Oysters, bento boxes, and lots of good coffee are among the pleasures at Row DTLA.
It’s close to 2:30 p.m. on a sunny Tuesday at downtown L.A.’s new Rappahannock Oyster Bar, and the restaurant is buzzing. Guests are slurping oysters, grown by Rappahannock Oyster Co. in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, and enjoying chef Nick Erven’s chicory Caesar salads and excellent burgers. Both the dining room and the outdoor seating are packed with food-industry insiders. Smorgasburg L.A. general manager Zach Brooks is at a booth with Guelaguetza co-proprietor Fernando Lopez, who runs Smorgasburg L.A.’s beer garden. Rachel Krupa, the food/wellness publicist who operates The Goods Mart in Silver Lake, is rolling deep with a party of 13 on the patio.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar, which opened for lunch in May and started serving dinner in June, is an exceedingly pleasant place to dine. The oysters, shrimp cocktail, and Peruvian bay scallops are pristine seafood bliss. Erven, whose L.A. highlight reel includes Messhall Kitchen, Saint Martha, Fundamental L.A., eponymous vegan restaurant Erven, and The Venue, has created a comforting dinner menu that includes fried chicken with housemade kimchi and Benton’s bacon gravy. There’s an outstanding loaded potato latke with cheese, bacon, scallions, crème fraîche, and paddlefish caviar, which Erven describes as “basically a fucked-up version of Waffle House loaded hash browns.”
Rappahannock is part of Row DTLA, a massive new dining/retail/office complex that’s starting to feel a lot like a scenester neighborhood. But it benefits from not having the annoyances of an actual L.A. neighborhood, like traffic noise or residential garbage bins or boring chain stores or parking nightmares.
“It’s this really rare circumstance where you’ve got 32 acres controlled by one vision,” says David Fishbein of Runyon Group, the real estate firm that’s partnered with developer Atlas Capital to fill the spaces at Row DTLA’s nine buildings.
It’s rare, indeed, to see this combination of real estate, capital, creativity, and only-in-L.A. culinary talent. The Smorgasburg L.A. food market, with standout vendors like Burritos La Palma, Black Sugar Rib Company, Ugly Drum, and Wanderlust Creamery, regularly brings in more than 10,000 people to Row DTLA on Sundays. Fishbein says this has been “a huge piece” of establishing buzz for the complex. And in a sprawling non-residential development with 5,000 parking spaces, including a gigantic garage that’s free for two hours on Sundays, the crowds are manageable.
The complex, formerly known as the L.A. Terminal Market, was built along the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1917 to 1923 and became a major produce-distribution hub with both large warehouses and tiny jewel-box spaces for specific items. The architecture and scope of Row DTLA makes for something comparable to New York’s Meatpacking District, but without all the stiletto heels, the overheated nightclubs, and the Apple Store.
Row DTLA is “connected by these old rows of street grids, where the trains used to drop things off,” Fishbein says. “It was never designed for retail or food and beverage, but the infrastructure ended up being kind of ideal for this urban walkable setting. We tried to take a really light touch with the buildings, because the patina and character and old signs we uncovered, you can’t ever replicate that. To us, it was more important to keep the grit and eclectic nature of the buildings rather than to clean them up.”
One of the things that attracted mega-restaurateur Bill Chait, who’s working with chefs Chad Robertson and Chris Bianco to open the 38,500-square-foot Tartine Bianco at Row DTLA, was the industrial feel. And, of course, Row DTLA’s overall scale and its commitment to independent retailers and restaurants appealed to the Tartine Bianco team.
“It’s sort of the anti-mall, even though it’s huge,” Chait says. “It’s a significant community that’s built around shared retail values. There aren’t major brands going into it. It’s a very OG sort of deal here.”
Tartine Bianco, which plans to start opening in phases this August, is here because it’s got the space to go really big and create a craft mill and bakery, two restaurants, and a coffee roastery (capable of roasting 5 million pounds a year) and laboratory that’s a joint venture with Califia Farms. But on the other side of extreme real estate needs, chef Brandon Go is at Row DTLA precisely because he found a place where he can keep things small.
“I was looking downtown for at least a year and a half,” says Go, who’s making gorgeous, intensely elaborate bento boxes for to-go lunches and will soon start serving kaiseki dinners at Hayato. “Everything in L.A was way too big for me. To find a place, sub-1,000 square feet where parking wasn’t a problem, where building an open kitchen with a counter wasn’t a problem, it was basically impossible. Building things like this can really change the dining culture in L.A. The reason Tokyo’s so special is because every chef opening their own restaurant is viable. In L.A., how many chefs do we have that actually own their own place with no outside investors? Almost nobody.”
At Row DTLA, Go can have a restaurant with just a seven-seat counter and one table that accommodates up to six people. His kaiseki meals, which will likely be around $185 to $200 for 11 to 12 courses, will feature ultra-premium seafood like spot prawns, Dungeness crab, wild Tai snapper, abalone, and baby barracuda. Right now, the food cost for his test runs have been around $110 per person, which is extremely high.
“It’s expensive, but honestly there’s no compromise,” Go says. “At least in the beginning, we’ll try to make all the money on alcohol, pretty much.”
Fishbein wants Row DTLA to be a place that incubates independent talent who can’t swing the higher rents and long-term leases in other areas. So he’s offered “creative deal structures” to lure in chefs and operators who are unquestionably doing things their own way.
“It’s important that we all bring something different to the table,” says chef Ria Dolly Barbosa, whose daytime menu at Row DTLA’s Paramount Coffee Project (PCP) café includes a sausage roll with lumpia, which is a nice mashup of Australian comfort food and the flavors of her Filipina heritage.
Barbosa is also serving lentil pate and a beautiful salad made with spent tea leaves. She has a sandwich featuring Peads & Barnetts pork collar, brie, and stone fruit. Barbosa, not incidentally, has been working with Peads & Barnetts pork since she was cooking at Sqirl.
She was at Sqirl alongside another young cook, Chad Valencia, who would go on to start a popup that eventually turned into 2018 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year Lasa. Now both chefs, who’ve exchanged ideas and discussed dishes with each other over the years, are a big part of L.A.’s emergence as a city with wonderful modern Filipino flavors. A sausage roll with lumpia at a downtown coffee place totally makes sense in 2018.
“It’s nice that it’s become a lot more mainstream.” Barbosa says.
But like much of Row DTLA, where chef Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos truck parks during lunchtime on Tuesdays and has served hamachi tostadas and sweet potato tacos, what Barbosa does largely defies classification. She’s making delicious produce-forward L.A. food “that doesn’t really fit into any traditional genre,” and she’s doing it at an outpost of a coffeehouse that originated in Australia and will soon start serving dinner, bar snacks, beer, wine, and Monk CBD elixirs.
Erven’s basing his menu around how great Rappahannock’s oysters are, but he’s also deconstructing and reinterpreting the flavors of tacos by making skirt steak with mole-barbecue sauce, masa fries, and brussels-sprouts-and-lime slaw. Plus, he’s serving some of the most crowd-pleasing burgers and fried chicken in the city.
“I’ve been super fortunate to be able to do a bunch of different shit in my very short career,” Erven says and laughs. “I’ve done sort of more outlandish stuff at St. Martha and the vegan stuff at Erven. But those restaurants became exhausting because you’re constantly having to, like, almost one-up yourselves every day. I thought the food was awesome and I was proud of it, but it’s not what I want to eat. What I’m excited about with this menu is that this is the most casual place I’ve been and it’s fucking oysters and a bunch of sauces and it’s really good. It’s a really good burger. It’s good fried chicken. To me, I feel like it’s the most grown-up food I’ve had because it’s the least, like, masturbatory. It’s the least like, ‘Oh, look at what I can do,' and the most like, ‘Hey, this is a really good burger, and I eat it twice a week.’”
Erven feels like he’s really part of a community at Row DTLA. He has products from Scent Bar, the perfume store next to his restaurant, in the bathrooms at Rappahannock. There was a day when he ran out of avocados and towels. PCP had his back and gave him what he needed. Erven has also become friendly with Go, whose $46 bento boxes are a showcase for lovely seafood, delicate produce, and serious knife skills that have attracted customers from all over the city.
“Dude, he gave me the bento for my birthday,” Erven says. “It’s dope.”
Go has become a regular at Rappahannock.
“I’ve been going over to the oyster bar at least two or three times a week after work,” he says. “I had a beer there last night. If you come here at night, it’s awesome. My sister’s like, ‘This is like living on a movie set or something.’ It’s quiet. It’s clean. It’s safe. If it’s super warm outside, you go and have a beer on the patio. There’s no traffic noise. There’s nothing.”
Meanwhile, if you come to Row DTLA during the day, you’ll experience an environment and energy that might be hard to describe but will feel instantly familiar if you’ve spent any time in neighborhoods with highly specific stores and restaurants that cater to young, stylish creative types. Row DTLA includes, among other boutiques, an outpost of sneaker shop Bodega and a general store, Flask & Field, that sells CBD coffee and Compartés chocolate bars.
Beyond Tartine Bianco, Row DTLA will soon be home to eating and drinking destinations like coffee shop Go Get Em Tiger and chef Kuniko Yagi’s Pikunico, which will specialize in Japanese fried chicken. Go Get Em Tiger will join a stacked Row DTLA coffee lineup that also already includes Dulce Dos, a popular hangout that sells a lot of espresso, Asian-style caffeinated beverages, breakfast burritos, and sandwiches. But all this coffee doesn’t seem excessive in a complex (what many who work at Row DTLA call a “campus”) with 1.3 million square feet of office space, 275,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and the potential for upwards of 10,000 people to work here on a daily basis.
If anything, PCP general manager Hugh Kitson hopes to see even more coffee at Row DTLA because he comes from a thriving coffee/café culture in Australia.
“We started in Surrey Hills in Sydney,” Kitson says. “It’s a very competitive market there. What I’ve always been used to is being able to walk between five, six, seven different coffee shops, which are all fantastic. I really love that community aspect. That really excites me about this space, having so many high-quality vendors here. I think we push each other to always do a better job.”
“I love everything that’s going on,” says Smorgasburg’s Brooks, who has his office at Row DTLA and also curates the food trucks here. “The more stuff that’s here, the more it becomes a destination.”
Talk to the chefs and proprietors at Row DTLA and you’ll hear a lot about how a rising tide will benefit everyone. They’re all here to be part of a community and complement one another. Chait, for example, says that Tartine Bianco would love to roast coffee for Go Get Em Tiger or anybody else at Row DTLA.
“We’re essentially a completely independent producer that’s got no axe to grind,” he says.
Barbosa says she’s excited to see what Tartine Bianco becomes. Erven expects to be a Tartine Bianco fan, too, but he has one condition.
“As long as they don’t have an oyster bar, I’m cool,” Erven says.
“We’re not opening an oyster bar,” Chait says with a smile when I tell him about my conversation with Erven. “We’re all about creating diversity inside Row.”