Inspired by the idea of a concept album, each season’s bill of fare has about 20 new dishes that are designed to be eaten in order.

By Andy Wang
Updated May 30, 2019
Credit: Christian Seel

To get into one of L.A.’s most forward-thinking restaurants, you walk through the second floor of the Gallery food hall on Santa Monica’s pedestrian-filled, tourist-laden Third Street Promenade. You can take an escalator up there or, as the restaurant recommends in an email sent on the morning of your reservation, punch in a code to access a back-alley service elevator. When you’re on the second floor, look for a door marked “private” and punch in the same code to enter.

Inside, you’ll find Dialogue, a tiny 18-seat restaurant with sparse decor that’s “very much by design,” chef Dave Beran says. “We approached it from the idea of a theater set, not the idea of a movie, so that your focus is on the plate with your mind kind of filling in the blanks.”

Dialogue’s ambition and its capacity for storytelling are outsized, but a lot of this restaurant’s spirit is based on limitations. There’s no locker room for Beran and his employees to change clothes. The bathrooms, which require another code, are down the hall. There’s no room in the restaurant to push around a guéridon, no logical way to create tableside pyrotechnics, no possibility of constructing a seafood tower.

“I would love to stack plates,” Beran says. “I love stacking plates at restaurants, but it would destroy our dish room if eight plates went back for every guest.”

Dialogue, which has an eight-seat counter and three tables, is 760 square feet.

“With our closet next door, I think it’s 785,” Beran says. “There’s a little dish room. The whole premise is like, clearly we’re limited by what we can do. We can’t do the song-and-dance pony show, the smoke and mirrors.”

Credit: Christian Seel

Originally, this was going to be a temporary restaurant. Beran took the space after a lease on a much larger downtown location fell through. He intended to run Dialogue, which opened in September 2017, inside the food hall for a year and then figure out the next move. But now, after making seven different menus, he realizes that the restaurant is “still figuring out what it wants to become.” He likes the path it’s on, so he’s keeping Dialogue here for the foreseeable future.

Beran won a James Beard Award and was honored as a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2014 for his work at Chicago’s concept-changing Next, where he was executive chef. He previously was chef de cuisine at Alinea. He left the Grant Achatz empire because he wanted to do his own thing in Los Angeles, and what he’s doing at Dialogue is creating seasonal menus that are like concept albums. There are no greatest hits to play. This is a restaurant that doesn’t have signature dishes, and everything Beran serves is connected to what comes directly before it and what comes directly after it. Every season, he changes the entire menu, with the exception of one dish that connects every two menus. He serves about 20 courses on each menu, which means he’ll surpass 150 different dishes when he debuts his next menu this summer.

“Because we approach the menu like a concept album in the sense that it has to be eaten in a specific order straight through, you can’t just change one or two courses at a time, because it affects the outcome of all the other courses,” Beran says. “So we just change it all at once.”

Each menu takes you through three seasons: The current spring 2019 menu starts with the end of winter, transitions into spring, and then ends with the beginning of summer. The winter part of the menu includes cold dishes with elements like aged persimmon and a bracing hit of menthol. These are just a couple of the numerous ways Beran wants to jolt your palate and mind.

On his previous menu, he served golden osetra caviar with a big spoon because he wanted to “remove the luxury of the caviar.” He didn’t want guests to “covet the dish” and slowly savor the caviar. The large spoon was there to force people to eat the dish, which also had burnt-onion butter and chestnut purée, in a couple bites.

Credit: Christian Seel

Meanwhile on the current menu, Beran is serving caviar with a little mother-of-pearl spoon. But this dish, known as “caviar and coffee,” is inspired by childhood visits to Dunkin’ Donuts. When Beran explains this during dinner service, he says he knows it sounds weird to say that a caviar dish is nostalgic.

“Really, it’s framed around coffee,” he says. “I grew up in upstate New York playing hockey, so my mornings on practice days and game days were spent with my dad.”

Beran would wake up at 4 a.m. and then go with his father to the gas station for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

“As a kid, you want to be like your dad, so I would get a little kids’ coffee, and it was like French vanilla Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with too much cream or too much sugar because you’re trying to make coffee taste like hot chocolate,” he says.

The aroma and the flavor of that coffee is something Beran has long associated with winter, so he’s serving caviar with a coffee-and-vanilla crème anglaise.

“But think crème anglaise as far as the texture, not so much the sweetness,” Beran says. “We take about 75 percent of the sugar out of it. So it’s really about that eggy viscosity. Underneath that, you’ll find hazelnuts that are dressed in oil and infused with lapsang souchong.”

Explanations like this are a big part of the dining experience at Dialogue. Eating here is about making connections: Every dish shares an ingredient with the dish that precedes it.

“The gift and curse—but from our perspective, the beauty of that—is that the sum of the parts are always greater than the individual,” Beran says. “If I had handed you two random dishes out of order, they would have been fine. They would have tasted good, but they’re not complete. And they’re not complete by design ... Your snapper dish had ginger mist on the outside, which went into a ginger-rhubarb foam. Now you have a rhubarb chip with lilac pudding and cucumber-lilac soda to follow.”

We’re well into the spring part of the menu at this point, and that ginger rhubarb foam is atop a bright and comforting chowder-like “salad of succulents and clam.”

Credit: Christian Seel

Then the rhubarb chip with matcha and lilac pudding is dropped on the counter at the same time as the cucumber-lilac soda. Beran tells me something he doesn’t share with most guests. This, he says, is the one moment during the menu that I can taste something out of order.

“We would always tell a diner to have the rhubarb chip first and then follow it with the soda,” he says.

The soda tastes plain, sort of like seltzer, if you just drink it straight, Beran explains. “But if you eat the rhubarb chip, it gets stuck in your teeth and sticks to the roof of your mouth, and you end up with all this acidity and sweetness. And then you chase it with the soda, which washes it away, and you have a balanced soda.”

Eating the rhubarb chip and then trying the soda does indeed result in a sweeter, more pleasant experience.

“That’s almost like the metaphor for the whole menu, to some extent,” Beran says.

Later on, as Dialogue gets into the summer portion of the menu, there are dishes that hint at the bounty of perfect strawberries that California is about to enjoy. Edible flowers and greens show up in dishes that are a nod to what Beran has seen on biking trips in the mountains.

Beverage director Jordan Sipperley’s pairings veer in unexpected directions and don’t follow the traditional path of sparkling, white, and red: This is a restaurant where you might start off with Burgundy before getting sparkling rose and a dry Madeira in the middle of dinner. There’s also the option of a non-alcoholic pairing with refreshing blends of teas and fruit. The trajectory of the food is similarly surprising, of course, with sweet courses sandwiched between savory dishes.

Dialogue is about anticipating seasonal changes, so Beran is looking forward to a dish on his next menu that will have fresh peaches alongside preserved peaches. The savory preserved peaches are made with fruit that chef de partie McKenna Lelah, who manages the restaurant’s relationships with farms, got from Andy’s Orchard in Northern California at the peak of the season last summer.

For now, Dialogue’s current menu ends with peaches accompanied by a riff on Dippin’ Dots that features truffle. It’s an elevated version of peaches and cream that melds adult discernment and childlike glee.

Credit: Christian Seel

Beran has a lot on his mind these days. Beyond Dialogue, he’s working to open Pasjoli, an a la carte French restaurant on Main Street in Santa Monica. Originally, he had seen a close-to-10,000-square-foot old bank space downtown that would have had room for a high-end bistro, a bigger tasting-menu restaurant than what Dialogue currently is, and a cocktail lounge in one of the vaults. Pasjoli will be a version of the bistro he originally imagined. Beran plans to open it in the late summer.

Beran intends to press duck tableside at Pasjoli. He wants to have tableside caviar service. Matt Kim, who opened Dialogue with Beran, will be chef de cuisine at Pasjoli.

“I see that as an opportunity for him to take a third of that menu and make it his chalkboard,” Beran says. “Here’s six pig trotters. Here’s two terrines I got excited about this week.”

In the meantime, Beran is also thinking about something he hasn’t had to worry about since he was waiting for an important phone call in the dining room at Alinea. The Michelin Guide will announced its 2019 star ratings for Los Angeles on June 3. Dialogue feels like a serious contender for two stars, so there’s a lot at stake for the restaurant.

I ask Beran if he’s nervous or excited.

“Yes, all of it?” he says with a little smile. “I mean, we probably talk about it every day. The thing is, obviously, you want what you think you deserve. Maybe you get it. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re overrated. Maybe you’re underrated. And you can’t control that.”

Beran says he won’t “pivot” to chase Michelin stars, no matter what happens on June 3. “I think as soon as you start chasing things, you start falling behind,” he says.

Dialogue, of course, is about looking ahead: to the next menu, the next season, the next great ingredient, the next concept album, the next iteration.

If you walk into the restaurant a couple hours before dinner, you might see Beran and his “entire company” of 10 people prepping or answering emails or doing R&D for Pasjoli while loud music that changes every day blasts. They’re all here: the kitchen staff, Sipperley, service director Jeremy Overby, captain Chuck Bauer, and chief operating officer Ann Hsing.

The small space is often crowded, but it’s far from chaotic. This is Dave Beran’s domain, where everything has its place, where everything is about precision and order, where Chinese-Islamic cumin lamb can inspire a skate dish on the previous menu and a lacto-fermented cauliflower dish on the current menu.

It’s where new chef de cuisine Randall Prudden tells diners how the idea of foraging influences certain dishes at Dialogue during dinner service while opening chef de cuisine Kim sits outside in the food hall with a laptop as he plans the menu at Pasjoli. It’s where cook Daniel Song, who formerly worked at Next, is in charge of pastry before he transitions into his new role as Pasjoli’s sous chef. Both Kim and Prudden were Beran’s sous chefs at Next.

Part of Beran's process is embracing things that might have seemed wrong not long ago, like a one-ingredient fennel dish he plans to have on his next menu. (Much of Dialogue is about “removing a lot of the tricks and the carnival act and having more confidence,” he says.) Or consider the caviar and coffee.

“A year-and-a-half ago, I don’t think I would have ever served it, but I think it’s one of the strongest dishes we’ve done.” Beran says. “Looking at it now, it’s like, OK, we can have the simplicity because we’re understanding the storyline of our menu.”

Dialogue, 1315 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica