Gjelina: A Restaurant's Irresistible Party Dishes
"I wanted Gjelina to be a great little neighborhood restaurant," says owner Fran Camaj about his bistro in Venice, California. "But I sometimes don't recognize a single face there." The local artists and surfers who were Gjelina's patrons when it opened in 2008 now compete for seats with out-of-towners who come for chef Travis Lett's rustic but meticulously prepared Cal-Med foodmuch of it cooked in a wood-burning oven. "I've worked in Italian, French and Japanese kitchens," says Lett, which explains his ability to exercise restraint while creating bold flavors and freely pouring on the olive oil.
To satisfy neighbors when they can't get into the dining room, Camaj and Lett recently opened GTA (Gjelina Take Away), an annex serving to-go foods like a breakfast sandwich with egg, bacon, kale and cheese. Opening GTA "was a long road," Camaj says, "so when I was getting the permits, I asked staffers who are artists if they wanted to use the space as a studio and gallery." Several did: One waiter, Destin Cook, practically lived there, painting and even sleeping in the space. "Our managing partner even brought in his photography to sell one month," adds Camaj.
Shortly after GTA finally opened at the end of May, Camaj threw a launch party for those staffers, along with friends and family, in the courtyard out back. Venice artist Jules Muck painted a mural on the wall while Lett served a grilled-apricot salad with arugula and slow-roasted leg of lamb with spiced yogurt. "We always wanted to create a restaurant not just with great food, but where creative types feel comfortable coming in, hanging out in a free-form, organic way," says Lett, a former art-history student himself. "I think we've achieved that."