Los Angeles has never really had what New Yorkers or Chicagoans call a low-key neighborhood restaurant. In L.A. there are virtually no restaurantsno businesseson residential streets, and nobody walks anywhere for anything, especially dinner. Even fast-food restaurants provide valet parking. Until recently, only three things distinguished a serious restaurant from a casual one: the skill and ambition of the chef in the kitchen, the caliber of the celebrities in the seatsand, of course, the cost.
But lately L.A.'s best-known chefs have begun shunning the paparazzi and redefining casual dining here. Ironically, while fabulous high-end restaurants are opening at an unprecedented rate in L.A., these chefs are moving in the opposite direction, focusing on simpler food, catering to a less famous crowd and creating an environment that's more laid-back than the posh restaurants where they made their mark. Some have completely abandoned celebrity restaurants, while others are merely branching into the glitz-free zone as their swankier places keep thriving. Spago's Wolfgang Puck, who opened a chain of eponymous pizza cafés during the past decade, has added a new dimension to his empire: He has recruited his brother Klaus from the Spago branch in Chicago to serve as general manager at Vert, a brasserie serving French and Italian classics.
The most obvious benefit of this trend is value. For instance, Bruce Marder, who earned his reputation at Rebecca's and Capo, has opened a diner-style restaurant, Cora's Coffee Shoppe, where entrées rarely top $10. Beyond menu prices, these new places offer diners more leeway in deciding how much to spend. At the recently opened wine bar A.O.C., Suzanne Goin of Lucques (an F&W Best New Chef 1999) serves small plates meant for sharingSpanish black rice with saffron and squid, Swiss-chard-and-fennel bread pudding. "If you wanted to, you could come in here and order an appetizer course, a salad course, a fish course and a meat course. You could easily get carried away," Goin says. "Or you can come nibble and sample some wine. It's as expensive or affordable as the customer makes it. The customer is in control."
In such dressed-down settings, the service is ratcheted down too. At Father's Office, Sang Yoon's tavern-style tapas restaurant, customers shout their orders to the bartender then grab a table; somehow the food finds them when it's ready. Leonard Schwartz and Michael Rosen's Zeke's Smokehouse, a barbecue joint, is staffed by high school students who are prone to get distracted by discussions of the latest Osbournes episode. But for diners willing to relax and enjoy such quirks, the payoff is enormous. As Klaus Puck says, looking around the dining room at Vert, "This feels like home, like family."
Brad Johnson is a contributing reporter for F&W and an editor at Angeleno magazine.