Dynamic Duo: E.P. & L.P.'s David Combes and Grant Smillie Talk Fashion and Food
The Aussie owners of the just-opened multi-level Melrose hot spot serving up Southeast Asian fare and creative cocktails dish on their inspirations, style and brand-new restaurant.
Leave it to a couple of Aussies — a top Melbourne DJ-slash-restaurateur and a real estate and hospitality veteran — to create the perfect West Hollywood summer rooftop bar and restaurant scene. Grant Smillie and David Combes both have plenty of popular spots to their names in their native Down Under, but E.P & L.P. (record terms which stand for extended play and long play) marks the buddies’ first in the U.S.
"It’s like giving birth," Smillie remarks of the pair’s newest baby. And though it’s in the middle of L.A., from the authentic Southeast Asian cuisine (courtesy of 30-year-old hot shot executive chef Louis Tikaram, the 2014 Josephine Piglet Young Chef of the Year in Australia) to the sunny weather-friendly rooftop concept, this venture is definitely informed by their ever-cool homeland: stylish, fun and delicious.
And shockingly they have one of the only rooftops anywhere in the vicinity — a gorgeous, huge one at that. "We both had outdoor venues in Australia, and that’s kind of what the appeal was," says Smillie, who adds that whereas Melbourne has challenged weather, L.A.’s movie industry was developed around 300 sunshine days a year, so "for us it was a no-brainer. We actually want to do another."
The ambitious mates already have their eyes on a second location in Downtown L.A., which likely would be a different concept, but still follow their mandate that food be the primary driver, followed by experience. "It’s got to be known as not easily replicable. Something you can’t find in a strip mall — you have to invest in the experience, the talent, the food, the design." To find out more about their influences, motivations and personal style, we sat down with the guys at one of E.P.’s cool banquettes.
Pret-a-Reporter: So, you’re both Australian. How did you meet?
Grant Smillie: It’s like the sands of time — Dave and I went to high school together in Melbourne. He was the year below me in school though, so I’ve always been the senior member of the team.
David Combes: He played the flute.
Smillie: I actually played saxophone — at least be accurate! So from school days you gotta flash forward nearly 20 years. I was coming back here and Dave had moved to L.A. He had hospitality ventures in Australia, as did I. We came across this site pretty much by a chance meeting. Dave rang me up and said, ‘Do you want to catch up for a beer?’ We did and talked about some opportunities that might be present in the town. There were two sites we found, and signed LOIs on both of them, being cocky ambitious Australians thinking everything is easy. Never is. This site was tremendously appealing because of its location and rooftop opportunity, so quickly what was a conversation turned into something pretty significant.
Combes: We came on it at the right time. We’ve seen kind of a resurgence of Melrose, and saw that there was a lot of inherent value in the location. We recognize Melrose Avenue as an international brand, you know? If you’re going to take a risk opening a restaurant and a rooftop without having a brand name in this town behind you, you probably want to stick to a good solid location where you have Nobu and established places around.
How did you settle on the concept?
Combes: Food-wise we felt there was a gap in the market for well-executed Asian food — the kind of Australian Asian that we’ve grown up with. We feel we do Asian really well and that food type, particularly in L.A., wasn’t well represented. The thesis for us around the concept was that food is that primary driver. If you get the food right I think the rest can organically follow, but you’ve got real problems if your food’s not good.
What’s the story behind getting your chef, Louis Tikaram, on board and willing to move from Australia?
Smillie: It was like an awkward first date. He was already employed, just got married, just bought a house, just won chef of the year. I had to count it out. I had five fingers and I said: “There’s a new young chef of the year next year, so how about you come work on a menu that hasn’t got the ghost of Christmas past in it, in a new country. What’s the best thing that could happen? You could write a ticket for anywhere in the world. Your wife’s a nutritionist, [so] L.A. is the place she should be working. We’ve got enough money to pay your mortgage. Do you want to borrow my phone to call your wife?” That’s how it rolled.
Sounds like he couldn’t say no. Along with the food, design is obviously important to you. Tell us about the restaurant and rooftop’s visual side.
Smillie: We got Australia’s best architectural firm to design this thing. We wanted to have everything as bespoke as possible. All the chairs are handmade, the tables are handmade. You can’t buy this off the shelf. There are different textural elements on each level. On this level, E.P., there’s copper and antique mirrors to give it that sense of being lived in.
Combes: A sense of antiquity.
Smillie: And some timber to anchor it all down. The open kitchen 100 percent had to be there, an open bar — you want nothing to hide. There should never be anything to hide. It’s a show, so let people enjoy it. The rooftop is anchored by timber and earth and sky, [the idea was] not to enclose too much and let the elements shine. We invest in the conversation, not in the nightclub. So if your friend’s more important to you than the crap song they’re playing at the nightclub, come here.
As a DJ, how important is music and what is your game plan for that part of the experience? After all, you named the place after music terms.
Smillie: I curate the music, but we’re certainly doing some special events. We'll have some DJs, Axwell (of Swedish House Mafia) being important as well — he’s one of the partners here. We had Pete Tong who’s a British radio broadcaster in the other day and he wants to do something with The XX and Disclosure on the rooftop, so we’re open to those things. There’s vinyl over here on the shelves; we’ve got a couple microphones about to go in the windows downstairs. If you want to come here and rage on a Friday night you might be disappointed. But every week we change the music consistently — pick a theme and stick to it.
What’s on rotation now?
Smillie: We’re back in the late ‘80s funk era at the moment. It’s pretty fun. It’s important, people get bored if you have the same playlist everyday.
Describe your ultimate clientele.
Smillie: I think fair to say music, fashion, food, anyone in the creative space who wants to interact with each other. I don’t care where they’re from, the creatives are the drivers.
Combes: Someone asked if we put up an Australian flag, they heard so many Australian accents. We do have a lot of Australian wine.
How would you describe your personal style?
Combes: I’m a father now, so I stay away from graphics and that sort of stuff on clothing so I don’t look like a superhero fan when I go out with my kids. I tend to stick fairly monochromatic. I like to support local designers, too, so L.A.-based Jon Buscemi, he’s a friend of ours, and the Hudson guys with their jeans — all that sort of stuff. I like to get into the local zone and vibe.
How about you, Grant? What’s your aesthetic like?
Smillie: Ahh, expensive. (laughs) It’s my vice. I’ve got a few key brands you can’t go wrong with. Saint Laurent’s my thing, and Dior. It’s about getting pieces — a great jacket or pair of shoes — then you can dress down the rest of it. The rest can be 10 bucks: one key thing to attract or distract people from what the rest is worth, and enough bling to sort of roll through. I’ll wear a ring or wrist, a bit of flair, but nothing too crazy. My days of wearing neck chains are gone, and ponytails.
Combes: And you’ve recently adopted sleeves on your T-shirts, which is good!
Smillie: (laughs) I’m black on black with a few colors: grey, white. But you know, you can pull off one thing, a tie or bracelet and it pops. It can be a button—button color changes everything.
Have you always been so into fashion?
Smillie: Yep, unfortunately. I’m not thinking I could ever be a fashion designer because I’m not that talented—it’s a very tough trade, but I certainly do like fashion. I’ve dated enough models. (laughs) I haven’t learned that lesson. And I’m a clotheshorse.
Where do you shop?
Smillie: Of course you’re going to go to Barneys and those places but there’s some bespoke stuff I’ve found. Even A.P.C., downtown. I like going to the markets down on Fairfax and Melrose for vintage stuff, because you need to do that.
What about your accessories, are they vintage?
Smillie: One bracelet is Miansai. And this one’s a vintage one, made out of old-school identifiers [from locks]. And a Margiela ring and Daytona watch.
Combes: I’m not a jewelry guy. My watch is a Rolex; I have a good collection of watches.
Smillie: He loves his watches.
What about your lapel pins, the elephant, heart, four-leaf clover?
Combes: There’s a couple more as well. They’re some of the collateral our designers did. You’ll see [the symbols] come through in our coasters, even our wallpaper is a deconstructed version of it. It kind of runs generally throughout the building. [The pins] are a bit of fun, a point of difference. We’ve been giving them out to our friends.
Do you dress the same back home in Australia? How different is the look there?
Smillie: In Melbourne and Sydney there’s a certain crew that will be in Ann Demeulmeester or really low-slung drop-crotch pants and oversized tees. You got to commit to it and I think there’s a lot of that here too.
Combes: There are a lot of similarities between designers there and here. I think if you blow up in L.A. you blow up around the world, whereas if you blow up in Melbourne no one probably knows who you are or what you’re doing with the exception of…
Smillie: Unless you’re a Ksubi or…
Combes: Toni Maticevski or someone like that.
Smillie: There are a few. Scanlan is opening across the road, Zimmermann. There are a few that have come out. You’ve gotta be pretty good. It’s tough. Most people are grinding away trying to make a buck, much like being a restaurateur. With a 300 or 400 person capacity, you put 50 people in it and it’s the same amount of blood, sweat and tears that go into 400—the outcome is just very different.
Grant Smillie and David Combes were photographed by Sami Drasin at E.P. & L.P.