L.A.'s New Power Restaurants
Old-school charm tends to play better in New York than L.A., which seems to love nothing better than to demolish its former power spots. But while Chasen’s will never return, three L.A. restaurants are making everything old new again. Dark tables, low lighting and rich Italian food have never been in such demand.
IL SOLE, THE SEQUEL
Since 2003, when music mogul Arnold Stiefel and rock promoter Andy Hewitt bought the then-failing Il Sole (8741 W. Sunset Blvd., 310-657-1182), it has reigned as a magnet to the famous and powerful that’s also managed to have very good (and very expensive) Italian food, the likes of which even skinny celebs can’t resist. The covered patio on Sunset has attracted actors and moguls who want to smoke and stars who are smokin’: Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt made it their home away from home, as did Stiefel’s longtime client Rod Stewart, while paparazzi fodder Britney and Lindsay created traffic jams as photogs chased them down the strip. David Geffen, Mike De Luca, Scott Stuber, Stacey Snider and McG were all regulars. A TMZ story in ’07 pretty much summed it up: “Il Sole — The New Crack.”
But every good Hollywood institution needs a face-lift, right? This past fall, Stiefel and Hewitt pulled in nightlife vet Brent Bolthouse (Trousdale, Hyde) as a third partner after the luster started to, if not fade, well, chip after the recession. “We went from 200 dinners a night to 60 or 70,” Stiefel says. “Expense accounts just dried up.” A three-month redesign went into effect, Bolthouse says, “to make it more East Coast. More cozy and quaint.” Since reopening in March, it seems the owners are starting to recapture the old crowd: Bryan Lourd, manager Joanne Horowitz, Donald De Line and Drew Barrymore have already been in. The darkly romantic, candlelit space will also soon have a full liquor license for the first time. “I want this place to be around forever,” Bolthouse says. “So it had to have a more classic feel.”
GOODBYE, ORSO. HELLO, IL COVO
Attempting to redo 20-year power-lunch haven Orso, which began losing steam during the 2007-08 writers strike would be like remaking Sabrina. Why even bother? The comfortable old Orso patio was known for the rare combo of heavy schmoozing and light, unfussy attitude; it was the regular canteen for everyone from Al Pacino and Robin Williams to Michael Shamberg and Hylda Queally. Most famously, elder statesmen Paul Mazursky, Mel Brooks, Alan Ladd Jr. and Jay Kanter convened at a corner table every Friday at lunch, swapping stories from their days at Fox during the 1970s. “These guys liked it so they could visit their doctors afterwards,” Mazursky says. “The sound of the Cedars-Sinai ambulances was something we got used to.”
But when the East Coast family of restaurateur Joe Allen, who opened Orso’s L.A. outpost in 1989, saw revenue tumble, hotspot creator with the golden touch Sean MacPherson swooped in and took the space off their hands two years ago. The co-founder of L.A.’s Jones and Swingers, MacPherson moved on to New York in the late ’90s, taking it by storm as one of the owners of the Waverly Inn (average night: Barry Diller, Calvin Klein, Gwyneth Paltrow) and the Bowery and Jane hotels. He’s now back in L.A., and after an 18-month redo, there’s wisely no sign of the old Orso at his new Il Covo (8706 W. 3rd St., no phone or website yet). The design — which calls to mind 19th century Italy with wood beams, marble-topped booths and amber-hued lighting — is gorgeous. MacPherson has brought in a young Milanese chef, Roberto Maggioni, who’s turning out such dishes as beet and gorgonzola risotto and requisite branzino. The restaurant is still in a quiet rollout phase, serving just weekday lunch, and diners can hear construction workers adding new alcove tables and an outdoor fireplace to the famous patio. But will it be a Waverly Inn for L.A.’s cognoscenti? The odds are even. In Orso’s absence, Mazursky had moved his lunch group to Beverly Hills’ Porta Via cafe, but they now plan to spend half of their weekly get-togethers in Il Covo’s garden.
CRAIG’S: THE NEW OLD BOYS’ CLUB
Since opening in 1964, Dan Tana’s has attracted that rare mix: big celebs (Taylor and Burton and Johnny Carson all the way to Clooney, Damon and Affleck), sports stars and brazen Hollywood hustlers. But if they weren’t brazen, they’d never have gotten in; there was always a list, always someone to be mollified. Craig Susser had that task for 23 years, first as a waiter, then maitre d’, then GM. A natural kibbitzer, he navigated the minefield of salacious celebs, haughty waiters and late-night revelers begging for tables.
Now he’s brought that guys-club feeling to his own place, 2-month-old Craig’s (8826 Melrose Ave., craigs.la). A typical night might see Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ryan Phillippe, Dick Wolf across the room and Patrick Whitesell with wife Lauren Sanchez. Craig’s has a long menu (veal chop, classic wedge salad, tuna tartar, chicken cacciatore) that can service the movie mogul, the trophy wife and the picky teens. “The goal was not to be a hip, cool, edgy restaurant,” says Susser, seated at a baby-blue leather booth in his purposefully dark restaurant. “This was always meant to be a comfortable, New York-style throwback — service-centric with really good food, a good hug. It’s where industry people can see their community. What I wanted was a place you can call a joint.” OK, this might not be a revolutionary concept, but hey, it’s working; there’s more air-kissing per capita than even at Tana’s. His new regulars, Susser says, “feel safe. It reminds them of restaurants from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s got character.”
L.A.’s EAT CHEAT SHEET: Six more new spots to hit to right now.
Fig & Olive
8490 Melrose Place, West Hollywood
New York’s Fig & Olive exports its Mediterranean flair to a grand and airy 8,000-square-foot space with washed-stucco walls and wrought-iron doors and windows. Chef Pascal Lorange, who has cooked for Oscar De La Renta and the Clintons, creates dishes inspired by the French Riviera’s outdoor markets, like roasted veal tenderloin with fig chutney. Early fans include Jeff Goldblum and new girlfriend Lydia Hearst, Liz Glotzer and Jeremy Piven.
11633 San Vicente Blvd.
Bar Toscana offers up Italian-inspired cocktails like the speziato, a blend of pisco, aperol, fresh bell pepper, basil and lemon juice, in a setting meant to evoke an urban Milanese lounge. Verona native Luca Crestanelli’s market-driven, small-plates fare is perfect, whether you’re looking for just a piccolo pasta or waiting until your reservation is called at mothership restaurant Toscana, where regulars include Michael Mann and Arianna Huffington.
401 N. La Cienega Blvd.
At just-opened Mezze, Micah Wexler (formerly at Craft) spotlights small plates that meld Middle Eastern flavors and local ingredients. Designer Waldo Fernandez (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are clients) brings a refined rusticity to the space with wood reclaimed from a Lebanese chateau. Scott Budnick and 2S Films’ Molly Smith already have tables reserved.
7360 Beverly Blvd.
Chef John Sedlar introduces Playa, the slightly more casual sister to his downtown Nuevo Latino restaurant/tequila den Rivera. Sedlar serves tapas-sized plates, including a range of subtly charred maize cakes topped with everything from mojito-poached shrimp to hibiscus-pickled cauliflower. Located in the old Grace space (now opened up with skylights), Playa has already welcomed Universal’s Stewart Huey, Amber Heard and Kate Walsh.
Son of a Gun
8370 W. 3rd St.
Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, formerly of the Food Network’s 2 Dudes Catering and the masterminds behind carnivore-focused Animal, are slinging seafood at their new spot, with such seasonal fare as the shrimp toast sandwich with Sriracha mayo and king crab leg with Tabasco butter. Filled with vintage nautical memorabilia, the eatery has the feel of an East Coast beach shack.
3239 Helms Ave., Culver City
Sang Yoon brings a nontraditional yet authentic take on Southeast Asian food to his new venture in a teak-paneled former warehouse. “It’s the pantry of flavors of Southeast Asia but modernized,” says Yoon, whose homemade sambal, hoisin and Sriracha sauces may win him as many admirers as crowd his cult burger Father’s Office joint (Jake Gyllenhaal is a fan).
-- By Melissa Carr