Two decades in, Los Angeles is still in love with Suzanne Goin and her restaurant Lucques.
The evening began like any other Sunday at Lucques. The last light of the slumping sun snuck in through the windows, onto the brick fireplace, and up to the exposed wooden trusses, bathing the one-time carriage house in a rosy hue. Laughter erupted from a corner booth as the steady percussion of the cocktail shaker kept time behind the bar.
On the patio, the Witteleses were at the same table where they’ve been nearly every Sunday night for the past 20 years, their glasses half full of red wine and shards of sourdough crust beside their elbows. A few table lengths away stood Suzanne Goin, looking as she has in nearly every photograph since 1998—confident and composed in a fitted black T-shirt and linen apron, not a strand out of place in her neatly coiffed ponytail.
It was the start of The Real OGs Dinner, a celebration honoring 20 years of Lucques and a reunion of the sous chefs, line cooks, and pastry chefs who shared a stove with Goin some two decades ago. In the doorway, at the bar, and everywhere you looked the room swelled with regulars and former staff clinking glasses and doling out hugs while a parade of aromas emerged from the kitchen—warm bites of panisse with parsley salad and olives followed by Corina Weibel’s gazpacho, Brian Edwards’ fideuà, and Julie Robles’ pork loin (upstaged only by the accompanying sweet corn and rajas pudding). These were the flavors—and people—that built Lucques, and well before the plum and brown butter tart arrived, the celebration was underway.
Lucques was born in 1998 after a mutual friend set Goin up with her future “restaurant wife” Caroline Styne. Goin had spent the previous decade learning about the fine art of casual dining at Al Forno in Providence, how to cook off the cuff at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, how to honor the vegetable at L’Arpège in Paris, and how to run a restaurant at Campanile in Los Angeles. Styne, an ambitious entrepreneur who had been managing one of hospitality whiz Sean MacPherson’s restaurants, made a perfect match.
Together they dreamed of a place where the food was serious but unfussy and the service proper but not stiff. They settled on a cozy, ivy-covered carriage house that once belonged to the silent film star Harold Lloyd and enlisted the designer Barbara Barry, who chose a paint color for the walls in the exact shade of the olives that no one in L.A. could pronounce. Lucques, those buttery Provençal olives, were Goin’s favorite; before Barry, they had tried four times to get the walls the right shade of green.
When Lucques opened its doors, there were five restaurants in Los Angeles—Spago, Patina, Campanile, Jozu, and Boxer—that competed for the same 500 guests. Lucques captured them all. Some of the crowd were the food-obsessed locals who came for the hauntingly perfect braised short ribs, and the rest were the agents, producers, and movie stars who required booths and tables to see and be seen.
But Lucques was never about who was there, even if it was Sharon Stone in the corner booth or Rod Stewart requesting a banana split (which sent Goin running to her neighbors asking for a banana). Lucques was about the food. Goin’s cooking turned little bursts of fat, acid, and texture into a three-part harmony, whether it was braised beef cheeks with bright, creamy green-garlic soubise or frozen yogurt with winter citrus and crunchy sbrisolona. Even now, 20 years later, riffs on her famous green harissa are on menus all over town.
Goin’s knack for marrying French technique with Southern California’s bounty of citrus and avocados catapulted her to the national stage. Her innate ability to coax unknown depths of flavor from an heirloom tomato won her a Food & Wine Best New Chef title in 1999 and four James Beard Awards, including one for her phenomenal cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, which revealed just how much work went into making those famous short ribs.
From the beginning, Goin perfected an instinct that many Southern California chefs have felt but few have fine-tuned: Trust your farmers, and treat your ingredients with respect. Be flexible with seasonality but rigid when it comes to quality. And don’t under- estimate the power of good salt and olive oil. It’s an aesthetic that has weathered four presidents, a financial crisis, and 20 years of culinary trends, and like her classic black tee and the Cannonball Adderley number crooning from the speakers, it never gets old.
Is there a secret to operating a thriving restaurant for 20 years? “Following your heart, never wavering from your vision, and putting in the work,” Goin says. “But the not-so-secret part is that it’s really about the people,” like Cynthia Longley, who was hired as employee number one and never left; the regulars who’ve had a standing double date every other Sunday at Lucques for the past fifteen years; the bar full of ex-staff who traveled from out of town to celebrate their former employer’s 20th year; and the cooks, who at the end of The Real OGs Dinner took a bottle of Domaine Tempier rosé into the alley out back, threw a white tablecloth over a stack of crates, and toasted to what was and what is still to come.