Start with the alleys if you want to see how things are changing in this vibrant downtown neighborhood.
“I had just been in Lyon maybe two or three months prior to seeing the space,” says Carson, who plans to open all-day restaurant Bon Temps on Santa Fe Avenue in the early summer. “Honestly, everywhere in Europe, you’d have five cafés in this alley and people would be packed in like sardines.”
Beyond the tables he’ll have inside the two-level Bon Temps, Carson wants to create an European-inspired alfresco experience. He plans to put about 40 seats in the alley, where guests can eat pastries in the mornings, pair oysters with wine in the afternoon, and enjoy “modern brasserie” food at night. Carson, who was the longtime corporate pastry chef for Michael Mina’s restaurant group and has also worked at Le Bernardin and other fine-dining institutions, lives in an apartment adjacent to Bon Temps. So he’s aiming to create the kind of neighborhood restaurant he’d want to visit again and again.
“I don’t want it to be fussy by any means,” he says.
If you want to understand how tightly packed the hotness of the Arts District is about to become, you should start in the alleys. Bon Temps shares its alley with the new Firehouse boutique hotel, where former NoMad chef de cuisine Ashley Abodeely has a restaurant with a glass door in the kitchen that opens into the alley. On the other side of the Firehouse building, the restaurant has a beautiful covered patio for alfresco dining.
Around the corner from Bon Temps and Firehouse is the buzziest alley in the entire city. That’s where Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis opened Bestia in 2012. Bestia remains one of L.A.’s most popular restaurants, where reservations are scarce and you’ll often see many towncars idling outside as guests from all over L.A. (and beyond) enjoy pasta and charcuterie in the dining room and on the patio.
Just across the alley from Bestia is where Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto-Innes will open two restaurants, Damian and Ditroit, later this year. Damian will be a modern Mexican restaurant similar to Cosme in New York. The adjacent Ditroit, Olvera says, will be a taqueria “in the back alley where the kitchen entrance is.”
There are no doubt a lot of global influences that are making the Arts District more delicious, but all the chefs here will tell you that there’s no bigger inspiration than being in Los Angeles. Abodeely moved to L.A. in 2016 and was the executive chef of the NoMad Truck before she opened downtown’s NoMad hotel. The food truck criss-crossed the city, so Abodeely cooked in Granada Hills, Playa del Rey, Silver Lake, West Hollywood, Koreatown, and lots of other locations in between. Abodeely also collaborated on chicken burgers for the truck with L.A. culinary luminaries like Nancy Silverton, Suzanne Goin, Roy Choi, Jeremy Fox, Kris Yenbamroong, Jessica Koslow, and many others.
“It was the best opportunity I think anybody could have ever had to learn the city in such a short amount of time,” Abodeely says.
Abodeely quickly learned, like many East Coast chefs who come to L.A., that the produce in California is unparalleled and that this city is a place where you can become a star by boldly riffing on food that people want to eat every day. At Firehouse, she’s upgrading the idea of avocado toast by serving Dungeness crab toast with avocado and cured egg yolk on fried brioche. A Japanese sweet-potato dish pops with the spice of salsa verde that’s nicely balanced with the creaminess and cooling effect of yogurt. Chile flakes amp up a plate of perfectly grilled octopus with bitter greens. Snow-crab claws with tomato, garlic butter, and parsley are tremendously delicious and luxurious. There’s branzino with tahini and a dry-aged burger with smoked onions and spicy mayo.
For dessert, pastry chef Rose Lawrence (formerly at Rustic Canyon and Manuela) has a refreshing hibiscus granita with rose water and labneh, and she’s also baking excellent pastries with local produce for the hotel’s coffee bar. If you want something from the coffee counter—like a strawberry/basil tart, a slice of blueberry coffee cake, or a chocolate cookie with mahlab—brought to your table at the restaurant, just ask.
Firehouse is located in a former fire station that was built in the 1920s. Bon Temps is on the site of what used to be the Heinz 57 test kitchen. There’s a lot of history in this industrial neighborhood, and restaurants here tend to preserve a lot of original details like exposed brick, wood paneling, and floorboards.
At the same time, this is a neighborhood in the middle of a major makeover. Warner Music Group has moved into a building across the street from Firehouse and Bon Temps. Soho House will soon be opening an outpost, known as Soho Warehouse, a couple blocks away on Santa Fe Avenue. Spotify has leased spaces for its regional headquarters in the Arts District.
Forthcoming restaurants like an outpost of Chicago chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl & The Goat will join newcomers that include Bavel, the Middle Eastern blockbuster Menashe and Gergis opened last year. Mei Lin’s Nightshade and Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos also recently opened in the Arts District.
Meanwhile, there have been high-profile closures like Jessica Largey’s Simone and Tony Esnault and Yassmin Sarmadi’s pioneering Church & State bistro. Before Carson took over the Bon Temps location, it was home to Walter Manzke’s Petty Cash taqueria. Change is a constant in this neighborhood.
With operators like Firehouse’s Dustin Lancaster (known for stylish spots around the city including Hotel Covell, L+E Oyster Bar, Augustine, and Oriel) betting on the area’s history and future, the alleys here should only get livelier.
Abodeely remembers meeting with Lancaster to discuss the possibility of working together with designer Sally Breer at Firehouse.
“He romanticized it,” Abodeely says. “It was such a unique space unlike anything I had ever seen. I was like, wow, this is incredible.”
It was an ideal place for Abodeely to cook exactly the way she wants.
“There’s a wood-fired grill,” she says. “The menu is mine. It’s clean. It’s simple. It’s seasonal. It’s American food that I love to eat. It’s lighthearted, easygoing, approachable.”
Bestia turned the Arts District into a dinner destination, but what Firehouse and Bon Temps are trying to do is attract people all day long. Bon Temps will open only for dinner at first, but this restaurant is largely built for casual daytime meals and Carson plans to add breakfast, lunch, and mid-afternoon dining soon. In the evenings, he will have a canape section where “everybody can have a little bit of the dinner-party vibe” as they eat refined finger food like chicken-liver-mousse profiteroles topped with chicken cracklings and tartlets filled with uni custard and caviar. Then, instead of dropping a lot of plates meant for sharing, Carson wants to offer a “throwback experience” where everybody orders their own appetizer and entree. He will, however, have some large-format options like a whole chicken cooked in different ways and a dry-aged Creekstone prime rib eye with assorted sauces and a side of onion-potato rolls.
“A lot of our technique is driven by ideas from classic French cuisine,” Carson says. “I’ve worked with a lot of French chefs. I’ve worked in a lot of French restaurants. I’m not a French chef, but it speaks to everything I do.”
It’s an exciting moment when chefs like Carson and Abodeely (who spent eight-and-a-half-years working for Daniel Humm, at New York’s Eleven Madison Park and then The NoMad on both coasts) are using their considerable skills and experience to build new restaurants calibrated for the all-day rhythms of L.A. Abodeely cooked at the NoMad Truck in the Arts District, and she found herself hanging out in the area on her days off and visiting restaurants like Manuela in the gigantic Hauser & Wirth art gallery. The neighborhood reminded her a bit of when she lived in Brooklyn. She dug the restaurant scene, the industrial feel, and the energy with all the people walking around. She had previously thought that she might go back to the East Coast in the near future, but being in the Arts District helped convince her that she wasn’t done with L.A.
Carson, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time exploring the neighborhood while he and his wife push around their 19-month-old daughter in a stroller, so he’s got a sense of what people in the Arts District want. (Pro tip for parents: He says the new House of Machines café is a surprisingly good place to eat with children during the day.) It helps that Bon Temps’ architect (Nicole Cannon of NCA Studio), design firm (Klein Agency), and apron supplier (BlueCut) are based in the Arts District.
Carson likes being reminded of where he is. In his gleaming new kitchen, there’s a spot he describes as “the vacation station” because it has a street-facing window where you can see pedestrians walking by. It feels kind of European, being in a part of Los Angeles where people actually stroll. By the way, Carson adds, he also has a “bakery kitchen” with a window that faces the alley.