The Great Good Place
Note: Please read F&W's editor's note on the recent allegations against Ken Friedman and claims of sexual misconduct at his New York restaurant, The Spotted Pig. Unfortunately, we went to press with the below story before the Times investigation went live.
It's another near-perfect morning in Los Angeles: sunny, 76 degrees, with a southerly breeze and high visibility. Wearing black shorts and a large black Bob Marley T-shirt, Ken Friedman, the New York restaurateur, stands in the courtyard of his soon-to-open restaurant on Sunset near Vine, gazing suspiciously at a pair of very large ficus trees climbing up the stucco walls to the red Spanish tile roof. “Overgrown house plants,” he says. “Someone bought them at Safeway 30 years ago and, because this is Southern California, everything just grows and grows.” He shakes his head. “They’re not even native.”
Built around 1927 by silent-movie cowboy Fred Thomson, who called the property Court of Olive, 6530 Sunset Boulevard has a picturesque brick patio with a fountain burbling in the middle of it—and a history with which Friedman is reckoning. He and his longtime collaborator, chef April Bloomfield, are weeks away from the fall opening of their first L.A. restaurant, Hearth & Hound. For an East Coast restaurateur and chef, best known for their legendary, meat-centric e Spotted Pig in New York City’s West Village, it’s a daunting task—especially so in an altogether sunnier, healthier environment like that of Los Angeles.
Like any city, L.A. has its own constellation of power players, chamber dramas, and kitchen hustles. But there’s more to it here. For the last 30 years, the old brick patio and now-gutted room had been the Cat & Fiddle, one of Hollywood’s most beloved pubs. In a studio flats town where reality struggles to find purchase, the Cat & Fiddle occupied the rare air of the unforced. It wasn’t cinéma vérité; it was the vérité. It was a pub, run by a real Englishman, a musician named Kim Gardner, whose star talent lay less in bass lines and more in recreating a bit of home far from his own. The patio of the Cat & Fiddle drew plenty of Gardner’s countrymen, from Morrissey and Ronnie Wood to Rod Stewart. And there were the un-English: Drew Barrymore, Metallica, and Quentin Tarantino, who often wrote at a table there. Friedman, who managed the Smiths for a time before becoming a restaurateur, remembers Morrissey and Johnny Marr arguing whether to reunite the band at the Cat. (They didn’t.) But it wasn’t the star power that made the place. It was that the Cat, as regulars called it, fulfilled the hallowed tradition of a social hangout that didn’t put on airs—what sociologist Ray Oldenburg named a “third place” in his 1989 book The Great Good Place. “A third place,” he wrote, “is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood... Though a radically different kind of setting for a home,” it is “similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends.”
In other words, the Cat & Fiddle’s greatness lay not in its ambitions but in its lack of pretense. When you have a pub like that, you just don’t mess with it. And for three decades, no one did. First opened in 1982, the Cat was a family-run business: Kim and his wife, Paula, and their three kids, Ashlee, Eva, and Camille. As Ashlee recounts, she and her sisters would head to the pub after school at the nearby Blessed Sacrament to sell carnival tickets to the early afternoon patrons. Darts were played. The fish and chips were passable. The draught lines were impeccably kempt. Protected from the changing world by the stucco walls, the patio never changed. But by 2014, property values in Hollywood had skyrocketed, and the area around the Cat went from seedy to sparkling. After a protracted and ugly dispute, Paula and her daughters (Kim passed away in 2001) picked up and moved around the corner, where, in a smaller though no less charming space, they’re still serving fish and chips, and loyalists still come to watch Manchester United games at ungodly morning hours.
When the landlord came calling, Friedman and Bloomfield sensed opportunity. The duo is known for two things: making the old new again, as they did at Tosca Cafe, the near-century- old San Francisco bar they took over in 2013; and turning the gastropub into a Michelin-starred hot spot, like they did at the Spotted Pig. Both made them ideal stewards of the pub space.
Friedman and Bloomfield thrive against the backdrop of a crisis in American restaurants—what might be called the Great Meaning Slowdown. Over the last decade or so, especially in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, where rent is a noose and, to quote the poet (and Tosca regular) Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “money is breath,” opening a restaurant has become increasingly difficult. More precisely, opening a “third place” kind of restaurant—one with an environment conducive to the organic accretion of meaning that comes from time, community, and shared experience— has become increasingly difficult.
Yes, lots of restaurants continue to open, and the ones we rightly celebrate as the best newcomers of the year are indeed virtuosic. Eventually, for restaurants to really matter, the sapling of year one—design, menu, service, vibe, PR—must take root and grow on its own. Organic meaning accumulates until the question of how it was created in the first place is moot. In a few years, for instance, no one will consider the highly conceived set design and original menus of New York City’s Le Coucou. Instead they’ll take the cinematic glow as naturally occurring, cross-index with meals they’ve already had, and murmur over Daniel Rose’s sweetbreads, “They don’t make restaurants like they used to.”
So it makes sense why restaurateurs like Friedman want to graft onto history, but it is risky business either way. Resurrecting a new soul in an old space can be a headache—just ask Tom Colicchio. Last year, the chef opened his splashy restaurant Fowler & Wells in New York City’s Beekman hotel. In August, he found out that the titular Orson Fowler studied phrenology, an outdated scientific practice steeped in racism. To Colicchio, Fowler had an old-timey ring to it, but the dead speak, too. Their sins trickle through the water table of the years. So Colicchio did what few others might: He changed the name to Temple Court. One can’t help but notice the new name is a double whammy for morality (temple) and justice (court). But Colicchio is a woke outlier.
Farther uptown, the Grill, set in a shimmering modernist jewel box designed by Philip Johnson and originally opened in 1959, represents the triumphs and pitfalls of swallowing the past whole. After a long decline, the old Four Seasons restaurant closed in 2016. Last year, restaurateurs Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi, and Jeff Zalaznick of the Major Food Group reopened it as two separate restaurants— The Grill and The Pool—to epic fanfare. It’s all glitzy, grand, and tremendously tasty. The team described the place as a midcentury American steakhouse, and here, the power brokers of the Mad Men years mingle with Instagramming tastemakers. Once again, the space is home to the powerful, swaggering, and hungry. It’s as if the last half-century never happened. And yet, though no one wants to say it, there’s something blithe, at best, in bringing an old space soaked in the privilege of yesteryear back to life with nary a nod to patterns of exclusion that undergirded it. Who really wants to resurrect Mad Men–era hierarchies? Only those few at the top.
Back in L.A., Friedman stands behind temporary fencing in the courtyard of Hearth & Hound. The space is in bardo. “This is the money shot, right here,” he said, gazing at the newly laid bricks and the newly transplanted olive tree, an homage to the original one planted there many decades earlier. A score of wooden chairs sits in the courtyard like an empty jury box, awaiting placement inside. Roman and Williams, the firm behind Le Coucou and the Ace Hotel in New York City, designed the space. (The hotel is home to the Friedman-Bloomfield collaborations The Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar.) Flooded with light and white marble, it now resembles an exposed beam cathedral. Moroccan tiles cover the walls, and the titular hearth, in white brick, glows brightly. Cords of oak and almond wood are stacked neatly by the grill. Gone are the Cat’s dartboard, drop ceiling, and at-screen televisions. Even the faintest whiff of pub has been sublimated. It’s not that Roman and Williams ignores history. It just follows an earlier one, drawing from the old Hollywood glamour, pre-Cat days of Fred Thomson, the movie star, and an obsession with “L.A.’s longstanding trademark Spanish-style courtyards,” according to a statement by the firm’s founders, Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch.
Behind a wide counter, Bloomfield, assisted by chef de cuisine Chris Lim, presides over a menu she calls “very personal.” At 43, the chef known for her burger has started taking better care of her body. She’s been eating well and taking pilates. “I can finally touch my toes,” she says proudly. Like the space and the city, Bloomfield describes the vegetable-heavy Hearth & Hound menu as “light and airy” with “some birds here and there—pigeons maybe, perhaps some aged duck.” O the menu, too, it’ll be very La-La Land. Mike D, of the Beastie Boys, will handle the wine list. Kanye West is designing shoes for the staff, and Rihanna is lending a hand with styling.
In short, the new Hearth & Hound will look nothing like the Cat & Fiddle. What it was is irrevocably gone. And any attempt at a eulogy rankles Friedman, a man allergic to post-mortem nostalgia. “Look,” he says, folding his large frame onto a bar stool, “the Cat was great, but it wasn’t any good. The same was true of the old Tosca. It’s better now than it ever was.”
Classics shutter for many reasons. Times, neighborhood, and rents change. Momentum slows. The kitchen goes downhill. The place gets by on nostalgia and memory alone. Sometimes the great outstrips the good.
Being good—that is, as Friedman means it, with an exacting chef, expertly executed menu, and top-notch staff —is tremendously hard work. Hard work takes cold cash; cold cash demands fast returns. And there’s nothing fast or certain about the accumulation of meaning that yields greatness. Sometimes it takes luck. Or nine lives. Sometimes, good is the enemy of great. Like a tree, the great good place requires space and time to grow. A future classic must be watered and cared for; it must not burn too hot, nor grow too cool. The good news for Hearth & Hound is that it’s in Southern California, where, as Friedman notes, “everything just grows and grows.” Native or not.