Nights on the Town

A short history of fine dining in Los Angeles.

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I love dusk in LA, that moment just before restaurants open for dinner. A waiter runs to work, toting his white shirt on a hanger. A kitchen crew wolfs down a quick meal at the empty bar. A parking valet rolls out the pavement stand. The scent of night—blooming jasmine is in the air, and all over the city, against an evening sky whose colors are unique to this part of Southern California, the lights are coming up. They click on in the recessed nooks of a sleek sushi joint. They sparkle on a chandelier in an old-school French restaurant somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. They shine from sconces in a west side bistro. And, everywhere, there's the neon: "Cocktails," "Steaks and Chops," "Seafood." Night falls, and, feeling the first pangs of hunger, you are faced with that most pleasant of quandaries in LA: Where should we eat?

As a restaurant critic, I spend hours each day driving around this city, asking myself that very question, the same one Angelenos have asked themselves since the earliest days of fine dining in LA. And I spend just as much time sitting in crowded restaurants, considering the service, the food, the setting, and wondering what makes restaurant culture here so different from that of any other city in the world. It's no secret that LA's upscale restaurants tend to be more casual and more outwardly trendy than those you find in other great food cities, or that the cuisine here is often lighter and more far ranging. But, why? What made it so?

It's okay not to have too much of a history in Los Angeles. In fact, being without one is something of a tradition. The past here need reach no further back than the moment the lead character (in drop-dead heels, please) steps off the 20th Century Limited at Union Station and onto the palm-lined street. Over the course of the past hundred years or so, when it came to restaurants in LA, things could quickly get funny. Nothing was native here, so borrowed themes took on their own, distinctive character.

Consider L'Orangerie, the venerable and now defunct French restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. Until it closed, a few years ago, you could treat yourself to a fine meal there, shielded from traffic by boxed hedgerows, and find that the evocation of the court of Versailles was in no way hampered by the working oil wells down the street. And still today, in the Atwater Village neighborhood, one can have a good prime rib at the Tam O'Shanter, an institution that dates from 1922 and has an interior modeled after a Scottish peasant hut: sagging roof, bulging walls, soot-darkened mantel. The original designer, Harry Oliver, didn't have any actual link to the Scottish Highlands; he'd perfected the look on Culver City movie lots.

Some call that superficiality; I call it lightness, the defining characteristic of LA dining. The knock against us as a city is that we're not real epicures, that we are health-obsessed weenies who care only if there's a star in the vicinity and will hardly eat because we must be doing squat thrusts at dawn up a canyon. The truth is that we are engaged by food but pair that passion with a sense of fun. It's not fakeness that bothers us but fakeness without heart.

True, like every other place in America, we once had our potted-palm dining rooms where classical French food might be enjoyed, but one can only wonder whether the Angelenos who ate at those places took all that saucy food at face value or whether they thought it was just a bit of show business. With the rise of the motion picture industry in the 1920s, fantasy became part of the landscape of everyday life in LA, and the theme restaurant took root. At the Jail, a restaurant that opened in 1925 in Silver Lake, the waiters dressed as inmates. At Ye Bull Pen Inn, which opened in 1920 downtown, customers dined in rows of livestock stalls. No matter what the theme, most places served comfort-food classics, like fried chicken and steak. But at Don the Beachcomber, which opened in 1934 and kicked off a nationwide tiki trend, the Polynesian menu matched the setting.

And while not every eatery in town banked on fantasy—downtown LA in the 1920s was crowded with sterile-looking cafeterias that catered to the sober tastes of the hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners who were flooding into the city at the time—the movie business was the engine that drove our fine-dining culture for much of the 20th century. In the early years, the stars gathered at night in places like the swank Cocoanut Grove, in Midtown's Ambassador Hotel, where their comings and goings, documented in newsreel images in thousands of movie palaces, kept the rest of the country fixated on what was happening out here. In those flickering images was the inkling that Los Angeles, once a remote, dusty pueblo, was now a place with a vibrant culture all its own. It would take a few years, however, for that culture to find expression in food.

Well into the 20th century, the fanciest restaurants in LA, like those in the rest of the country, were still looking to Europe for their models. Places like Perino's—an Italian-owned restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard with a lengthy, haute-Continental menu—were still considered the epitome of stylishness in the 1940s and 1950s. When it came to food, imported cuisine was fine, but Angelenos of certain means eventually came to expect something more—a little sleight of hand, a memorable character. Romanoff's, which opened in 1941 on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, delivered both, in the person of owner "Prince" Mike Romanoff. The self-styled Russian royal was actually Herschel Geguzin, an orphaned son of a Cincinnati tailor. Everyone knew he was a fraud, but no one cared. On the contrary, guests seemed to admire him for his chutzpah.

Mike Romanoff's success also owed to this: he knew that for all of Hollywood's glamour, the inner workings of the city amounted essentially to a bunch of hard-nosed men eating lunch. Romanoff's, accordingly, was a boys' club, complete with stiff drinks, deep booths, rich French food, and waiters who were models of discretion. Cigarette girls roamed the big back room; the coveted five tables opposite the Art Deco bar were reserved for the real movers and shakers, and for Romanoff himself. In 1949, M.F.K. Fisher, not yet a doyenne of the food world but a recently divorced sometime screenwriter, expressed admiration for the restaurant's breeziness and pragmatism. "The attitude seems to be," she wrote in her book An Alphabet for Gourmets, "that all humans must eat, and all humans must make money in order to eat, and therefore the two things might as well be combined."

Romanoff had recognized an essential facet of LA culture, but an older restaurant had already begun to break through and represent something even more intrinsic about Los Angeles. The Brown Derby had opened across the street from the Cocoanut Grove back in 1926; with its exterior shaped like a giant bowler hat, it seemed to hint at the extravagances of the theme restaurant, and, filled with movie stars, it certainly had elan, but over the years it had gained a reputation for its tasty food. It wasn't fancy: pan-fried corned beef hash was a popular dish, as was the grapefruit cake with cream cheese frosting. The most famous dish, the Cobb salad, didn't skew European at all. It is hard to think today of iceberg lettuce, watercress, chicory, romaine, bacon, and avocado as being original, but it was a brilliant combination, as perfect as blinis and caviar, hollandaise and f__ilets de sole, and certainly more interesting than any ersatz European grandeur hashed up under dusty chandeliers.

While the Brown Derby had begun to unmoor LA's fine dining from Europe's, it took a restaurant called Chasen's to cut the ropes. In the 1950s, by which time LA had become an important enough city that the Dodgers decamped there from Brooklyn, this low-slung Beverly Hills restaurant was becoming the place to be seen. Its most famous dish wasn't coquilles St-Jacques or chicken quenelles; it was a bowl of chili sprinkled with diced raw onion. Running a close second was the hobo steak, a New York strip steak cooked tableside in copious amounts of butter. Like Romanoff's, Chasen's had a manly brusqueness, but unlike Romanoff's, it rejected dynastic pretensions. Actually, Chasen's wasn't really very good. (My aunt, a onetime Vegas showgirl and not one for moist-eyed nostalgia, once summed matters up saying, "Patric, the only things worth having at Chasen's were the garlic bread and the decaf.")

The only time I ever visited Chasen's was in 1999, four years after it closed. The restaurant where Ronald Reagan had proposed to Nancy, where Orson Welles had hurled a flaming chafing dish at the producer-actor John Houseman, was auctioning off all its furnishings. I walked into the massive structure on Beverly Boulevard, with its weird white columned exterior and its green-and-white-striped awning that stretched to the curb, and there it all was: the silver crab forks, the butter holders, the golden cocktail stirrers, laid out and tagged with lot numbers. In the dark, wood-paneled interior, I got a sense of why that bowl of chili with diced onions had been so important. It announced that fine dining, with all its trappings, could be made in America. What remained to be figured out was whether fine dining in Los Angeles could be made to reflect not just America but this particular corner of California.

It could be argued that LA's unique brand of California cuisine was born on a patch of farmland outside Los Angeles, where a Cordon Bleu graduate named Michael McCarty and a chef named Jean Bertranou, who'd brought nouvelle cuisine to LA with his West Hollywood restaurant L'Ermitage, began farming ducks for foie gras. McCarty had fallen in love with French cuisine as a teenager but was intent on expressing that love in a local dialect. He opened Michael's in Santa Monica, three blocks from the ocean, in 1979. In a complete departure from the upscale chop house vibe of places like the Brown Derby, Michael's had a back garden that was suffused with sunlight in the afternoon. Yes, there was foie gras, but it was served by waiters in pink button-down shirts alongside California-made chevre and wines. Whereas Chasen's could have been mistaken for Manhattan's '21' Club, Michael's couldn't have existed anywhere but Southern California.

The confluence of graceful outdoor living and expensive modern art, of baby vegetables and understated affluence, was the sexiest encapsulation of modern American cooking yet. But McCarty was more than a showman. He was a mentor who believed in his mission of channeling the rigors of French cooking into something new. The LA pastry chef and restaurateur Nancy Silverton—one of a number of now famous alums of Michael's, including the chefs Jonathan Waxman and Ken Frank—recalls McCarty's taking her aside and saying of the mousse she was making, "It's too French." The dessert was over-aerated, he explained; he wanted more concentration of flavor. The moment was an epiphany, Silverton says, a turning point that would lead her toward her signature, rustic style of baking. "Suddenly, I understood that there was a difference between a good French pastry and a good pastry based on French technique."

Michael's had started a transformation, but to start a revolution, it would take a chef who really had something to rebel against. In fact, it took a European truly to see Southern California's singular lifestyle and incomparable natural bounty for what they were. A few years before McCarty got his restaurant off the ground, a 30-year-old Austrian cook named Wolfgang Puck was living in a rented room with sheets on the windows and an Emmanuelle poster on the wall. Puck was a culinary hired gun. Before coming to LA, he'd worked at dowagers of haute cuisine like Maxim's in Paris and the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo; once here, he got a job at Ma Maison, a Melrose Avenue restaurant that was the height of style in the mid-1970s. Certainly, the place was a change of pace for Puck: the dining room had an Astroturf floor, and the owner, a Frenchman named Patrick Terrail, was known to sport an elegant suit with sandals and white socks. But by Puck's own admission, the kitchen was still doing a butter-with-more-butter style of cooking.

Puck became famous at Ma Maison anyhow, publishing a popular book on French cookery in 1981 called Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen. But with Spago, which he opened the following year, he became a legend. The first iteration of the eatery was located on Sunset Boulevard in what had been a Russian-Armenian restaurant. Puck saw it as something casual—the dining room had checkered tablecloths—and while there were certain connections to Alice Waters's Chez Panisse (the same German bricklayer had made both restaurants' pizza ovens, and they had the same enthusiasm for the produce of California), at first glance there wasn't anything momentous about it. But Spago was unlike anything LA had seen before. Here was a chef who had been raised on the French "mother sauces" and had chosen not to use them. Instead, he installed a grill and had a truckload of almond tree wood delivered weekly. In the kitchen, he fostered an atmosphere of pure improvisation. The chef Mark Peel, who had come over from Michael's to work as head chef, recalls the manic opening night. "We cooked with the menus propped in front of us to remember what the ingredients in the dishes were," he says. This was not cooking from a playbook that had been slavishly passed down from one chef to another.

By the time I moved here, in 1988, Los Angeles's role as a brilliantly inventive restaurant city had been cemented. I came as a cook, not a critic, carrying with me well-worn knives from Dehillerin in Paris, where I'd worked for Guy Savoy, and from Bridge Kitchenware in New York, where I was a line cook at the '21' Club. Now the energy was pointing west. Everything seemed to be in flux when I got here. Even at the city's older, well-loved places like Valentino, in Santa Monica, chefs were changing their stripes. When Valentino's owner, Piero Selvaggio, opened the place back in 1972, it was a typical high-end ristorante with plenty of tableside pyrotechnics. "We didn't use anything like buffalo mozzarella," he recalls. "Mozzarella was something breaded and fried." But by the time I visited, Selvaggio was wheeling an olive oil cart around his dining room, pouring samples over bruschetta so that customers could appreciate the differences between regional oils.

I got a job on the line at Citrus, a new restaurant that the French-born chef Michel Richard had just opened among the production houses and sound stages in the raggedy southern end of Hollywood. At Citrus, Richard wasn't just mining the local terrain for the freshest beets or handmade charcuterie; he was going to the Thai grocery down the block and coming back to the kitchen with lemongrass and coconut milk. He was shopping at Armenian markets and bringing back things like katafi (shredded phyllo dough), which most of us had never seen before, and wrapping local Dungeness crab cakes with the stuff. One day, he became fascinated by watching one of the Salvadoran prep cooks eating a chayote salad. A few days later, we were plating up chayote slaw.

That you could play with culinary genres like that had become a given. Everyone was blurring boundaries: there was Roy Yamaguchi mingling Hawaiian foods like ahi and macadamia nuts with European techniques at his restaurant 385 North in West Hollywood (and later at the LA branch of Roy's); Nobu Matsuhisa melded Latin American ingredients with traditional sushi at his namesake restaurant in Beverly Hills; and at the Melrose Avenue eatery Border Grill, which opened in 1985, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken freely interwove strains of regional Mexican cuisines in homage to LA's countless great taquerias. In a way, this sort of eclecticism was right at home in a city where fantasy and invention, rather than history and tradition, had formed the foundation of high-end dining.

By the end of the 1980s, LA was home to innovative restaurants that boasted an equally novel asset: homegrown talent. When Campanile opened, a few blocks north of Wilshire Boulevard, in 1989, its planked salmon and its grilled prime rib with black olive tapenade—served in a rustic but elegant dining room in a faux-Tuscan complex with a verdigris cupola—caused a sensation. Its owners were Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel, chefs who had come up through the ranks of LA dining and not from New York, France, or Austria.

I've eaten at Campanile too many times to count, and every time I do, I feel grounded in this city. Los Angeles is a hard place to know—its fantasyland roots, its ethnic patchwork, and its almost too perfect sense of glamour all defy easy explanation. But sitting in a crowded dining room like Campanile's, I feel the disparate streams of LA's history coming together, and I can gaze around me, and at the plates of beautiful food, and say to myself, This is it. This is LA.