LA'S ART AND FOOD SCENE IS CREATING A NEW CAFE SOCIETY
LA'S ART AND FOOD SCENE IS CREATING A NEW CAFE SOCIETY
A slew of new restaurants is popping up within and right next door to some of the city's best art institutions. This merging of worlds is causing a unique synergy that could spell long-term change.
BY MAX BERLINGER
For a town that’s cultural output seemingly amounts to Marvel movies and runs on the backs of starving starlets or production assistants who live off free craft services spreads, Los Angeles currently hosts a flourishing scene where art and fine dining overlap in the most unexpected and exciting of ways.
Say, for instance, you’re feeling peckish after a morning spent at Los Angeles’ new 300,000-square-foot, Renzo Piano-designed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — well, you won’t have to travel far to satisfy your hunger. Just in the shadow of the museum’s signature glass and concrete orb sits Fanny’s, an all-day dining spot styled like the old Hollywood canteens of yore. The light wood and chrome is straight from the film industry’s Golden Age when MGM, RKO, and Paramount ruled the world and even its name, a reference to the vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice, who inspired the Broadway show and subsequent movie “Funny Girl!”, comes with Tinseltown pedigree.
Fanny’s is an all-day cafe, serving brunch fare in the morning and take-away salads and sandwiches for lunch. But as the city’s golden hour light fades to a dusky flicker, the real magic happens: the restaurant transforms into something a bit more elegant, offering a fine dining experience amid plush red velvet banquettes flickering in the candlelight. The concept is overseen by the powerful West Coast restaurateur Bill Chait who made a name for himself with an impressive roster of local eateries favored by agents and producers (Republique, Bestia, Tartine). In the kitchen, executive chef Raphael Francois doles out continental dishes with cosmopolitan flair.
The truth is, LA has long been home to a distinctly influential arts scene (see: Ed Ruscha, Mary Weatherford, Petra Cortright) and the cooking rivals every major metropolis in the world (not to mention predicted our current obsessions with sustainable, local and organic ingredients). But a recent string of high-profile museum/gallery restaurants cements the relationship between the two industries as an engine which keeps the city’s creative class fed in both the physical and aesthetic senses.
Take Lulu, the new restaurant at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. It’s the first LA dining experience from the legendary Alice Waters, seen by many as the mother of the local food movement (Or, as Eater calls her, “a food luminary and international culinary icon”). The restaurant, which is currently only open for lunch and makes use of a lovely courtyard (and LA’s year-round mild climes), has an ever-changing menu making use of only the most seasonal ingredients. “It’s one of those places that can only exist in LA,” an actress friend of mine told me recently. “And it’s off the beaten track, perfect for health-obsessed celebs who want to power lunch in a low-key, TMZ-free place.”
And then there’s Manuela, another al fresco-ish gem, this one housed in the same industrial-chic building as Hauser & Wirth in LA’s downtown Arts District. It’s the perfect weekend brunch spot and, under the watchful eye of executive chef Kris Tominaga, offers up everything from smoked salmon spread and beignets to french toast and quiche (not to mention a hearty cheeseburger). Put your name in and roam the gallery and gift shop while you wait, or have a drink in the charming adjacent garden where Manuela pulls some of its fresh produce and herbs. And, though the gallery may be closed, Manuela’s dinner menu is equally as enticing. Art hounds, make sure to peek at the wall decor — they’re commissions from Paul McCarthy, Mark Bradford and Raymond Pettibon.
“It’s actually become a bit of a fashion spot,” said an employee of a nearby design house (Amiri, Fear of God, and Kanye’s Yeezy offices are all nearby). “And now that Soho Warehouse is down there, the cool kid quotient has definitely gone up.”
There’s plenty of other museum-adjacent restaurants in the city — the hot spot Otium is basically part of the modern art museum The Broad while the pandemic see-and-be-seen French joint Gigi’s, in Hollywood, is a stone’s throw from Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery (and, as such, hosts a ton of cool kid art types sporting tatts and mullets). And some places just get that art world allure despite being dislodged from a museum or gallery. Take LA’s hottest ticket Horses, along a lonelier stretch of Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood, which Vanity Fair recently called “catnip for status-obsessed art world denizens”. A food publicist I know said it’s the reservation to get right now, and it’s not easy. According to its co-chefs/co-owners Liz Johnson and her husband Will Aghajanian, they were looking to recreate a modern cafe society vibe, á la the New York art world watering hole, Lucien.
A recent Thursday afternoon proved the point. The restaurant hosted buzzy podcast hosts, some high-ranking film studio publicists, and the obligatory celeb sighting (Bette Midler), which is the closest thing to cafe society that LA can muster — so it appears to be working.
What an interesting concept to evoke. Loosely defined, cafe society was a gathering of glamorous arbiters of style from various artistic fields who dined, partied, and vacationed together in the shadow of war during the early 20th century. They moved from Europe (mainly Paris and Berlin) to the USA after Prohibition was lifted and included everyone from Ernest Hemmingway to Cole Porter to Billie Holiday and back again. A lot of laughs were had and drunken punches thrown. Oh, and some sparks of creative brilliance from these folks yielded genre-defining works of music, art, and literature.
Hm, an amorphous multi-pronged creative class partying it up in the face of war and hard times at the dawn of a new century — sounds familiar! It’s no secret that the pandemic has created a mass migration across the country, and many New Yorkers have landed in Los Angeles in recent months (and vice versa), forming a certain cultural intelligentsia looking to dine at chic places and take in the local arts scene. Places like Lulu, Fanny’s, Manuela and beyond provide both. And LA has a long history of beckoning both artists and chefs who were priced out of the other cities or merely grew tired of their lack of space.
In fact, there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on in LA these days, that’s fascinating to behold. The Dries Van Noten store boasts a gallery (an exhibition by Gus Van Sant opened recently) and the futuristic co-working space Second Home hosts the LA Times’ 2020 pick for the city’s best restaurant, Phenakite. Why, there was once even an art gallery that doubled as a cannabis showroom, trés LA.
Which is to say, as the world re-arranges itself in the post-COVID recovery (fingers crossed!) Los Angeles is the strongest contender to host the nouveau cafe society, as Horses’ Johnson and Aghajanian said. For better or worse, even podcasters, influencers, and NFT hypemen need a place to eat, drink, and consider works of art. Lucky for them, we have a few places they should consider.
Max Berlinger is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Business of Fashion and others.