Gilmore, who’s also part owner of Cicada. The other owner is Pete McLaughlin — he’s the on-site guy, the one to greet you warmly as you step through the heavy glass doors.
High ceiling, old hexagonal-tile floors, dark-wood tables with snow-white linens and twinkling wine glasses: Pete’s has completely classic bar-’n’-grill good looks. There’s also a hint of contemporary clubbiness — you can tell Pete’s is Cicada’s cousin. The ceiling and ductwork are a rosy adobe color, the thick, square pillars are stenciled in gold leaf, the settee by the door a lush red-and-gold damask.
On a Thursday evening, there are a handful of diners, and a clot of young adults in the bar area. “Anywhere you like,” the hostess tells us, indicating the entire L-shaped restaurant. Some kind of techno-pop is ricocheting off all the high, hard surfaces — it sounds like a lot of people rustling bags and thumping oil drums into a microphone — so we walk deep into the restaurant searching for a place where we might actually be able to hear each other.
“I know, I know,” our waiter agrees cheerfully when we explain our migration to the very back of the place. “The acoustics are horrible in here! I can be right in front of someone and they can’t hear me!”
The sheet-glass windows look north onto a vast cityscape, a parking lot — parking here is a breeze — the New Otani, courthouses and, in the distance, the San Gabriels, glowing in the last fading light of day. The old buildings, the city at dusk — it reminds us of New York or Chicago. In fact, Pete’s presupposes that it’s possible for Los Angeles to have what those older, more compact cities take for granted: downtown life. Watching night settle over the buildings, we can imagine we were in a bustling, functional 24-hour city, not just a downtown that’s suffused with workers during the day, then abandoned at night. Well, we can almost imagine it. The Mission is a block to the east, and street people outnumber other pedestrians on the sidewalks.
At lunch, Pete’s is less noisy, more adult, no doubt because there are suits from nearby bank buildings, the Mayor’s Office, the L.A. Times. Sitting on the Main Street side of the restaurant, we see sidewalk tables, smartly arranged with boxed green plantings, and, across the street, the austere, freshly scoured stone jewel box of the Farmers and Merchants Bank. Young artistic types take their dogs on a lunchtime walk, women in pinstriped skirts, hose and heeled pumps stride past in a group. Not Manhattan, but getting there.
Pete’s chef, Mark Smith, has cooked his way all around Los Angeles, from Campanile to Moomba to the idiosyncratic Café Stella in Silver Lake. Here, he produces a functional, midpriced take on New American cooking: mac and cheese, a gilded burger (fontina, tomato aioli), steaks, bread pudding. Highlights include the martini glass heaped with shrimp, yellow and orange baby heirloom tomatoes, and green guacamole, all doused in citrus salsa. And one day, the soup du jour is a fresh tomato that seems to sing, optimistically, of summer. A house specialty, blue-cheese fries, is sinful, engagingly disgusting bar food, potatoes tossed hot with the sharp salty cheese so they’re limp yet crisp and chewy, irresistible.
Salads, though fresh and made with decent ingredients, fall a little flat. Or maybe we’ve just filled up on the blue-cheese fries. Still, the cobb needs more zing, the spinach is too sweet, and both deserve better bacon — and more of it; the measly long-cooked crumbles in both seem old, stingy.
At night, the quality of the entrées varies: Roast chicken is excellent, with garlic mashies and spinach, but a fillet is peculiarly tasteless — though the sides of tomato-mushroom stew and asparagus are a good, lower-carb alternative to the more usual potato-and-veg accompaniments.
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The waiters, however congenial, also disappear for long stretches — what, is there a playoff on TV? Or a good craps game in the walk-in? That Thursday night, our aurally sympathetic waiter is terrific, but our tapioca pudding takes forever, and then proves to be a particularly vapid version, too — the tapioca itself thinly seeded in a standard crème custard with a gratuitous brûléed crust. Hey, if we wanted crème brûlée, we would’ve ordered that. At lunch, again, it takes half an hour to get coffees and a wedge of rich, dense chocolate cake with raspberry sauce — what, did they have to pound the cacao beans?
But food per se, dining, is not really the point of Pete’s. (Drinking — considering the profit margin — is perhaps more so.) Pete’s is really, fundamentally, about reclaiming downtown, creating a sturdy, upscale urban outpost, a lunch spot for downtowners, a canteen for the new, up-and-coming inner-city dwellers — hey, there are three loft buildings within a brick’s throw. The demographics are a-changing, and Pete’s Café and Bar is both a sign and a catalyst of the times.
Pete’s Café and Bar, 400 S. Main St., downtown; (213) 617-1000. Lunch and dinner Sun.–Wed. 11:30 a.m.–midnight, Thurs.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–2 a.m. Breakfast Sat.–Sun. from 11:30 a.m. Entrées $10–$24. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V.